Sidebar Conversations during Webcasts

I saw something interesting this week in a webcast. One instructor would answer questions submitted by participants and share the questions and answers with everyone via the chat window while his co-instructor was teaching. (In fact, he had to stop because he started to get feedback that the sound of his typing was distracting–a problem we helped him solve for his next webcast.)

Like in my earlier sidebar post, I have mixed feelings about this. The downside is that the text responses are competing with the live instruction for limited cognitive resources–participants have to choose whether to listen or read; they can’t do both. In effect, this instructor was doing the equivalent of having a loud conversation at the back of the classroom while someone else is trying to teach.

On the other hand, there may be a greater good here. The back channel communication from the instructor lent a nice vibe to the webcast. It was clear both instructors were engaged even when only one of them was teaching, which would make it harder for participants to themselves choose to disengage to, say, quick check email. Also, this webcast was aimed at highly experienced professionals. Being a highly experienced professional doesn’t absolve you from cognitive processing limits, but it does equip you to make informed decisions about what information is most important to you (not that learners consistently make good choices). And it could also be that the questions he was answering were legitimately more important than the information his co-instructor was teaching, at least for part of the audience. In other words, some participants who focused on the back channel discussion rather than the main instruction may have gotten information that will keep them from making major mistakes or allow them to produce work of higher quality or efficiency in a way that has higher value for the firm than the mistakes or inefficiencies they will introduce by not listening to the main instruction during that time.

So was it a net positive for learning? It’s complicated.


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