Virtual training in the age of COVID-19

In this article, I'll try to condense my experience over the last few years (and especially the last few months) in delivering IT training remotely—the good, the bad, and the downright ugly—into some tips and tricks. I'll also have some suggestions for learners on how to get the maximum value from this type of training. Finally, I'll look at the future of (IT) training and how we can all adapt to the "new normal."

As a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT), I've been exceptionally lucky over the last few months, delivering virtual training remotely from my home office. Microsoft made a big push to help people get certified on Azure and provided several training options and vouchers to help IT admins stuck at home all over the world to do something productive with their time (those that weren't working overtime to keep their businesses IT systems afloat—remotely). I was part of the team doing the delivery.

As a learner ^

There's no doubt that classroom training is the best way to learn IT. The expert trainer, the group dynamic, and the focus you give the topics for eight hours a day, plus hands-on labs to work through, immerse you more than any other learning experience.

It's also true that even BC (Before COVIC), this was a dwindling luxury, with fewer and fewer businesses willing to pay for the training itself, accommodation, and travel, as well as the loss of productivity from that staff member for the duration of the training. Today, in most countries in the world, Instructor-Led Training (ILT) is going to be impossible given the restrictions that have arisen due to the pandemic.

The rapid change in cloud technologies also limits the usefulness of ILT. In a world where you deployed the new server OS and then used it for the next 5+ years, it made sense to train staff on it as part of the overall project. In the cloud, where things change every few weeks, small, bite-sized, just-in-time training experiences are much more appropriate.

Some tips for getting the most out of online training are to set aside the time—turn off email, Discord, Facebook Messenger and other notifications, and set your phone to Silent (just like you would in a classroom). Do a bit of reading/watching videos ahead—that'll help you ask in-depth questions. During the actual training, don't be tempted to check email or catch up on messages. Focus on the material and try to be as active as possible (I find that handwriting notes during lectures works for me—even if I never look at the notes again) by asking questions and thinking, "How would this apply to my workplace?"

Immerse yourself in the technology. For instance, if it's Microsoft 365, get yourself a trial tenant so that you can explore outside the prescribed paths in the labs provided. Ask the trainer for more resources (podcasts, Twitter sources, YouTube channels, and blogs); after all, the trainer doesn't have magical powers, so they must have learned what they know using various methods. Find out what these methods are and use them.

Know your preferred learning style. Some people absorb knowledge and skills best by reading and others by listening or watching. But most people also need a hands-on component to really cement the new skills.

Interactivity ^

One of the most important tools any trainer has in a classroom is interactivity—the ability to generate interest, energy, and questions from the attendees by asking questions such as, "What happens if I shut down this cluster node?" Or, "How would you apply this technology to your business?" Or even, "Do you understand this concept?" Read everyone's body language, even if they don't speak up. Likewise, the students can see the trainer and his body language—his enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for the technology and his energy and passion makes the class more engaging.

When I'm sitting, alone in my home office, talking to myself, looking at a screen with a list of names, that tool is gone and man—it makes it more difficult. But there are ways, such as modulating my voice to communicate the coolness of a particular technology, or bringing in real-world experience. "Data loss prevention alerts in Outlook—last week, a staff member at one of my clients emailed a list of internal passwords to the wrong external recipient…"

The second thing is to involve the audience as much as possible, through polls, asking yes/no questions or more open-ended questions, that they can answer in a chat tool (or verbally) and then taking those questions and expanding upon them in the training.

This depends on the applications that are used to deliver the training. I've had different setups where attendees could unmute and ask verbal questions as well as type questions and answers (and even turn their video on/share their own screen), others where they could only type answers (that other attendees couldn't see), and still others where there was just delivery.

As you can imagine, the less interactivity provided in the application, the more the training goes from an interactive learning experience that the learner participates in to a lecture that they listen to. And there's no doubt that the latter doesn't lead to good retention of the material.

How live is live? ^

I do my best teaching when I'm "in the moment," responding to student questions and things that are happening when I'm doing live demos. Of course, it's important to prepare and know the material, but the more scripted the delivery is, the less effective it is, in my experience.

Over the last few years, I've delivered live training with the students listening to my voice (and sometimes seeing my video, but I tend to turn that off pretty early in the piece as it's a bit of a distraction). I've used PowerPoint decks mixed with demos, with the students able to both talk and type to me and others. This works remarkably well as a training experience.

I've also made prerecorded videos, sometimes called simul–live. I've found these very challenging, first because of the pressure of producing the videos. Because they're not live, you now theoretically have unlimited time to get them just right. It's almost the same pressure as producing a Pluralsight course from a quality point of view, definitely not "in the moment" training. Second, if you think it's hard being enthusiastic and passionate about a topic delivering it live without seeing your audience, try creating it when there's literally no one listening and asking questions.

