Thursday, October 27, 2011

The future of the seminar starts with w

I've learned a new word: webinar. Stefan has had a few. Maybe it's contagious.

A webinar, so I've learned, is a web-based seminar. It's a hybrid of video conference and desktop sharing. If you know the International Loop Quantum Gravity Seminar (ILQGS) series, this is the pleistocenic predecessor of a webinar. To take part, you download the slides online prior to the seminar, then dial in to hear what the speaker has to say. One thing he'll be telling you is when to go to the next slide.

A webinar now makes use of advanced file-sharing. Somebody plays the role of a moderator who shares a desktop, not necessarily his own, with all participants, for example the powerpoint presentation of the speaker, but it might also be a demonstration of a software or pictures from your latest trip to the pleistocene or whatever. So, you don't have to switch slides on your own and can pleasantly doze off. Just take care not to hit the keyboard for a webinar is interactive and you might accidentally ask the question "Ghyughgggggggggggggggggg?"

In principle one could stream the audio right along with the desktop and also combine it with a video. However, sharing videos of the participants has limits both at bandwidth and feasibility. If you're giving a seminar with an audience of 100 people, you neither want nor need a video of every single one picking their nose. Much more useful is the option to virtually 'raise a hand' and ask a question, either by audio or by a chat interface.

The webinar interface that Stefan has made some experience with is called webex. In these webinars that Stefan has attented, the audio was not streamed along with the desktop sharing over the web. Instead, participants submit a phone number at which the software will call them. That has the disadvantage that you have to be on the phone in addition to sitting at the computer. (You also need to have a phone line to begin with.) It has the advantage however that if the web connection breaks down you can still try to figure out the problem on the phone. Webex is not a free service - I suppose one primarily pays for the bandwidth that allows many participants since desktop sharing and video conferencing with a few people is doable on Skype also. Google brings up some free offers for webinar software, but I don't know any of them. Let me know if you've tried some of these free services, I'd be interested to hear how good or bad they are.

From the speaker's side the situation requires some adaption if one is used to 'real' seminars. One has to stop oneself from mumbling into the laptop. For pointing at some item, one has to use the cursor which is possible but not ideal. One would wish for an easy way to enlarge the icon so it is better visible.

From the side of the audience there's the general temptation of leaving to get a coffee and forgetting to come back because who will notice anyway. One is also left wondering how many of the participants are sitting in bed or have just replaced themselves with a software that will ask the occasional question. It is actually more a comment than a question...

From both sides there is the necessity to get used to the software which is typically the main obstacle for applications to spread.

If one wants to combine a webinar with a real seminar, new technological hurdles are in the way but they aren't too difficult to take. The shared desktop can be projected with a beamer as usual, the audio needs to go on a speaker. The question is how to deal with 'real' audience questions. This requires a good A/V equipment at location.

In any case, the technology is clearly there and one already finds some webinar offers online. The APS for example has some webinars with career advice, and Physics World also has a few listed. Most of the webinars that I have come across so far are however software demonstrations. But after increasingly many institutions routinely record seminars and make them available online, I think webinars are the next step that we might see spreading though academia. I for sure would appreciate the possibility to easily log in to one or the other seminar from home while I am on parental leave.

However, if the nomenclature develops as it did with weblogs, we'll end up sitting in binars, you're either in or you're not.

Have you made experience with a webinar? Would you consider attending, giving, or organizing one?


  1. Hi Bee,

    Abstract: Can neutrinos really travel faster than light? Recently released experimental data from CERN suggests that they can. Join host Dr. Richard Epp and a panel of Perimeter Institute scientists in a live webinar to discuss this unexpected and puzzling experimental result, and some theoretical questions it might raise.

    Thanks to Phil.


  2. Or Flash Presentation

    Here in this Blog Post as well.

    The cost for travel and future interactions allow for some savings. I have been after this in my own world to provide for some relief for the non profits.


  3. Webinars are great, but the cost of using any of the major commercial platforms is quite frankly a scam. You might be interested in looking at . It is open source and built for teaching in higher education, but it has essentially the same functionality that you need for a webinar. The disadvantage is that you have to install it on a server at your institution and it is going to need pretty high bandwidth.

    You might also be interested to know that we have set up an online seminar series in quantum information/foundations using Google+ hangouts (see This is kind of intermediate between ILQGS and a proper webinar. It has the advantage that nobody has to install software and it can be viewed from anywhere with an internet connection, but the disadvantages are that we still have to distribute slides in advance and there is currently a limit of 10 participants. We get around the latter by asking people to group together and watch it on a single computer. Hopefully, Google will introduce new functionality over time, so that we can approximate a true webinar experience. I do think that G+ has great potential for this sort of thing as it is so simple to set up.

