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Attendance at courses specialized to the pulp and paper industry given by organizations such as TAPPI, PAPTAC, colleges, and equipment vendors has dropped off badly over the past several years. Whether we blame this on lack of money or lack of vision of managers, being unwilling to pay for staff development, I and many others feel that the declining attendance is a serious problem for the industry. Education costs money, but ignorance is MUCH more expensive, particularly when the people involved are operating a plant spending many hundreds of thousands of dollars per day on supplies, or maintaining a machine that costs $10,000/hour when shut down for unforeseen repair.

Webinars are now being used by various organizations in an attempt to fill the training gap. I have participated in some, and feel that although they are not as good as a face-to-face course in which teachers and students are all in the same room, webinars are still very useful. Of course the cost of attending a webinar is tiny relative to traveling to a course.

The term webinar is short for web-based seminar, a presentation similar to the kind of presentation we are all familiar with by vendors, speakers at industry conferences, etc., but which is transmitted over the web. Normally the Internet is used for communication, often in combination with phone lines.

The participant sees slides or whatever the presenter wishes on his computer screen, while listening to the speaker. Most speakers in our field use PowerPoint or similar presentations. These can include live pointers on the screen, etc. Videos also can be shown, but require a good Internet connection to avoid jumpy, semi-legible movies. Participants can listen and talk to the presenter by dialing into a telephone line or directly on their computers (assuming they have a microphone and speakers/headphones) Participants also can ask questions by electronically “raising their hand” and typing questions with their keyboards, usually for verbal response. The webinar host must decide which of these communication methods to use.

The presenter and all participants can talk to each other freely, but because they are not in the same room, the usual problem of conference calls arises, in that confusion can reign if there is not an effective chairman, or if people are over enthusiastic.

Presenters can be at multiple locations. Generally one host, or chairman, must supervise the proceedings. That person introduces speakers, hands control to each, and manages questions.

PAPTAC has a series of about a dozen “Web Tech” courses, which are actually webinars focusing on pulp and paper industry issues. One example is “Theory and Practice of Papermaking,” which is analogous to courses PAPTAC has regularly presented in traditional form in the past. As a webinar, the course is presented in 10 two-hour sessions spread over five weeks. The fee for participation in this course in November was $225, but of course, the real cost (or savings) to participants is their time. Given the savings in travel time and cost, there is no comparison with the cost of staff members attending an equivalent, traditional three-day course in a central location.

PAPTAC organizers tell me that some mills organize groups of several students to join their seminars in one meeting room at the mill. This encourages participation and discussion and allows an in-house expert, such as the steam plant manager, to deal with site-specific issues, without that person requiring the time to prepare the whole course. Although PAPTAC is a Canadian organization, most of the courses it presents are relevant to U.S. and to many overseas mills.

Both PAPTAC and TAPPI run webinars on a variety of subjects, in addition to formal training courses. You can listen to a recording of a recent webinar at http://www.tappi.org/Events/Upcoming-Events/Virtual-Seminars/Webinars/renewable.aspx. Such a sample demonstrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of webinars.

About 130 people registered to join the webinar, and around 100 did so. The quality of the slides and the audio was excellent. Several people made presentations from their own offices, whereas it could have been very difficult to assemble these experts in one place for a face-to-face seminar. Thus, webinar technology offers the potential to gather preferred expert speakers together, since they do not have to travel.

One annoyance was that each time someone joined after the webinar started, a computer voice announced their arrival. Imagine that happening at a technical conference live presentation as attendees come and go. Of course, this function can be suppressed by the organizer of the webinar. Some attendees left their computer microphones open, so that noises in their office also joined the webinar audio, until the host asked people to mute microphones.

In the webinars I have joined, I have noticed that speakers seem more inclined to read their presentations, instead of speaking naturally, as they would at face-to-face conferences. Likewise, participants seemed more shy about asking questions than they are in live meetings. This might improve as webinars become more common.

These nuisances are partly a matter of everybody getting used to the etiquette of webinars, and becoming more relaxed with the technology.

Several systems are available for webinars, which can be used by anyone with the same level of knowledge as the average engineer in the industry today. Specialized IT knowledge is not required. Wikipedia lists about 40 suppliers of services, and a Google search returns a vast number. I would not begin to recommend one in particular.

PAPTAC has been using GoToMeeting successfully for some time. TAPPI has been using ReadyTalk. Both are easy to find with Google.

A reasonably good Internet connection and computer typical of those found in today’s offices are all that is required. Speakers and microphones in computers can be used, although a headset with a USB connected microphone is better. Chairmen and speakers should always use such equipment.

Costs of using the software and webinar services are paid by the host, and vary with the number of participants allowed. Services for an active webinar program will cost hundreds of dollar per year, perhaps a couple of thousand. This is very little relative to the value of the time speakers and participants put in, and to the travel costs saved.

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