Rethinking the “Webinar”: Sage on Screen, Guide on Side, or Both?

Reda SadkiWriting

By Donna Murdoch, Ed. D. for The Geneva Learning Foundation

A search for the keyword “webinar” on Google reveals over 85 million hits. How do we develop webinars, how do we hold webinars, and how do we engage people during webinars?  The same questions could be asked of lectures, because in most contexts, webinars are a lecture seen and heard through the glass of a screen instead of a cavernous lecture hall.  The literature suggests that lectures do not provide the support and activity learners need to stay engaged.  “Sage on Stage” has been replaced by “Guide on the Side” (King, 1993) in most face to face contexts, or at least the effort is made.  Is the same effort made when there is a screen between the webinar participant and the “sage”?

The paragraph below is an excerpt from a 2018 article published by J. Ubah in Advances in Social Science Research. Spaces have been left purposefully blank. How should they be filled?

Boredom is a negative experience common among learners. Their attention needs to be captivated for a reasonable length of time during a ______ to grasp information being transmitted. Causes of boredom are many. Many ideas and activities have been suggested to overcome the boredom. These include among others; reduction in the number of power point slides or interacting with participants one on one. The goal of this study was to identify the causes of boredom during a ______ in a group of healthcare workers. Short span of attention and consuming large meals before a ______ were not considered significant causes. The responses were similar in both sexes. Different causes of boredom have been identified. A _______ should be conversant with these causes and introduce means to eliminate or reduce them to the barest minimum.

All of the blanks should be filled in with the same word. Should the blanks be filled in with: a) Lecture b) Webinar or c) Both of the above? C would be the likely answer based on research and learning attention studies.

The broad consensus of pedagogical research regards the lecture as a relic of the past. French (2017) called lectures “a boring, passive, ineffective teaching method that will soon be obsolete”. If a lecture is held virtually and viewed on a screen, the paragraph above applies to both face to face and virtual presentations.

While subject matter experts may consider the proliferation of webinars to be an opportune modality with which to share what they know with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of individuals globally – something that would have been impossible without the screen between – the effort and learning outcomes have no difference. Many of us receive a growing number of invitations to attend these events, yet we attend far less often than we register. Only 30 – 40% of people who register for free webinars actually attend. (Molay, 2010)  If we sign in to participate, competing engagement is right at our fingertips. Email that has been piling up, a You Tube video shared by a colleague – it is difficult it is to maintain our focus for more than a few minutes as we sit in front of a screen with many competing, possibly more enticing options. Engaging people staring at a computer screen is, in general, extremely difficult.

So why does the proliferation of webinars seem unstoppable? What is their value for teaching, learning, and capacity-building? 

Listening to a webinar presentation reproduces the lecture format, with opportunities for interaction that are cumbersome both to the presenter and the participants. Asking questions or responding to a poll is likely to happen in the background of other more engaging activities on a computer screen.  It is much easier to “disappear” in a large virtual lecture, as faces often cannot be seen. 

“Sage on stage” has long been replaced, at least in theory, by the recognition that learning is more likely to happen with a “guide on the side”, action learning, and peer support (Mazur, 2009). This shift is taking place alongside new technological affordances that enable us to teach and learn in new ways. The use of educational technology allows us to reach more learners with a new economy of effort. Nevertheless, whether hundreds or thousands of people watch a lecture in person, as part of a large face to face audience with a slide presentation, or on the screen of a computer or mobile device, there is no cognitive difference. It is all passive consumption – if it is consumed at all.

How do we engage large groups, where dialogue, if it takes place at all, can only include a small proportion of those in attendance, and feel confident they will learn from a lecture on a screen?  In fact, we cannot feel confident…just as we cannot feel confident in a lecture hall.

In a brick-and-mortar class room, it is more difficult to escape the confines of a lecture. You are in the room, and others can observe your attention – manifesting boredom, inattention, or leaving the room are noticed. The institutional infrastructure has resulted in your attendance, as well as your own effort, probably involving travel to be in the classroom. This may explain the persistence of lectures in education and training.  In webinars, the barriers to entry are usually far lower, and attendees have many ways to escape, and their absence, boredom, inattention, or multi-tasking may be impossible to detect for the presenter.

