By Llewellyn Falco and Clare Macrae.
Here is what we learned about how to do effective online training, to help you run better courses yourselves, or to help you choose better courses to attend.
TL;DR: Take advantage of being able to spread classes out over time. When meeting virtually, don’t pretend that you can replicate what you do at in-person training. You will need to scale back and make accommodations for the added problems of remote training.
See it for yourself at our November 2020 class “Testing Legacy C++ Code effectively with Approval Tests”
Over the last 6 months, we have been intensively learning how to create online training with a similar level of quality to in-person training. In this post, we share what we’ve learned so far.
Note: Skills vs knowledge. There are multiple types of training: many are focussed on transferring knowledge. But we believe that one of the big advantages of training is the ability to transfer skills. Teaching skills requires a lot of hands-on work from the participants. This is a different, and slower, process, but the one we are talking about today.
Benefits over in-person training
Fortunately, there are some advantages to online training, which can make them better than in-person courses. Let’s start with the positive.
Multiple Shorter Time Slots
If you remember back in school, we didn’t do a week of arithmetic, followed by a week of literature, followed by a week of physical education, followed by a week of art. This is by design. Humans learn better by doing a little bit every day. Part of this is how much we can learn in a given day, but the other part has to do with the need for periods of rest in between. Time in-between is where we can absorb and incorporate those skills into our being. Remember, exercise does not build muscles, it destroys muscles. It’s the rest afterwards where the muscles rebuild.
Spreading out a course of short periods on multiple days is never done during in-person training courses, because these typically involve the time and costs of hotels and planes. So instead we batch-up into a full day or a full week, with 8 to 40 hours of training. Sometimes we try to spin that as a good thing, with a title like “Boot Camp”.
We have found that, rather than teaching an 8-hour class in a single day, it is better to teach an 8-hour class, split up into 2 hours per week over 4 weeks. This yields much better results for the students. It not only gives them more time to absorb the information, and revisit it if needed. More importantly, they get to try out these skills during their normal activities.
Other bonuses are that it also makes it easier to maintain focus for the entire session, and even makes it easier to deal with time-zones. (I can easily wake up early for 2 hours every Monday without it disrupting my entire week. If I have to wake up early every day, my entire week is shot.)
This is true for both attendees and instructors.
There are lots of benefits to homework, in deepening an understanding. Unfortunately, it is not practical to assign homework after an 8 hour day, that has to be completed by the next day.
With short, weekly sessions, homework is now practical, useful and accessible.
We have found these useful types of homework:
- Repeat the exercises that we did in class, to make sure that you can understand them, and get them working on your own computer.
- Homework that expands your absorption, such as actively trying to use the techniques you are learning, in your day-to-day work.
- Supplemental reading and videos. Use this sparingly.
You cannot make homework essential, so we do not try to introduce new concepts via homework. This means that if a concept is introduced in supplemental reading or a video, we will always re-introduce the concept in class, as though it is the first time students are seeing it. This is important to not disadvantage students who don’t have the extra time to spare.
A powerful motivation for doing this week’s homework is the fact that other students did last week’s homework. Be aware that even with very motivated people, some will still not do the homework because other important things took priority. So you do not want to shame anyone for not doing the homework, but at the same time, you want to make visible that the other students are. We have found this to be a better motivator than your instructor telling you to do your homework or grading the homework.
To this end, these are the things that make it easier for the homework to be done:
- End each session with a clear and consistent assignment. It’s easier to do something if it’s clear what you have to do.
- Begin each session with a check-in, where the students can see that (usually) the majority of the other students are doing the homework.
Of course it’s not all better. We have found some serious constraints when running online courses.
The need for video
One of the things we noticed is, as an instructor you are often helping people to accomplish tasks. Without video it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between “I’m not doing something because I have no idea where to start” and “I’m right at the edge, ready to jump, and i just need a little bit of encouragement to move”. These are huge extremes, and how you help an individual student at these moments greatly depends on where they are.
We have found it to be so important that we have made video a requirement for attending our courses.
Protocol: At the beginning of each course we state that, if for any reason you need to step away from your computer, that is OK. Simply turn off your camera and mute your mic, and we will assume that you are out of the room.
