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Virtual versus in-person seminars: Which training support is most beneficial?

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Librarians
By: Jeffrey Robens, Thu Apr 4 2024
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Author: Jeffrey Robens

Communicating ideas and information is essential in academia, and professional development training for researchers, such as that offered by , is available in both in-person or virtual format. Deciding which would be most beneficial for your institution and researchers requires having an overview of the benefits and drawbacks of each of these training support formats. There is no better person to give this overview than Dr. Jeffery Robens, Head of Community Engagement and Lead Trainer at ý having led over 600 workshops. In this post Jeffrey shares his insights on the benefits and challenges of virtual and in-person sessions, to empower you in choosing the most suitable format for your researchers.

As Lead Trainer of the Nature Masterclasses, I have conducted over 600 training workshops for researchers worldwide over the last 12 years. Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, these were all in person. But once the pandemic hit, we converted our workshops into interactive virtual webinars to allow us to still support the research community. Now that we are out of the pandemic, we are delivering both virtual and in-person workshops as they each have their unique benefits to offer.

In this post, I wanted to share my insights that can help guide institutions in determining which style will best help them achieve their goals. I find that engagement and accessibility are the main points of variance between the formats – in-person or virtual. Institutions can support researchers in doing better at science communication in various ways. Choosing expert training in one format or the other depends on the institution and its researchers, as each format offers different benefits.

Engagement dynamics: The connection between trainer and researchers

There is nothing like being physically present at an in-person session to ensure and encourage engagement and maximize learning. For the audience, in-person seminars heighten participant engagement, as they not only require the participants to schedule their time to include the session, but they are also likely to exclusively focus on this session. And since the speaker can see them directly, it will be apparent if they are not paying attention. It is also less likely for participants to leave the seminar. In a virtual seminar, the limited or lack of engagement can also lead to participants feeling bored and losing attention.

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Participant engagement also has a social aspect. Attending an in-person seminar with colleagues makes for a more enjoyable experience as compared with attending an online session alone. And when participants are enjoying their time, they are less likely to feel bored and more likely to focus and pay attention during the seminar. A bonus for participants is that this social aspect of in-person seminars can stimulate networking with colleagues they may not frequently interact with otherwise. More collaborative opportunities can lead to impactful new ideas and research.

Interaction with the speaker is a meaningful form of engagement that offers substantial benefits for the audience. I have noticed that, for most audiences, I receive many more questions at in-person seminars than virtual ones. This could be due to two not mutually exclusive reasons. One, because the participants are more focused and paying attention, they end up with more questions. Two, when participants can connect more effectively with the speaker, they likely will feel more comfortable asking more questions than they would in a less intimate virtual setting.

While most platforms for virtual seminars allow for participant interaction in various ways such as chat box, polls, raising virtual hands, or opening their microphone, these are much less effective than person-to-person interaction.

Questions and exchanges during in-person seminars extend beyond the actual session, with additional and often more specific questions coming up during breaks and after the workshop. This availability to directly approach the speaker and the opportunity to continue the discussion beyond the particular sessions can greatly improve participants’ experience, by giving them a chance to discuss their specific issues and receive direct input.

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Speaker engagement is likewise influenced by the type of session. As any speaker would agree, being able to physically present to an audience strongly improves their experience. During a virtual seminar, you are just speaking to a screen where you may or may not be able to see the participants. It is impossible for the speaker to tell whether their message is getting through. But when you are there in person, you can see your audience directly. Feeding off the energy from the audience can really improve your experience and performance. And when the speaker looks motivated, that will further improve the participants’ attention as well. Many researchers have told me that they dislike conducting online seminars because speaking to a computer screen without seeing the audience is, well, boring. And when the speaker gets bored, so will the audience. 

At an in-person event, the speaker can get immediate feedback from their audience. If the speaker notices that the audience is losing attention or looks confused, they understand they need to modify their presentation style to re-capture that attention, or add clarification to get their point across. But when the speaker sees nods of agreement and participants actively take notes, they know they are getting through to the audience, and they’ll be motivated to maintain their energy levels and enthusiasm. This immediate feedback that a speaker can get from an in-person setting is invaluable for their own engagement.

