Continuing my series on less talked-about web conferencing features, we take a look at white board functionality. As is common in this business, terminology is inexact and people use the same words to describe different things, so let's all get on the same page.
If your webinar product relies exclusively on screen sharing to display content (GoToWebinar and Zoom are examples), you are unlikely to see a separate "white board" functionality broken out. Instead, you may have annotation tools that let you mark up whatever is being shown to the participants. A few vendors refer to this as their white board.
* TIP: You can press the W key while in PowerPoint slide show mode to blank out the current slide and show a white screen. Make your own white board at any time!
Other products have a white board mode that is distinct from slide annotations. These white boards may contain additional functionality such as:
- The ability to "flip pages" to capture and review successive screens of white board markings
- The ability to show the white board at the same time as other content such as slides
- The ability to let breakout groups create their own white boards and then rejoin the master conference to share them with everyone
- The ability to let hosts or participants save or print white board pages
- The ability to grant drawing control to specific attendees or all participants in a web conference
There is one more use of the term that is less common… Some companies market physical white boards that hang on a wall in a conference room. As people draw on the board (with specialized pens or finger touches), the images are electronically converted to online annotations that can be shared with remote conference participants and captured for later review.
I previously wrote a couple of posts going into excruciating detail about annotation tools. You may want to review Part One and Part Two in order to get a better understanding of how products approach the idea of drawing markups. That is not the focus of this post.
Instead, I want to examine the purpose and use of a virtual white board in a web conference. I recently put out a request on Twitter asking people about their use of white boards in webinars. Responses ranged from "Never" and "Prohibited in our company" to "It's too clunky to be practical" to "Very effective" and "We use it all the time!"
I asked a few respondents to share more specifics. One thing I found interesting was that quite a few people indicated white boards were used extensively or primarily for group brainstorming. In many cases, the only annotation being done was textual. I can't help but feel that this could be accomplished more effectively if vendors created tools built specifically for the use case. ON24 offers an example with their "Idea Widget." It lets participants type ideas, comment on other people's submissions, and rank entries. This could get past the perception of "clunkiness" when trying to use a graphical tool to manipulate text elements. It also eliminates the learning curve when participants try to figure out the annotation tools given to them.
Others mentioned the usefulness of being able to sketch a graphical concept and solicit comments and suggestions allowing incremental refinement. A development team working on a new user interface might want to illustrate their ideas.
An Adobe Connect user said that they break training classes into smaller groups for interactive exercises using Connect's breakout rooms. Each small team can work together using their own white board to share ideas. Then their team's consensus can be shared with the full class when the breakouts rejoin the main conference.
One person brought up the use of white boards to help create hand-drawn graphics to support a talk, in the style popularized by the Khan Academy. Professional educators are used to writing on chalkboards or white boards as they speak, but for many of us, it is hard to multi-task between writing and talking in real time. I would definitely recommend using an externally-connected tablet and stylus for this purpose, rather than trying to do extensive drawing with a mouse moving a pointer on your computer screen. I think this technique is more effective for recordings, where you can speed up the drawing tasks so they match a fast and smooth speaking pace.
I once attended a public webinar with a hundred people or so in attendance. The presenter opened up a white board and gave drawing permission to the entire audience. There wasn't much point to the exercise… It was mostly a way to encourage active participation and we didn't take away any new concepts. I must admit that I shuddered a bit. Fortunately nobody experimented by drawing crude representations of genitalia on the screen, but it was still a mess of overlapping lines and colors. As with any other presentation or interaction tool, there should be a reason to use it in the context of your talk or meeting. Bringing in technology elements "because they are cool" is an invitation to distract from your message and waste your audience's time.
I think there is an opportunity for better development and implementation in many conferencing products when it comes to white boards. Vendors should pay more attention to the use case of brainstorming and group development. Allow a mix of graphical elements and text that is actually treated as text. Maybe something along the lines of Adobe PDF with its review-mode ability to place comment boxes next to elements. Add more upvoting and ranking capabilities. Make sure to include functionality to drag elements around the screen for easy visual re-ranking.
I think there is also a case to be made for a simple "guest drawing" mode that allows people to add contributions without seeing a confusing menu of annotation options, while permitting power users to access additional options if they are comfortable with them.
If you are in the "never use white boards" camp, you might want to see if there are use cases you hadn't considered, where it could benefit communication and interaction in a specific situation. White boards are not a necessity for every user or every web meeting, but there is no doubt that they can offer additional flexibility and power if implemented well and managed effectively.