  4. At work we use webinars all the time. I'm on one that is not quite engaging me as we speak. The issue of live auditorium + webinar is also handled, typically by having someone relay questions from the web participants, because when we have such events they are typically very large. We also have people in a conference room somewhere and a webinar, and then questions are handled like in a regular phone conference call.

    We also typically have participants instant messaging each other during the meeting.

  5. I think you are neglecting to mention the very detrimental effects of interference when using open communication mechanisms such as the internet and especially when dealing with topics about neutrinos which very well might cause causality violations and back-reactions inside the minds of the participants in the meetings. Also add in the effect of automated or manual intervention of spies in data streams and man-in-the-middle type attacks.. I believe web communication has a very dehumanizing effect and should be minimized to the maximum extent possible. I thought this would be obvious on a blog with a name like Backreaction!

  6. Hi Stephen,

    I have my reservations about the usefulness of online communication and I've written about that several times. However, seminars are an example where I think putting them online can work very well. There is in fact not a dramatic lot of communication going on there, and that what is going on are mostly technical questions that can be well typed or asked without even a video.

    I am not very worried about security of the data connection, for the vast majority of topics that academics talk about it's a total non-issue. Yes, sometimes it is, one has to take this into account already with the recording, but then nobody forces you to have a seminar recorded or online and if you don't like the idea just don't do it. There will always remain closed and/or unannounced meetings and seminars and I believe there has to be a place for that as well, but I think that the community can benefit from making use of webinars. Best,


  7. Hi Matt,

    Thanks, that is interesting. I think it's likely that in the next few years there will be one or two platforms standing out that most people will focus on. Best,


  8. Hi Arun,

    Ah, the instant messaging I forgot. Does it run with the same software or do you use an additional one? How many people do typically attend these webinars at your workplace? Best,


  9. Hi Bee,

    What you refer to as Webinars I have and continue to participate in with respect to my own industry. That is both regarding discussions and explanations regarding standard changes to ones like the DOE make in respect to programs such as Energy Star and Testing Standards of NFRC (National Fenestration Rating Council). While I do agree they have the ability to gather a large group together without the need for time consuming travel and expense and yet find them systemically totally lacking the ability for people to before and after consult one on one or smaller groups as to flush important issues out in their entirety. Thus in such respect this methodology can be easily abused to ram through policy and standards changes which have far reaching effect before enabling proper assessment as relating to their effectiveness and consequences. In such regard I find it most ironic as in the interest of saving a little energy and resource they risk losing the opportunity to have the most saved.

    "A key difference between a dialogue and an ordinary discussion is that, within the latter people usually hold relatively fixed positions and argue in favor of their views as they try to convince others to change. At best this may produce agreement or compromise, but it does not give rise to anything creative."

    -David Bohm & David Peat, "Science Order, and Creativity"_, p. 241



  10. "Ghyughgggggggggggggggggg?" It's not unitary, so probably not.

    [Muon] Neutrinos are massed; GR will win. GR' vulnerability is its postulated Equivalence Principle. String theory's EP is BRST invariance. All measurable observables are EP-inert.

    Quantitative geometric parity divergence is a non-measurable observable outside physics. Nothing requires (metaphoric) opposite shoes to validate the EP. Somebody should look. Put Euclid on a sphere and the Shroud of Turin is a joke.

  11. Hi Bee,

    Instant messaging comes with the software. You can direct a private message to anyone or a public message.

    We have for instance, weekly technology forums where someone talks and most of us listen - a hundred or so people may attend. We also have sessions where a presenter is talking through a document for review - there could be as many as 50-60 people on, actively participating & asking questions.

    There is something about a face-to-face meeting with whiteboards (and no one able to hide behind a laptop screen) that is tremendously more productive; but it is better to have these web meetings instead of something less. Or maybe I'm just old-fashioned.


  12. Hi Arun,

    Yes, face-to-face communication still works best when it comes to productivity, but then the average academic seminar is not about being productive in the first place but about being educative. It is too bad academia is so behind in these matters. I can understand it though, all the technological equipment takes money that isn't there (with PI one of the few exceptions on that end) and learning to use it takes time that nobody has. Best,


  13. Hi Phil,

    Yes, I see, you log out and are off, no continuation of discussion there. But everything could always be better I suppose. Clearly, what we want are transmitters that get us around the world faster than the speed of neutrinos, but absent that technology a webinar sounds to me like much of an improvement over watching a recording. Everything is relative as the saying goes :-) Best,



    Came across the above on Matthew Yglesias, on Slate:

    After analyzing more than 35,000 different peer-reviewed papers and mapping the location of every co-author, he found that scientists located closer together produced papers of significantly higher quality, at least as measured by the number of subsequent citations. In fact, the best research was consistently done when scientists were working within roughly 30 feet of each other—that is, when they didn't need to interact via screens.



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