As I endeavor to broadcast more Science Alliance programs over the internet, I consider whether watching an event online has the same benefit as being face-to-face with the speaker. The advantage of the webinar format is that it provides convenient access to our content when distance and time are factors (which for the scientist can come down to, does it require me to leave my building and does it fit between my timepoints). What is more, some level of interactivity is preserved with the at-home viewer being able to type or call-in questions to which the presenter can respond in real-time.
For the sake of convenience, though, you do sacrifice an opportunity to interact with others interested in a topic, and at an Alliance event, the network to which you have access is huge and includes people across a number of institutions and scientific disciplines. So networking is clearly hindered, but is learning compromised, as well?
Online learning is a hot issue in higher education with an ongoing debate about the extent to which teachers should be bringing their classrooms into the virtual space. You can check out some of the arguments for and against online courses in recent articles at The Chronicle and The New York Times. Interestingly, a meta-analysis by the US Department of Education found that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”
My take is that online learning can be successful but requires attention to pedagogical methods that have been proven for the virtual environment. This is not unlike the research and preparation that should be put forth to make in-classroom instruction effective.
I will continue to offer Science Alliance events online because I think it is important for our members to have access to the information we present, and will try to consider the unique needs of the virtual attendee. Nevertheless, for anyone local, I would encourage attending events when possible for the networking alone.