Accessibility: Training support that is convenient

While virtual workshops present more challenges in terms of engagement, they absolutely make up for it in accessibility. Researchers, as already mentioned, are very busy, and a full-day, in-person training would be difficult to fit into their schedule. That’s why Nature Masterclasses’ virtual workshops are delivered in two-hour sessions over multiple days. Which scheduling would be more effective for your researchers depends on their needs and other institutional considerations.

Online sessions offer utmost physical accessibility: Because they are conducted online, people can attend from anywhere as long as they have an internet connection. When trying to involve researchers from multiple campuses, across the country or around the globe, this is extremely useful. By eliminating the need for travel and the expenses this involves (also accommodation and visas), virtual events remove barriers for participation for speakers and participants by enabling them to share their ideas online. The elimination of travel not only enhances accessibility, but it also – added bonus! – reduces carbon footprint.

Virtual workshops also allow participants temporal accessibility. Researchers are very busy people with packed schedules and can find it challenging to schedule an in-person seminar. It is more likely however that they’ll be able to fit an online session into their schedule. Numerous people have told me that being able to attend a virtual session on one monitor while working on a manuscript or grant proposal on the other monitor allows them to kill two birds with one stone. This does require a bit of multitasking, but this is something many researchers are experienced at.

Of course, when people multitask, their attention decreases on each task, so even if they are attending the virtual session, they’ll be less engaged. In our virtual workshops, we see that only about 60-65% of participants are actively engaged during a session.

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There are also substantial benefits to virtual seminars when it comes to speech accessibility. Depending on the speaking style of the presenter as well as other challenges faced by participants, some may find it difficult to follow the speaker. Closed captioning, available in many platforms for virtual meetings such as Zoom, enhances inclusivity by enabling people with hearing impairments or non-native English speakers who find spoken English challenging to also learn from the speaker.

Virtual sessions can also be recorded, which not only allows researchers who missed the session to watch it at their convenience without sacrificing other responsibilities, but also facilitates comprehension for those who wish to revisit the session for more clarity. Without a recording, anything that was missed will be lost to the participants.

The technology and various platforms that enable speakers to conduct virtual seminars can sometimes present their own challenges. While some are very user-friendly and work well, others have much to be desired in terms of their interfaces and engagement functions. Some may require participants to download software (that may or may not be available in their region), others might require attending via internet browser. Choosing the right platform for the best delivery is essential, but what is optimal for one user may not always be so for another, which can leave some participants with the feeling that the session was not very useful for them.

And as virtual meetings depend on being online, internet bandwidth can decide how well a session goes. Personally, I only conduct virtual workshops when my computer is directly connected to the internet via a LAN cable, which is much more stable and reliable than WiFi. But most participants likely rely on WiFi connection to join the session, which can lead to audio and visual disruptions, lagging slide transitions, or issues with showing videos. This leads to a poor user experience and affects what participants learn during the session.

Virtual or in-person seminars?
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In the end, which is “better”, virtual or in-person seminars? Neither. They each have their own benefits and drawbacks. So the more important question is “Which is better for my researchers?”. If you feel that accessibility is most important, then a virtual seminar will likely be more useful. However, if you want to maximize attention and engagement, then in-person sessions would likely be better. Please consider the points I have highlighted above and determine which will provide the best experience for your researchers.

Read more about how institutions and librarians can support researchers in becoming better science communicators, and stay tuned for Jeffrey’s next blog on how to use language models (like ChatGPT).

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Author: Jeffrey Robens

Passionate runner and publishing consultant, heads community engagement, offering 20 years of academic expertise. With extensive experience in Asia and the Middle East, he has conducted over 600 workshops to enhance publication quality and researcher development. Dive deeper into his thoughts on effective researcher training in his blog post, "Virtual versus in-person seminars: Which training support is most beneficial?”.