These videos are then broadcast "live" (sometimes informing the attendees that they're pre-recorded and sometimes not). As the trainer, I'm available to type chat answers to questions throughout the video. For me, this type of delivery has been very difficult to produce, with less favorable outcomes for the learners.

Another key to great training outcomes is including hands-on labs for the learners. An ideal schedule is a bit of presentation/demos, perhaps for 30–45 minutes, followed by lab time where the learners apply what they've just seen to get the hands-on experience, then a short break and back to more theory/demos, and so forth. It's important to realize that people's attention spans are shorter in online training than in the classroom and that as a trainer, you can't gauge this like you can in a classroom, since you can't see the students.

Applications and hardware ^

A few years back, I invested in a Blue Yeti microphone and it's served me very well, based on all the hours it's been capturing my voice. If you're going to record or deliver live training, getting a decent microphone and a quiet room are the most important steps.

As for applications, it's mostly dictated by who you're doing the work for. I've used Microsoft Teams for delivery. It's good and improving steadily, and the ability to run polls as you're teaching really helps.

I've also used Teamclass, basically a layer on top of Teams, to do a live delivery. This prevented attendees from talking back, and they were limited to chat, with a 10–20 second delay from them typing until it showed up in my Teams client—again, limiting interactivity somewhat.

I've also used On24, which is an OK platform. It used to rely heavily on Flash but recently provides HTML5 compatibility for the post-Adobe Flash world. Zoom isn't a bad option for delivering training either.

My ideal training delivery application (I haven't seen it yet) would enable students to chat among themselves (both publicly and privately), just like they would in a real classroom. Also, they should be able to ask the teacher a question publicly as well as privately. If a student were stuck in a lab, they could press a button and I could see their screen and assist them (this works today in Teams, where you can make an attendee a presenter and they can then share their screen, but it's far from a single click). And while I'm dreaming, I'd also like to include Virtual Reality (VR) and especially Augmented Reality (AR)—with everyone's avatar (showing each person's facial expressions and body language) in a virtual classroom that we all share.

I've also used Microsoft Whiteboard, a free app for Windows and iOS, where you can share a digital whiteboard and even have participants draw alongside you in the application. While this seems like a minor use case, the ability to quickly draw a network diagram based on a student question both provides excellent interactivity and brings another traditional tool from a physical classroom into the virtual experience.

Microsoft Whiteboard

Microsoft Whiteboard

The future ^

William Gibson's old saying, "The future is already here, it's not just very evenly distributed," doesn't apply very well to the current situation worldwide. Nearly everyone has been or is still in some form of lockdown and figuring out how to work and study remotely. When things go back to "normal," many businesses will be much more open to having staff working and learning from home. It saves on office costs and travel, and wastes less time.

One of my clients, a small school with about 90 students, had been on the fence about adopting Teams. That decision was quickly changed to "we have to" within a few days. It worked remarkably well, given the skills of the teachers and the students. I think remote learning in schools will be enhanced by the pandemic and the experience both students and teachers will have gained.

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4 Comments
  1. Allan Weaver 4 months ago

    I can't think of anything more disruptive in a classroom than students chatting amongst themselves - especially privately.

    I never was allowed to do that when I was being  taught any subject, and while I never taught computer subjects officially, I did not allow it when I taught unofficially.

     

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  2. Author

    Hi Allan, 
    Interesting observation, I think it depends on what's happening at the time. If I'm presenting and conveying theory information, yes I agree with you. But there are many times in modern learning when it's less about "the lecture" and more about facilitating exploration and learning by the students themselves. And certainly in this part of a learning experience (in a physical classroom) I do want the learners to interact amongst themselves, many times students have experience and skills to contribute to the overall learning and I'd like to replicate that experience in a virtual classroom. 

    Hope that makes sense,

    Paul

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  3. Thanks for your interesting article. In the last few months I have attended several online courses and webinars and I agree on interactivity and audience engagement. These concepts are a great way to make training interesting and keep the focus on the lesson, just like classroom training.

    Another point is the impact of the lockdown on IT, it has certainly increased the demand for online training for many IT people and not oly. It has proven that it is easely possible to effectively distribute remotely knowledge to many IT people.

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  4. Allan Weaver 4 months ago

    I suppose it depends on whether the student is paying for the training or their employer is paying.  I was in the former group, but students in the latter group tend to be better behaved and be more likely to follow the teacher's expectations to explore and put out ideas.  They would not want their bad behaviour to be passed on to their employer.

    I used to become angry when other students disrupted the class, since I was paying most of the time, and I looked on the course as wasted hard-earned money.

    I do want to thank you for the article/post.  It is a refreshing change from the hard-core tech articles.

     

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