Traditionally, professionals have had to travel to a distant hotel conference room if they wanted to share information face to face. Yet with today’s escalating travel costs, making that trip is increasingly and often prohibitively expensive.
Web-based seminars (or webinars) now provide a convenient, cost-effective alternative to in-person seminars. Individuals interact online to share information, answer questions and facilitate knowledge exchange—all without leaving the comfort of their offices (or even their own homes).
“In the old days, seminars were limited, in a way, by those who could afford to get there,” explains Gary Thomas, research engineer and director of the Texas Transportation Institute’s (TTI’s) Center for Professional Development. “A seminar in Houston might attract lots of Texans, but no participants from, say, California, Maine or even China. As a result, the information exchanged was often very localized.”
Webinars enable anyone in the world who has an Internet connection to plug in to the conversation. That geographic diversity promotes a corresponding diversity of opinion and experience. And that range of expertise leads to better solutions for everyone.
TTI, for example, hosts monthly seminars for the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA’s) Travel Model Improvement Program (TMIP) for both U.S. and international participants. Approximately 200 people log on monthly to share their own experiences with other experts in the field. Some 75 percent of those are repeat attendees.
“We often speak of a global economy,” says Thomas, “but we rarely acknowledge that what makes that economy work is a global transportation system. Bringing together experts from around the world helps synergize that system, making it more reliable, more efficient and safer.”
High-speed Internet connections enable the use of more advanced technologies to facilitate interaction. Voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP)—which allows people to talk over the Internet—is fast becoming a standard way for people to connect. Anyone with a microphone and Internet connection can join a webinar, and that kind of access is particularly attractive to international participants. Videoconferencing—or the ability to interact with another person by seeing and hearing them in real time—is also becoming more common in webinars, and Thomas says that’s important.
“Webinars pose challenges to instructors,” he says. “When instructors can’t see participants, they lose that nonverbal feedback so often important to clear communication. Videoconferencing connects one human to another, and while it’s not the same as being face to face, it minimizes the likelihood of miscommunication.”
Thomas cites misinterpreting an e-mail as a contemporary communication problem due to limited interaction. The sender might intend the content to be a joke, but the receiver—perhaps after a rough day of his own—takes offense because there’s no tone or cue, other than the words themselves, to interpret. In e-mail we’ve tried to approximate those cues—those subtleties of human expression—by using symbols called “smileys.” So, even in our technologically advanced Information Age, we add the simplest of facial expressions to improve how our audience interprets content. Everything old truly is new again.
“Webinars are not just cost-effective forums for sharing information,” says TMIP Outreach Manager Sarah Sun of the FHWA’s Office of Environment, Planning and Realty. “They use what’s often viewed as impersonal technology to show us that most basic of interactive learning tools we so often take for granted. Webinars show us the human face.”