How screen space is allocated in webinars

I’ve recently been tinkering with the format of an online webinar in an effort to make what happens in a webinar more engaging and "minds-on" for teachers.

The problem, as I see it, for most webinars is that the presenter spends 99% of the time talking during the webinar, while the participants, if they are lucky, are in a chat window, occasionally discussing what the presenter is sharing. I feel fairly certain that almost everyone in a webinar will at some point switch the window to work on some other task, whether it is tweeting, reading their email, or something else not related to the presentation.

It is important to remember that a webinar is not worth having if no one learns anything from the experience, and no one even considers if their current practice needs to change. It is equally important to remember that a webinar is not worth having if the participants would have been better off reading a book on the topic instead. For the cost of some webinars, participants could potentially buy several books to read themselves at their leisure, rather than have someone they cannot see read it to them. A free webinar is not really free; it has the cost of the time participants spend watching it.

What I have discovered is making a webinar something people can participate in more easily is challenging for a variety of reasons.

  1. Most webinar software is designed to be something a presenter uses to share information. The bulk of webinar mechanics seem to be to ensure that participants are able to hear a presenter read their slides clearly.
  2. While many webinar packages allow for participants to share their screens, the software limits screen-sharing to one participant at a time. I have yet to see a single webinar software package that enables participants to form smaller groups and share what they are doing with each other.
  3. Screen space in a webinar is almost entirely devoted to what the presenter is sharing, rather than the discussion space where participants could potentially talk about the presentation. Imagine the physical space of your classroom was apportioned in the same way. Wouldn’t that seem a little bit ridiculous?
  4. Application sharing, if it is present in the webinar software, virtually always restricts access to the application being shared to the presenter. Even if I wanted to give a participant a chance to play with a particular piece of software in front of the whole group, it is not possible to do so.


Here are some things I have done to try and alleviate some of these issues.

  1. I share links to Google Docs and Spreadsheets in my webinars, so that participants can leave the webinar software and collaborate with each other to build something useful.
  2. In a recent presentation on Programming in Math Class, I set aside 20 minutes of the webinar time so that participants could actually use the software I was recommending, and see what they could build with it.
  3. I plan for questions from teachers to drive at least a portion of the presentation, and I modify my presentation as much as I can in order to suit the needs of the participants. This addresses the question; why I am teaching this, to this particular group of learners, in this particular way? If you don’t at least respond to, and modify your presentation based on questions from participants, you might as well have sent them a link to a video instead. At least they could pause and rewind the video as needed.
  4. There are some software packages out there that address some of these concerns, but all of them have some pretty serious limitations. Google Hangouts allow for live document editing and application sharing within the Hangout window, but are limited to 10 participants. Mikogo addresses some of these issues as well, but is limited to 25 participants.


Here is what I would like to be able to do with webinar software.

  1. I need to be able to form participants into groups, which are either randomly chosen, self-selected, or grouped by the presenter. In each group, participants should have shared access to software as designated by the presenter, or as each participant feels the need to share.
  2. I’d like to be able to switch the view of the presentation as necessary so that the slides can shrink when they are unimportant and the shared workspace or chat window could expand as necessary.
  3. I really want to be allow participants to collaborate on objects in any software during a presentation which they can take away with them later, and therefore exist outside of the presentation space.
  4. I want to be able to designate presentation pathways, based on decisions I make during the presentation. If a group wants to see an example in more detail, or has a particular set of needs, I’d like to be able to switch the direction of the presentation on the fly, and choose a different set of slides to use to frame our discussion as needed.
  5. This is a minor point, but I’d like to be able to do polls and get responses from participants within the software itself, in a way which makes sharing the results with all of the participants visible and intuitive to understand.


Imagine you are in charge of designing webinar software for the future. What do you want it to include?