Jolly Holden: Expert Insights Into Distance Learning and Webinars


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With COVID-19 leading to increased distance learning throughout the U.S. and world, the I-Connect007 editorial team spoke with Jolly Holden, Ed.D., who is an expert on distance learning (and also Happy Holden’s brother). They discuss what distant learning is, how to do it well, what not to do, differences between academic and job skills training, and much more.

In 1995, Jolly co-founded the Federal Government Distance Learning Association and currently serves as its executive director. Further, he has been a member of the Board of Directors of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA), where he has served continuously since 1996 as a past president and former chairman of the board; in 2001, he was inducted in the USDLA Hall of Fame. Jolly is also an Emeritus Industry Fellow to Ball State University’s Center for Information and Computer Sciences.

For the past 25 years, Jolly has been actively involved in researching and promoting distance learning throughout the federal government and corporate community. Currently, he is an associate professor in the School of Education, American InterContinental University, for its online Masters of Education (MEd) degree program in instructional design and technology, where he has taught for over 17 years.

Barry Matties: There are some real silver lining benefits being realized by many of the shelter-in-place orders throughout the U.S. and world. Distance learning is one of those. Kids are home from school, as are millions of others from the global workforce. Distance learning is your expertise, so we're seeking your advice.

Jolly Holden: It went from being a novelty to being acceptable by higher education to being the only choice you have for however long this lasts. In the state of Georgia, they dropped the term "online learning" and went to "remote learning" because much of the learning is not online. What I teach is 10% online; there are still textbooks students need to have, articles to read, and videos to download and watch.

Matties: What are your thoughts on live webinars?

Holden: People don't always have the time to attend a live chat or webinar. It's discretionary time, and people only have so much time for work, family, etc. What's left over, which is very little, may be set aside to study and learn something, but if they have to be there at that specific time, that puts a burden on the time management.

Research shows that there is no statistical difference between taking a live classroom or the lecture that's been recorded. Thus, what's the difference between a recorded lecture and a live lecture? One word: rewind. I can't rewind while an instructor is teaching in a classroom, but I can rewind when it's recorded. If I didn't get what they said, I can rewind and listen again.

That's not a new concept. In 1984, National Technological University—a consortium of 50 distinguished universities—offered 15 graduate engineering degrees, computer science, and project management, all at a distance. They did lots of studies and found the students working in an engineering environment or at an engineering company scored better than the in-class students. They were more mature and had an opportunity to discuss information with other engineers to get a better understanding of the topic.

Matties: We have always recommended using prerecorded webinars for a variety of reasons. The argument for live webinar is that you can run participant polls and have live Q and A. How do you address those concerns?

Holden: I recommend anticipating questions about complex statements or concepts, and then providing answers for them. If you’re recording a live webinar and only have so much time to share information, you can anticipate what questions are going to come up based on experience. Instead of explaining that when half of the audience, if not more, know the answer, move on. Provide a link to follow-up resources afterward; then they can read it in their own time.

When you're looking at live webinars and have lots of people, the person providing the webinar can't monitor the chatbox and present at the same time; they think they can, but they can't. We're not multi-taskers. Neuroscience has proved that we can't multi-task. They're going to miss a lot of questions, which leads to the audience saying, “You didn’t answer my question. Am I not important?” You can bypass that by directing them to an FAQ resource where you anticipate most all the questions. If you miss one, add it and include it after.

The problem with live webinars from a presenter standpoint is that even if people want it live, they don't know if it's live or not. The only difference if it's live is the presenter has the ability not only to ask a question but to have an answer for it. If you don't answer it, why do it live?

Matties: When you look at attention span for webinars or distance learning, what guidelines would you recommend for on-screen time in webinars?

Holden: People’s attention spans are all over the map—anywhere from one to three minutes. In the Air Force, when we had teleconferencing, I researched the impact of bandwidth on the video. I had some video people from the media center there assess the quality of the video, not thinking, “If the video is bad, this is going to affect my target audience, their perception, and whether or not they learned.”

To that point, I had a Ph.D. professor who explained neuroscience for 30 minutes, and it was fascinating, even though he was nothing more than a talking head. I started the bandwidth at 30 frames a second and got down to five frames per second. That’s pretty poor video quality, but the audience didn't pay attention to the video because he was so interesting. We heard everything he said.

When I was in General Electric, the chief learning officer, Dr. Steve Kerr, reported directly to Jack Welch. I had an hour-long teleconference. I had about 150 people there, and he was dynamic; he talked for an hour, and people didn’t have any questions at the end. Afterward, I asked the people what they thought of it, to which they responded, “It was highly interactive and engaging.” I responded, “What do you mean? You never asked a single question,” but they liked his personality and speaking presence.

From a learner perspective, the Q&A portion doesn’t make the difference; the quality of the speaker and their content knowledge does. It’s important to show that the presenter knows what they’re talking about because they're an expert in the field. Very little interaction goes on in webinars. Convenience is also important. Learners are very agile. Research out of the Air Force Academy found that 70% of the variability in learning was due to two factors: prior knowledge and intrinsic motivation. If you're motivated, those distance learners are going to learn.

That said, not all adults are that motivated, and they access courses out of convenience. With K–12 basically shut down right now, they have a technology problem. Many teachers are using Zoom and want to see the students, which has eaten up so much bandwidth. Many schools’ management systems can't handle it, and these video services can't handle the demand.

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