Think back to the last time you participated in a webinar – did you multitask, e.g. grade papers while listening to the webinar? Most of us do especially if the webinar is a lecture/presentation with only a few opportunities to ask questions. Our students are no different than us.
If an live online meeting or conference is important to your course learning outcomes, then design the event to maximize participation. You can influence the level of student engagement by a thoughtful instructional design of the overall learning activity.
Consider the big picture
Most likely your conference is part of a larger instructional need so specific sequencing of the event can help you decide the pedagogical approach to take. As you plan the event think about the big picture.
I use Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model shown left as a framework for many of my instructional designs. With it I can determine where in the learning cycle I want to place key learning activities and where specifically the conference will have the greatest impact.
For example, I use a series of activities to help students develop presentation skills and giving others feedback. Some activities are intended to give students realistic experiences in presenting and sharing feedback. Other activities involve reflecting on their performance, conceptualizing key principles and experimenting with them.
The design question is where to sequence the conference in this cycle of activities so that it contributes to experiential learning by adding value to experience, observation, conceptualization, or experimentation. The model helps me see the big picture and frames the sequencing of the conference.
Consider having students take lead
If I must lecture I typically record a video, develop a Prezi, or use Adobe Presenter to create an asynchronous presentation that I can upload to the course. I ask students to review the lecture on their own time but usually before some event. Some of us call this flipped instruction. In contrast, I mostly use conferences for student led activities where they share their reflective observations and abstract conceptualizations about an experience or activity they just recently completed. Or I might use the conference as an opportunity to have them experiment on key lesson concepts.
For example in one course I had students working in groups to develop a solution to a business case on training implementation consultants. Students needed to interview executive sponsors and consultants to assess the current situation. We used conferencing as a way of simulating these interviews where I played the role of executive sponsor or consultant. Since students were interviewing me they had to host and lead the conference. In this way I fully engaged them in the activity.
In summary, you want to think about how the conference contributes to the curriculum considering its value in a larger instructional design. Using a model like Kolb’s can help. Understanding that it is primarily a synchronous tool is important in considering the design of the activity. Frankly, if you cannot design the conference to engage participants, then I would look for other asynchronous alternatives to get the message out instead of conferences. Your aim with a live online event should be to fully engage students in the moment.