In fact, the number of active viewers of a webinar presentation at the 10-minute point is on the average 16% of the original audience. The biggest fall off is after 3.5 minutes. While the synchronous (live) character of webinars may help engagement in theory, the typical duration of such events (an hour) is ten times as long as what research has shown is the attention span of most humans for viewing videos (six minutes) (Guo, 2014).

What, then, may explain the perceived value of webinars and their growing proliferation? If webinars are ineffective, what then are the alternatives?

Can webinar technology be used for purposes other than lecture?

Web meeting tools are not always a bad experience. There are great benefits, especially for groups working or learning remotely, in using remote technology to meet. When small groups of people are immersed in conversation via the same software used for webinar, it can be a wonder. In this author’s experience, web conferencing can work, as an integral part of a bigger, richer learning experience. In her classes, students attend a live conference that and is considered “icing on the cake”. Learning results from mostly asynchronous activities, the learning community being built through the social relationships established between learners in these activities, the shared and individual experiences, insights, reflections (metacognition) that they may be having as they work toward completing them, and the new tools they are learning to integrate into their own instruction. They may watch a video clip or have a short discussion about a topic while in their live meeting, then they go into groups of four into virtual “break out rooms” to discuss in small teams. The author, who is teacher and facilitator, can visit any group, popping in and out, if support is needed. Then they return to the bigger group of 25 and share what they have discussed. There are other methods of engagement as well, but they do not involve lectures. This is a way to get to know each other via a different modality. Although the technology used may be the same, it is not a webinar.  This involves planning and much more work for the presenter, as does an interactive face to face class.  It is much easier to talk at an audience for those who have been lecturing for many years.  To plan an interactive course session filled with action learning takes time and experimentation, peer learning opportunities, and reflections whether it occurs online or face to face.

Using webinar technology to lecture clearly requires far less effort than building a robust, interactive, digital course. Lecturing online satisfies the craving to share what one knows, and it offers convenience and affordability. Unfortunately, such affordances come with the sacrifice of meaningful learning outcomes. The alternative requires specialized learning expertise, facilitation competencies, and an investment in the design of effective learning and a support system to scaffold this experience. Supporting effective learning becomes even more difficult as the size of group grows. Resources and competencies needed may be unknown, unavailable, or too costly for subject matter experts, whereas the basic technology to organize an online event is free and readily available, and experts may be ignorant of the evidence about its limited outcomes, may lack the means of measuring such outcomes, or may in fact be pursuing other goals such as communication.

Image: Mindjourney art based on sage on the stage and lecture keywords.

About the author

Donna Murdoch, Ed. D. is a global learning leader with over twenty years of experience driving innovative programs that support complex business transformation, change, and capacity building programs with impact. In the workplace and in academia, Donna leads the design, development, and execution of best in class strategies that develop a culture of continuous learning, always with a “people first” focus. Donna is a Professor of Adult Learning and Leadership at Columbia University Teachers College, and a Wharton Global Talent Management Fellow. She has worked with organizations such as Philips, S & P Global, UNICEF, the United Nations, Apollo Group, and others to shape Learning Strategy around new and emerging technology.


French, S. (08/2017). Reassessing the value of university lectures Taylor & Francis. doi:10.1080/13562517.2016.1273213

Guo, P. J., Kim, J., & Rubin, R. (2014, March). How video production affects student engagement: An empirical study of MOOC videos. In Proceedings of the first ACM conference on Learning@ scale conference (pp. 41-50). ACM.

King, A. (1993). From sage on the stage to guide on the side. College teaching41(1), 30-35.

Mazur, E. (2009). Farewell, lecture? Science, 323(5910), 50-51.

Molay, K. (2010). Best Practices for Webinars. Increasing attendance, engaging your audience, and successfully advancing your business goals.

Ubah, J. N. (2018). Predictors of boredom at lectures: Medical Students’ experience. Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal, 5(1).