Online Overload

More than a decade ago, my friend and colleague Bo Morton and I created an online grants class.  The class, which is offered through a large online class provider  is very much of its time—all text and no moving parts. In its heyday, we had over a hundred students in each section (new sections open monthly), and based on student comments, the course was well liked.  But things change, and text-based courses are no longer so popular.  Our students now number in the twenties per section, and quite a few of them find the presentation boring.  They want visuals, videos, sound and excitement.  The ones who flourish tend to be somewhat older, less inclined to look for distraction when they are trying to learn.

The students we are not getting are largely those who have discovered the wealth of webinars, seminars, podcasts, videocasts offered on the web—much of it free.

Daily, I get notified of this webinar, that free presentation, this one that isn’t but is a “Must!”  I feel overwhelmed by the marketing.  It’s beyond me to even consider taking advantage of all this bounty.  When I do, however, I am often dismayed.  It’s rarely information they are providing, but rather services and/or products that they are pitching.  New-age infomercials.  And when there is rich content, the bells and whistles often obscure the information rather than enhance.

Part of the problem is that the time and effort seems to be put into the slides (for webinars) or the production of visuals; much less into the writing of the script and even less into the performance.  I have dozed through most of the webinars I’ve attended, discovering early on that the droning voice was merely reading what was up on screen.

We’ve all heard of death by PowerPoint—but really it is worse when you are alone with your monitor without the other people in the room to lend energy.  I tended to drift toward my email client and do that.  I use the past tense because I have for the most part given up on “attending” webinars, though I do occasionally present them.  When I do, I try to make them interactive—asking for feedback, questions, comments—anything to get some sort of communal learning going.  And I don’t read from my slides.

But with all that information that is offered, I sometimes wonder when anyone does the work.  I give (face-to-face) a “One-Person Development Office” workshop.  So far no one has copped to “professional development” as one of the barriers to actually going out and fundraising, but it’s a question I may have to begin to ask.

Dating myself here, I remember when listservs first came on the scene.  At the beginning, they seemed to provide a wealth of information and a terrific forum for sharing.  But soon, the questions got repetitive and the responders dwindled to a vociferous few.  Interestingly, all the industry specific listservs I trolled would feature the same names over and over—and I wondered how they got anything else done.

Social media is replicating that.  I get told from colleagues if only I would tweet regularly, I would have thousands of followers.  To what end? I ask.  I already blog and have a newsletter (sign up here), but to do the rest correctly would mean shortchanging something in my life—and I’m not willing to do that to my clients (or my husband).

I had started down this path because of 10 emails I had received, 4 were about webinars; two were free, one was not and one I would have had to clicked through to register to find out.  I did look up the people presenting these and was not surprised to find that only two of them had any real world experience in the field in which they were purporting to be experts.  There’s a lot of that in consulting, also.

And then, as so often happens when I write, I started being pulled in several similar but different directions.

The joy of blogging is that one doesn’t always have to make a particular point or wrap it all up nicely.  So today, I won’t.  But I would be interested in your thoughts on all these online courses.

I have to confess that for me, the value of the many conferences I attended when I worked on staff was the people I met and the relationships I built.  Some of the sessions were really good; many were mediocre.  Some—we won’t go there because I am notorious for walking out when something doesn’t please me.  But I did always get an idea or two, got jazzed to revisit something I had forgotten all about and to this day still count as colleagues (and mentors!) people I met at conferences.  I just don’t think you get that online.

So do share your thoughts; tell me what you love/hate about online courses, and if they’ve replaced conferences and face-to-face trainings for you.


Janet Levine works with nonprofit organizations, helping them to wrap their development programs up nicely and profitably.  She also is a regular trainer at the Center for Nonprofit Management in Los Angeles and offers workshops less regularly in other venues.  Find out more at