Over the past several years, online conferencing software (or web conferencing or online meeting software) has grown in capability and features. Organizations that want to save money by hosting meetings, delivering presentations, supporting collaboration between employees and experts, or providing training and learning as online events, are making more use of these applications.

While the virtual collaboration tools become more widely used, users themselves are often challenged by lack of familiarity with the new capabilities or by a belief that the tools may break their budget. I recently interviewed Cindy Huggett, a speaker, instructional designer, and facilitator who specializes in virtual training and collaboration technology. She helps organizations and training professionals move to the virtual classroom. Here are some of her tips.

BB: What types of topics are best suited for addressing in online events?

CH: I think all topics are fine. And I don't mean for that to be a cop out type of answer, but I firmly believe and in my experience, you can do anything online that you can do in person. You need to be more intentional, sometimes, about it. For example, some people will say that if you're going to build a relationship, if you're going to try to build rapport with somebody, you need that in-person experience. I find that you can build rapport with people in online events—if you're intentional about it, if you make a point to find common ground and to get to know each other, and if you turn on your webcam. These days, the technology that we have in order to be video-driven just takes out some of those barriers that we used to see in online events. So, I think all types of topics can be done in an online event.

Most of the people that take part in online events now are accustomed enough to the technology that it's not a problem.

For the most part, as a blanket statement, there remain pockets of people who still struggle with technology and then it's on the facilitator, with the online event coordinator, to help them. Most platforms are so simple now that it's one click and you enter. And if we have somebody who's new, who doesn't use devices (and think about the research—the last statistic I saw close to 80 percent of Americans and similar around the globe have a phone or a smart device)—so if they're not familiar with how to connect, how to click and connect, then let's teach them. Let's make it easy for them. So, yes, there are pockets that remain but more and more it's becoming easier, and most are familiar with logging into a site, saying hello, turning on their their webcam…

BB: Are there topics that are challenging for online delivery?

CH: I think there's a bigger answer to that question that will help. When we think about online events, we have got to separate them into different categories. We've got online events that are a presentation—one person speaking to a large audience. Then we have the online events that might be a one-on-one meeting between a manager and employee, or a coach and a project manager, or just two colleagues who are meeting, or a small group, a small remote distributed team. Then we have the online training classes, which are skill-based or learning-outcome-based. So we've got these different types of events. If we think about something that's difficult to deliver, some people might think, well, having a coaching conversation with an employee is difficult, having a conversation that requires empathy is difficult. But with many free online tools now we can turn on those webcams and have a conversation. It takes the awkwardness or the difficulty out of it. And there are still some environments where webcams are forbidden due to company regulations, or because of bandwidth challenges or having a choppy connection. I’d bet if we can overcome those, then I don't see much as being difficult.

For one quick example: I used to call training classes that we did in the same classroom where everyone was together “the traditional class.” I used to call them “face-to-face classes” or F2F was the acronym. Now I call them “in-person classes” because even online we're turning on those webcams so we're still face-to-face, but in the online environment.

BB: What are some of the key features in low-cost tools for online collaboration?

CH: Great question. You'll find that various platforms or low-cost tools have different sets of features but they all have a few things in common.

Number one, the ability to have video conferencing. We look at a lot of online tools that don't cost much or are even free: the video conferencing. So I'm thinking about Google Hangouts, I'm thinking about Slack video calls, just some of those examples.

Number two, chatting—the ability to send text messages back and forth, and with a larger audience, or if we want to capture some sort of text, having that ability to message or chat.

Number three, the screen sharing. If I want to show you a document, I'm showing you slides or we're collaborating on something, the ability to do screen sharing.

BB: How can a facilitator make best use of the more advanced features to make online events more interactive?

CH: Some of the more advanced features but still ones most people would be familiar with are polling: the ability to ask a poll question. And then the ability to annotate or draw on the screen. In screen sharing, if you and I want to collaborate, we might have shared tools. But with a larger group we may want to annotate or draw on a whiteboard or have that shared drawing capability. So I would put polling and annotating in that kind of second tier, if you will.

And then finally there are the features that are great for collaborating. Some of the lower-cost tools have a breakout or a sub-conferencing capability. If a platform has that ability and you've got a larger group or a training class, then finding a lower-cost platform that has those features is worth the search.

Need more information?

Cindy Huggett will present "Creating Highly Interactive Online Events on a Low-Cost Budget", as part of The eLearning Guild's L&D on a Shoestring Online Conference April 22-23, 2020.

In Cindy's session, you will learn:

  • Which low-cost online meeting tools are available for virtual collaboration
  • How to use online meeting tools in creative ways for interactivity
  • Simple ways to engage remote audiences using low-cost tools.

You'll get a fresh perspective on interactive online events. Registration is open here!