- Webinars are taking over, now that there is a pandemic
By: Dr Aneel Salman
We have moved from the “age of uncertainty” to the “time of the coronavirus”. Through technology man has remained “social” and “connected” in this “new normal”. This is both remarkable and ironic since there was a time when devices and social media platforms were considered only for extracurricular connections. Online meeting tools have made it possible to work from home.
Software companies had been using such tools way before covid-19 and as lockdowns were initiated, the corporate sector, non-profits and especially universities, started using these tools. In Pakistan, where the public (and the government) has been in a state of denial regarding this virus, we now suddenly see a surge in “webinars”, training webinars, educational webinars, discussion webinars, and more.
Are we using these tools correctly? What is the effectiveness of these online forums? Is serious debate being generated through them? Or is the sole purpose remaining relevant in a rat race? If A is doing a webinar or podcast, why can’t B? Or is the purpose to show that one is “working”, “researching”, teaching”: How else to convince a donor, a dean, a research director that one is actually earning one’s income while sitting at home? Sadly, in Pakistan, we have yet to learn the benefits of Work From Home (WFH) from an organizational and institutional perspective. Employers remain certain that unless one is sitting in the actual office from 9-5, one is essentially “doing nothing.” And of course, since seminars and conferences cannot yet be organized (well, if marriagew halls can open, these might start too, who knows) – an essential part and parcel of many organizations now, a webinar is the next best thing.
Before COVID-19, when non-profits and even government ministries organized any conference, workshop, seminar to satisfy their “donors” (anyone believing these spread awareness and make a difference, has only to attend a handful by think tanks in the capital), they would lure university students to fill the empty chairs, with the incentive of good (rather free) food, or in some cases transport, and a chance to listen to not one boring professor in class but quite a few in an air-conditioned hall. In the virtual world, this duplicity and lack of good content and speakers; this trend of hosting big seminars, calling political celebrities and bringing students to fill up chairs as part of a popularity contest, has come to an end.
Local webinar organizers need to think of how to engage the viewers and what they can learn for them. Most webinars are doing discussion/analysis but webinars can be valuable when they focus on training or diffusing objective information on a discrete topic of shared concern
But, this is Pakistan and we know how to turn every good thing into a Frankenstein’s monster so, while earlier, it was impossible to meet government officials, NGO heads and experts because they were busy in non-stop meetings; the ‘new reason’ shared in a text message will be that they are busy in non-stop webinars. Now, one may not have to fill empty chairs, now one has to “log in” to show how many people “participated”! One of my colleagues had to “show” his presence in nine webinars in one day!
THERE is an exponential increase of webinars by universities, think tanks and government agencies which may not have been such a bad thing except everyone is doing it on COVID and its impact on anything and everything. A newspaper editor shared that he got over 100 articles about COVID in two days. You might say what else is there except COVID but if you pick up one article or all 100 they will be saying almost the same thing. “Experts” write on COVID and then on the same day, turn it into a podcast or share this “wisdom” in a recorded webinar with five people tuned in (or rather out). In Pakistan, we love to recycle research; and are copy-paste gurus but thanks to COVID, we have taken self-projection and plagiarism to new highs.
Are these webinars effective? Frankly, no. For one thing, Pakistanis have no webinar etiquette. Somehow most people don’t realize that WFH means doing office work in a structured and organized fashion. And if part of WFH involves, attending or presenting during a webinar then we should have the decency to be dressed up rather showing our pot bellies in shorts, messed up hair, have a decent background (and no, I don’t mean sit in front of the only bookshelf in the house). We should not attend our phone calls or be watering the plants till our turn comes. And yes, it would be nice if the organizers ensure that speakers are at least WELL PREPARED! That they are actually interesting people to listen to (and yes watch)! That they are aware of webinar etiquette and are technologically savvy! It is so amazing that most webinars being done in Pakistan are proudly uploaded on Facebook or YouTube or available on organizational websites without even being edited to remove improper language or conversations or hacking! I used to love watching America’s funniest home videos, but now, I rarely miss the chance to be amused by the ratpack webinars here.
Given our technological backwardness at using these platforms, we have also seen webinars interrupted by political slogans, porn clips and absurd pics during live sessions. Moderators/organizers having left the “technical” side of hosting webinars to the one nerdy tech guy, are unable to control such interruptions, and often the webinar is postponed.
Another problem with local webinars is that content is not tailored to the viewers and their new environment. Pakistani webinars offers few opportunities to engage with speakers in real time. Organizers are still stuck in introducing a speaker and then letting him or her drone on and on and on, rather than making these sessions short, focused and interactive.
Let’s be honest, good quality webinars can be mind-blowing! To be able to hear and interact with renowned experts from literally any corner of the world, with the click of one “register” button, free of cost from the comfort of one’s room, is stupefying. So, there still remains a question as to why organizations (or we as a nation) weren’t using these technologies earlier and spent so much time in transporting speakers from one city to the next, paying for travel, accommodation, food, leaving huge paper trails of invite cards, letters etc. when the same meeting or seminar or even conference was possible online with none of these ridiculous attachments?
Local webinar organizers need to think of how to engage the viewers and what they can learn for them. Most webinars are doing discussion/analysis but webinars can be valuable when they focus on training or diffusing objective information on a discrete topic of shared concern. Moderators should be skilled and create opportunities for dialogue and interaction, and provide the participants an incentive to demonstrate their expertise and ideas as well. Day, time and announcement is very crucial. Research shows that Tuesdays around 11:00 am have maximum participation. Of course, there is no way to completely avoid an occasional pitfall. The objective should be to conduct well-structured webinars with amazing tech-savvy speakers.
The writer is a Behavioral Economist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]