Lessons from Hosting Online Training Events

As everyone who is involved in teaching and training knows, the past few months have been hard. We all had to make changes to accommodate working from home and adopting online teaching methods. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, I used to conduct all my training in-person. Either hosting it at a training center or at a client location. My materials, structure and instruction style was tuned to this setup. I was skeptical whether the experience of a classroom can be replicated – even partially – online.

Over the past 2 months, I have conducted numerous online training sessions. All my courses have been moved to a ‘live’ online class and even started offering short-format classes. I did a lot of research, talked to other trainers and spent a considerable effort in trying to make this transition. I thought sharing some of the lessons and best practices here will help fellow educators.

Course Structure

I used to offer ‘full-day’ 8-hour or ‘full-weekend’ 16-hour workshops. These wouldn’t work online in the same format.

  • Staring at a computer and being focused for 8-hours is very difficult.
  • With everyone being home and having child-care/household responsibility means it is difficult to set aside a full day for learning.

Given these, I settled on a format where I split the full-day workshops into 2 sessions of 4-hour each – offered on the weekend. Multi-day workshops were split into 2 courses. This required a little bit of re-work where I had to redesign the exercises and instruction to split nicely into 2 separate sessions. So far it has worked well and feedback has been positive.

For some learners, even 4-hours is too long. The sweet-spot of online learning seems to be bite-sized classes of 1-2 hours long. I also started offering new short classes. These are formatted as 1 hour of live lecture with 30 minutes of Q&A. I designed new courses that fit this mode of instruction and will continue to offer a mix of both.

Takeaway: Keep the sessions short. Limit each session to 4 hours.

Course Experience

A clear feedback from my past in-person classes was that the participant value the informal discussions, networking and knowledge sharing as much as the formal course. This is hardest to replicate online. But the following helps

  • We take 2 breaks during a 4-hour session. I encourage informal discussions and questions during this time.
  • Some participants who got stuck in exercises or wanted more information, use this time to catch up.
  • If anyone is willing, I encourage some participants to share some of their work or their current projects.

I personally learn a lot from these interactions and benefit from different perspectives. But more importantly, it helps break the ice and make the participants more willing to interrupt and ask for help when they get stuck – which is super important in a virtual setting.

Takeaway: Take plenty of breaks. Encourage informal discussions and questions un-related to the curriculum.

Technology

I tried Google Meet, Zoom and Townscript for live-streaming and interactive online classes. Finally settled on Zoom – mainly because it works really well in low-bandwidth and offers a lot of features that allows me to be effective in teaching.

Regardless of the platform you choose, there is a chance that you will face tech issues during the call. Some people may be new to the platform and may not be able to get their audio/video to work. Or they may not know how to use all the features effectively. One practice that has really helped me is that I setup an optional test session 1-day prior to the class. This has been a life-saver. Every test session – there is someone who needs additional help with their setup. I spent 30 minutes helping a Linux user install Zoom (hint: apt-get install -f fixed the dependency issue) and helped another participant with missing video issues. Doing this before the workshop means that we do not spend even a single minute during the workshop on tech issues. It reduces stress for everyone and we can focus on the materials at hand.

Since my classes are hands-on, I am in the screen-sharing mode for most of the class. One feature that really helps me are the video overlays. While teaching, it is super useful to have the visual cues from the participant if they are able to follow the instructions. Zoom offers Multiple video layout options while in screen-sharing mode and also a side-by-side view. I tried another platform that did not have this and I felt totally lost while teaching.

Takeaway: Invite the participants for an optional test session 1-day prior. So you do not waste any time during the class on tech issues.

Communication

Being online, I have participants from across the globe and multiple time zones. Each training requires a lot of information to be shared – class schedule, course material, login details, certificates, follow-ups etc. One practice that has helped me a lot is to adopt a single source of information for each class. I setup a private page on my site with all the information related to the class. Anytime there is an update or a correction – I direct people to this page. I resist the urge to split up across multiple sources. No separate calendar invites or emails with attachments. I also use the same page to document Q&A and any follow-ups. This has helped me stay organized and we haven’t had any communication issues in any of the workshops.

Here’s my template for a class page. Feel free to copy/adapt it for your class.

Takeaway: Keep all information related to the class at a central location and keep it up-to-date.

That’s all for now. I’ll keep revisiting this post periodically and update with new experiences.

UPDATE: Andrew Cutts, another GIS and Remote Sensing trainer shared his experiences. Interestingly, we both arrived at eerily similar themes for best practices 🙂 Do check out his blog post for some additional insights.

Do you conduct classes online? Or did you attend an online class which was especially good? Would love to hear your insights. Please share them in the comments.

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