Online Classes: The Next Big Thing

Online Classes: The Next Big Thing

By Elizabeth Wasserman

After Cheryl Asmus created a series of online courses at Colorado State University so that remote residents could earn degrees in early childhood education, she realized that web-based courses -- or webinars -- had other potential, too.

In her spare time, Asmus, 51, raises German shorthaired pointers. People who buy her puppies often call for advice and training info. So two years ago, she started e-Training for Dogs, a company that puts dog-training webinars online.

"It's not about training dogs but training people to live with their own dogs," says Asmus, who now works full time producing the training webinars. "If you can't do it in your house, it's not going to work. So why not pull up to your computer at night with a cup of hot chocolate and get online and be live with an instructor?"

These online classes are now offered in everything from how to invest in real estate, to weight loss, to personal growth or career advancement. For example, this year, media mogul Oprah Winfrey offered the first worldwide online class, which she hosted with Eckhart Tolle, author of A New Earth. The online (and free) class was about spiritual awakening and attracted more than 700,000 people worldwide.

Here are the ins and outs of webinars and how to enroll in one for yourself:

What is a webinar?
Webinar is a coined term for web seminar. It generally refers to an interactive online class in which you -- the audience -- can type in questions, answer polls, take surveys and chat with participants during a formal presentation that features slides and possibly video.

"Lots of businesses use these," says Ken Molay, president of Webinar Success, a consulting business in Cary, N.C. "The big benefit is that people don't have to travel to the same location and be there at the same time. It cuts costs and environmental impact, which is a good thing these days."

Sometimes the terms webinar, webcast and web conference are used interchangeably, although they technically refer to different things. A webcast is more like what Oprah put on -- a live TV-like program over the web that you can access but not necessarily interact with, Molay says. A web conference is an umbrella term that refers to all of these types of web-based programs, but it tends to be more collaborative, with team members drawing together on a virtual white board. As for webinars, you can access them live and use the interactive functions or access them after the fact.

What software or tools do you need to participate in a webinar?
Whoever is conducting the webinar is going to select the software you’ll use to participate. Either the host buys the software program or they rent access to it through a service. You don't necessarily have to worry about that distinction.

After you register online for a webinar, you'll receive an email with a link to the online classroom and the software you’ll need will automatically download to your computer. If you're worried about the safety of downloading, stick to the big providers in the webinar industry, which Molay says include WebEx (now owned by Cisco Systems), Microsoft Live Meeting, Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional or Citrix GotoMeeting or GotoWebinar.

Some types of webinar software will only work on PCs or Windows-based machines. Ask the company hosting the webinar. Aside from a computer, you need a high-speed Internet connection (dial-up can access certain webinars, but the performance will not be as good). Some webinars require you to dial in over a telephone line to listen in; others stream the audio over the web so that all you need are computer speakers.

Where can you sign up for webinars?
A variety of professional organizations, schools, publications and businesses offer webinars and other web courses. You can usually find sign-up information on their web sites.

For example, mediabistro, a site for editors, writers, producers, designers and book publishers, offers online courses on such topics as travel writing, public relations and writing book proposals. The Learning Annex, a New York-based producer of educational programming throughout the U.S. and Canada, offers web courses on everything from how to incorporate a business to "psychic self-defense."

A bunch of new web sites use web crawling technology to list what types of webinars are upcoming, including FinerVista and Insight24, which features archives of 5,000 different webcasts or podcasts on high-tech issues from 175 different companies. Or you can look up your favorite offline self-help, training or educational provider to see if they’ve begun to offer webinars on everything from meditation to quitting smoking to investing in real estate. Most providers also archive webinars as web videos after the fact (as Oprah did), so check out services like iTunes to find archived classes.

What does it cost to participate in a webinar?
The cost of webinars ranges from free programs run mostly by companies that want to sell you something (such as a time-share or vacation rental) to hundreds of dollars in fees for a webinar that may lead to certification in certain fields, Molay says. Prices also may vary depending upon whether you attend a webinar live or in archived form.

For e-Training for Dogs, live webinars usually run for about $25 per hour, and prerecorded sessions charge $20 per hour, Asmus says. Either way, instructors try to make learning an individualized experience, even though it’s done from miles away over the Internet. “It’s personalized,” she says. “You can send in videos so that they can see what you’re doing and then give you feedback.”


Elizabeth Wasserman is a freelance writer and editor based in Fairfax, Va. She writes for a variety of publications including Congressional Quarterly Inc. magazine, and she edits the online publication CIO Strategy Center.