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Running Courses In Covid Times April 23, 2021

Posted by mwidlake in Uncategorized.
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I’ve been running courses in I.T. on and off for my whole career – which is getting to be quite a long time now. It’s probably 30 years since I ran my first course, teaching hospital staff how to use the patient administration software I helped to develop.  Of all the things I do, running training courses is probably the part I have enjoyed the most. But it is also the task I find most demanding & draining. Doing so remotely, as is the only option in Covid times, is something I find even more of a challenge. For two whole months this year I ran a course a week, all remote. Below, I’ll explain why I find remote tutoring harder and a few things you can try to make it work a little better.

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It’s much harder than a conference presentation

I think anyone who was ever taught classes (let alone been a real teacher!) would agree that, until you do it, it’s hard to appreciate the emotional & mental energy it takes – even if you are teaching a topic you know inside out, upside down & back to front. If you’ve presented at a conference or similar, you know how much that can take out of you. Doing a course for a day is like doing a dozen such presentations. Yes, a day’s teaching is probably only 5 or 6 times as much presenting time as a 45-60 minute talk, but it’s the lack of recovery that makes it so much harder. Pretty much anyone can walk  4 or 5 miles. Running it takes some dedication but it’s not too hard to build up the fitness and stamina. Doing a Marathon? Totally different proposition. I really, really respect people who can teach all day, every day for 5 days, then do it the next week, and just keep doing it week after week, year after year.


It’s that lack of Interaction

OK, so I’m saying teaching is hard and you may or may not agree, but why do I say it is so much harder remotely? Because being remote and communicating through a screen removes 90% of the interaction between myself as the presenter and the delegates.

When I am stood in front of 12 varied human beings talking to them about how indexes work, if I am doing it the way I like to do it, there is a constant two way flow. I don’t mean they are talking back to me (although that is great and it does happen more face-to-face) it’s more I can get a feel for if the delegates are understanding the topic, if most of them already know this, is anyone lost.. have I just said something that does not make sense? That’s a good example actually, the power of detecting you just lost some of the audience. Often when I have taught people there will be someone (or someones) who’s first language is not English or they did not grow up in the UK, so if I use a colloquialism or make a reference to popular or historical culture, they may not get it. We all do this all the time, we assume that if we make a humorous reference back to a kids’ program then everyone will get it. Which they do if they grew up in your country, even usually if it was 2 decades later! I’ve tried to coach myself to not do this, but then sometimes these cultural references back to something outside the course material that most of us share helps us all relax and get on. So making the references are generally good – but you have to catch when it fails and “mop up”. Real, physical interaction makes this easier.

With a physical course I can judge if someone is not understanding and I do not need to ask “Phil, do you need me to explain that again?”. I simply would not do it that directly in a physical course, it is putting Phil on the spot. I’ll see Phil is perplexed and I’ll explain to the whole class again and watch Phil to see his reaction. With remote training, that feedback and how you handle it is greatly reduced.

The other part of physical courses is that when you have a coffee break or stop for lunch, you are usually all spending time around the terrible coffee & nasty sandwiches provided and you chat – like normal human beings! It’s a lot easier to communicate with people if you have some rapport with them and those breaks are vital to that rapport. Again, it all goes when you teach remotely. As soon as you break for a 15 minute loo-and-refreshment opportunity all screens & microphones that were on are off. I’ve tried staying at my desk, seeing if anyone else stays to chat, but it almost never happens. Besides, eventually I need to nip off for a pee, make a cup of tea and stroke the cat and if I’m talking to someone 1:1 they can take umbrage at this! When you are stood in a group in a physical room chatting, no one minds when I run off for for 4 mins.

I learnt early that anecdotes, especially if they make me look like an idiot, really help oil the wheels of social interaction – and will prompt at least some of the delegates to reply with their own. And I also scatter in some anecdotes that could be classed as bragging, but I am “the trainer” and it helps if they feel I am someone who knows their stuff via actual experience and I have done things for real and not just learnt training material or read stuff.

But hopefully you get the point. Physical presence allows the trainer and delegates to communicate and the trainer to control the flow of information. 

What are the delegates actually doing?

The other downside of remote training is loss of control. With remote training the delegates can do what they want – and most of them think I won’t notice. Of course I bloody well notice!

Of course, it is up to me to make the course as engaging and informative as I can and I do try, but sometimes it’s hard to make some of the necessary material “zing”. I’m sorry, understanding Oracle object statistics is just fundamentally dull, but you cannot understands how to do SQL performance tuning without that knowledge. It’s natural for people to drift off a little during dull-but-necessary bits.

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When I have bodies in a room, I can tell very, very quickly if someone is reading email or surfing the web. In such a situation I’ll try to use subtle communication to stop this – looking at them, making a non-specific comment about “you get the most out of training…” or even asking them a direct question, as if I picked someone at random.  If I have the control, I’ll make it harder for people to goof off during the course – I do recognise it can start as something people do “just for a minute” or to check something they are responsible for, but it’s opening the door to distraction.

