8 ideas for dealing with widely varying computing environments in webinars and virtual classes

Scott writes:

What are best practices when clients have widely varying computing environments?

Wise question, Scott. You’re asking a question people should ask more. A few thoughts:

Decide how low your lowest common denominator of inclusiveness is

The more webinars or virtual classes you conduct, sooner or later you will have to make a tradeoff between something you want to do and your clients’ ability to access it.

For example, I once worked with a client who delivered technical training for sales reps which included a good number of schematics that they’d show and discuss. What they found, however, was an increasing number of reps who wanted to attend from their mobile devices.

An example of (one of) the choices they had to make was whether or not to show a whole schematic. There is benefit in showing “the whole” (using pointers/annotations to draw attention to the area on the schematic they were talking about) so that the learner sees what is being discussed in context of the entire schematic. On a mobile device, however, this didn’t work as well. The alternative was to change their instructional design approach to accommodate the mobile folks, but at a cost of those who were attending from a laptop or desktop.

In fact, they tried the latter to be more inclusive and found it much harder to show parts in light of the whole (to the confusion of participants), and ended up going back to being optimal for participants in standard sized computing environments.

Choose a technology that works better with lower bandwidths

I once talked with a gal in the outback of Australia who used webinars for educating sheep farmers. As you might guess, her lowest common denominators were internet speed followed by operating systems. She had tried a robust web conferencing platform that was great for training, but found that its bandwidth requirement was more problematic than it was worth.

You may or may not get to choose your web conferencing solution (I’m guessing by the organization I see you work for the answer is no). If this is the case, you may find that you can be more inclusive by designing media to use less bandwidth (such as looking okay in 8-bit/256 colors).

Offer participants an option to dial in by telephone

VoIP doesn’t actually take that much bandwidth, but there are other reasons why you might be sure to include a phone-in option.

One is because sometimes people are going to join when a full computing environment isn’t possible (like listening in while they’re driving). Another is because sometimes VoIP is blocked or less-than-friendly with firewalls. Yet another is because this provides a backup for attendance if connectivity is an issue and the web conference is experiencing latency.

Remember, too, that sometimes the choices you provide are for behavioral, not technical, reasons. I’ve had folks who want to dial in on the telephone because they could listen privately or quietly versus having their computer speakers on.

Use a participant guide (made available in advance)

I’m not a big fan of handing out slides, first because great slides make lousy handouts, and second because most people’s slides will give away too much (which isn’t a big deal if you don’t mind people reading ahead).

A participant guide, worksheet, or the like can be a powerful addition to the experience. Many people benefit highly by being able to take notes as they go, and if they’re on telephone alone (without the web/video conference), this makes it even more useful.

Plan multiple slides instead of using animations, live demos, or videos

I’m wrapping a number of issues and solutions into one answer here, but they’re all resolved tactically with approaching the medium a little differently. Plan multiple/additional slides…

…instead of relying on how your web conferencing solution handles PowerPoint animations (results do vary).

…as a backup to doing a live desktop demo or using a video (in case of connectivity issues).

Employ a skilled moderator

A great moderator or co-facilitator makes presenters better than they are. This might be because 1) the presenter/facilitator is more confident and engaging, 2) the moderator can handle issues as they arise in a way the presenter can’t or doesn’t want to, or 3) they have the experience to know what to do if something really goes wrong so the session is salvaged (if not useful).

Serve the broader group first 

Issues of any kind are most frequently experienced by individuals. It’s just a fact of life when participants have different computing devices, different vendor for connectivity, different organizational rules that govern how and when they access the web, different levels of experience, and on and on.

In the widely-varied computing environments you describe, this is even more true. You want everyone to be able to participate, and it’s particularly painful to feel like you’re letting someone down. Remember, though, that if you stop to handle one person, everyone else is waiting and being held up. Troubleshoot with individuals as you can, but not at the expense of the group.

Publish requirements in advance…repeatedly

Finally, a bit of idealism. If you know your audience isn’t going to be able to participate with a particular operating system or browser or whatever, put that in the pre-session communications. If you want to be particularly vigilant, send out an extra email that doesn’t have the ignore-ability of your web conferencing platform’s system-generated reminders.

Now, give yourself a bit of grace. People are busy, and they don’t read this stuff. Swallow hard, change their diapers, and move on.

The bottom line

Scott, you can’t plan for every contingency, but you can certainly take steps to mitigate risks when your clients are in widely-varied computing environments. And, I’d argue, success is moving needle in the right direction, not beating yourself up looking for a perfection that probably doesn’t exist. Best of luck to you.


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