While it is possible to run a lab with 20, 30 or sometimes 40 people in a room, we have found it very difficult to handle class sizes greater than 12 online. The issue here is the inability to split the instructor’s attention. If you put people into break-out rooms, you are effectively blind to everyone, or blind to everyone else but those in the room you are in. If you keep them all in the same room, you can’t do small-group work. This is not the case in the real world, where you can see the whole room, and the tables can just focus on themselves. Some of this can be mitigated by having an extra person co-facilitate, but this also complicates things. You need to have smaller classes.
Have backup options
“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” (Murphy). Things go wrong all the time, even at in person events. But I’ve never been in a physical class where I just disappeared. Online, I have.
You can lose the internet, your computer can die, you can be region-blocked, the student’s computer and internet can die, servers and services can go down. What do you do when this happens?
The best advice we have is to have backup options. Two instructors means one of you can lose the internet (if you make the other one a co-host). Having multiple channels of communication (Google docs, email, Zoom, remote-desktop to shared computer) not only means that you have a way to communicate when something goes wrong, but also makes it easier to figure out what went wrong, when the inevitable happens. Also have a second internet connection (usually a phone).
Backup options don’t work if they are not set up and tested. We have found that we need to make a checklist of things to do before we start each class. There are usually only 4 or 5 items, and we usually won’t remember to do all of them without the checklist.
Allow time on both sides
In the real world, many instructors and students arrive early to the room, and sometimes they hang around after the class has finished. But because of the ability to instantly teleport into a Zoom call, we have a tendency to start an 11am call at 11am, and to book a 12 o’clock call right after. From the instructor’s point of view, we recommend that you open the call 10-15 minutes early, to allow people to arrive at leisure, and to ensure you can start on time. Also, clear your schedule for another 30-45 minutes after the class, to you to allow questions and discussion with students.
We also recommend that our students don’t book anything for 30-60 minutes after the class. This isn’t so that they can have discussions with us (although that’s a benefit). It’s because they’re tired after the class, and they need a break before jumping into whatever their next thing is.
An advantage of the real world is that while you are in class, the rest of your life is out-of-sight and out-of-mind. This is not true in the virtual world. The cognitive load we all feel from the rest of our household weighs on us, and we need small releases at regular intervals. For example, it is easier to tell a child “wait 10 minutes and I can take care of it” than “wait 2 hours”. We recommend a 5-10 minute break every hour, without fail.
When we are running breaks, we usually display a count-down timer in a web browser, so everyone knows when to return. Just Google “5 minute timer”.
Need for Activity
You are simply not as charismatic and engaging on video as you are in person. Remote calls need more activities, and shorter periods of you talking. This is good advice for skill-based training anyway, but is 10 times important when training remotely. We suggest breaking things down into small exercises, that you can start almost immediately. We try to use frequent changes in how the students are interacting, to introduce variety and hold engagement.
Not Seeking Volunteers
Asking for volunteers tends to unintentionally exclude a fair amount of your class, and you may find one or two voices tend to dominate. This is true in-person, but it’s significantly worse in virtual classes, where it is easier to hide, and harder to jump in.
We suggest using systematic methods of selection. For example:
- Rotate in order: from a list
- Randomly select: the key here is make the random selector visible. For example, assign everybody a number, and use an online random-number generator.
- Mechanistic selection: break into groups of two, and the person with the shortest name will go first, and then you will rotate.
- Call on people who have not yet contributed.
Requirements and Geographic Locations
It’s easy to think that now we are virtual, anyone from anywhere can attend a course. But this is not always true. Many software products and web sites are blocked or not available to certain geographical areas. Our best suggestion is to have a very clear list of requirements to attend the course, and let the attendees determine it for themselves.
For example, our current course lists this at the top:
To attend this course, you will need to be able to use the following:
- Zoom, with a microphone and camera.
- Google Docs
- Basic understanding of C++ (creating strings, creating call functions, variable, loops, etc…)
Cloud-hosting and AWS
Having people work on virtual environments in the cloud is a huge help, for remote training. This is not as doable for in-person training, as reliable internet is not something that you can count on at a conference, but is something that you have to rely on, for people to attend a course virtually. To learn more about this, check out “How to setup a Windows AWS EC2 instance for remote mobbing and pairing”
See for yourself
If you would like to experience how we are doing virtual training yourself, you can always sign up for our November 2020 class “Testing Legacy C++ Code effectively with Approval Tests”