Fundamentally, If you are in my course, someone has paid for you to be on the course. And you either asked to be on the course or it was deemed appropriate for you to be on the course – deemed by your management/employer who is paying for *me* to be giving the course and for *you* to suffer it! Frankly, I don’t care if you do not turn up at all – but if you turn up, blank sessions & then ask questions that you would know the answer to if you had been engaged, you are now not just wasting your time (and the money paid by your employer) but also damaging the worth of the course to those who want to learn. I’ll have to take time out I could spend on the other delegates to drag you back up to speed.  People like that f**k me off. Sorry

I have kicked people off my courses if I feel they are detrimental to everyone else, but I’ll maybe talk about that at another time. The key things is, in a remote situation I loose a lot of my ability to spot people drifting off or address it.

So what can you do to improve remote training?

1 – you need interaction

The first thing is to encourage (and then if necessary insist) people have webcams on. You do not need *everyone* to have their webcam on – but I sure as hell now know that if no one has a webcam on it makes you feel like you are presenting to a brick wall. It kills the flow. Many people just don’t want their camera on (some people working from home barely wash or dress, some do intend to goof off and so do not want to be seen doing so, and one or two have become really self-conscious as 8 months in reach of endless biscuits and no hairdresser has had an impact). A mistake I made at the start was not encouraging more cameras on.

Ask questions of them. It can feel a little trite and sometimes no one wants to answer questions like “what do you think will happen if…” but you have to do so and then wait them out, until someone answers! Even better, get a few discussions going. It does not really have to be about the course material, but of course it helps if there is some relation to it.

As I said, no one seems to hang around during breaks or lunch. And some bugger is always late. So alternate between having a little chat for the first five minutes of the next session (about  *anything* – “My cat has just thrown up”) to get that interaction going, and starting the material dead on time when the next session is starting, to discourage tardiness. If someone is repeatedly late I stop answering if they ask a question on what they missed.

2 – pretend your web cam is a friend

Most people (including myself) can start to talk in a fast, dull monotone when there is no feedback. And you talk at what you are presenting, the screen with your slides or demo on. It’s not an engaging way to present. One thing I don’t think works (counter-intuitively)  is to put the presentation on the screen your web cam is built into or attached to.  It’s not like a TV camera, the web cam is right up to you. You might think you look like you are looking into the web cam but you are not, you look like you are staring at the chest of your delegates (if they are in front of their screens). You are presenting in a dull, boring monotone, staring at their chest.

So talk TO the web cam. Look at it, train yourself to present to that black dot. And imagine you are explaining this to a mate in the pub. I did wonder about putting a picture of someone I find attractive above the camera to remind me to look at it, but no one wants to see the presenter drool. When you are describing what is on the screen, it’s OK to look at *your* screen, not at all at the web cam, because the delegates are looking at their screen. But when the focus is not what is on the screen, turn to the webcam, to your mate in the pub.

After 2 or 3 hours of this with no real feedback, your own energy levels will probably drop, no matter how hard you try. Fluctuation in tone, willingness to make little jokes & asides, it all dies off – and your presentation style becomes dull, flat, and (frankly) shit. After 3 or 4 days? Awful. This is another part of why you need feedback. I in effect ended up presenting to those who kept their web cams on or were asking questions. On each course I managed to get at least one person to turn on a camera and I gave THEM the course. The others? Well, yeah, they were there I suppose, but I gave the course to Michael or Cali.

And visual feedback is way better than aural. I would rather have people on mute but visible than people I can hear and not see. Apologies to the blind community, but I sure as hell get more out of visual feedback to sound. With sound there are times when all anyone can hear is someone breathing hard into the mic, someone having a coughing fit, someone eating a packet of crisps. A discussion with a partner about the bins, another about why in hell do we have no milk it was your turn to buy milk…. And, sometimes, sound I think I never need to know the source of, but it should have been muted, OK?

3 – Short days, lots of breaks.

An 8 hour day of training in the flesh is hard work – and that is when you have little breaks when you all go over to the refreshments, or queue for the loo, and chat. 8 hours on Zoom or whatever, as many of us have learned this last year, is a destroyer of souls and any will to keep breathing. When I agreed to do these course I said right up front that it would be done in half-day chunks, I’d learnt the hard way that more than one day of solid remote learning is unpleasant for everyone.

One of the courses was a 3-day course, so we had to do 4 half days and a final full day. But we did not, I made sure we edged a little further into the material each day than I had planned and, except for one week, I was able to make that last, full day shorter. The odd thing was, even though I did end the material early on Friday, most people stayed around after to discuss a few things or would listen to a slightly off-topic, undemanding, final session. 

A BIG mistake I made on the first course was thinking we could trim the coffee/tea breaks as there were not going to be issues with the loos (well, not ones I could do anything about!) and everyone had their own source of drinks and snacks. It was a “three-day” course and I was trying to get a little ahead so we could shorten the Friday. So we had 5, 10 minute breaks –  bad move. It’s mentally more demanding to take in information via remote training I think, people needed the breaks. If anything, I ended up in later courses giving the delegates longer breaks than we would have a training room. 

4 – Don’t give them Anything!

If I was on a remote training course and I had been sent the materials, I know what I would be tempted to do… Especially if, like is nearly always the case, you have more work to do than you can get done.

I made it very, very clear that they would get all the slides and that there were lots of words to explain the diagrams I tried to mostly talked around. But not until after the course. So they had to listen or goof off. If I’d given them the slides, most of them would have just goofed off!

I mostly sent the course notes at the end of the week but a couple of times I sent them at the end of the day. This was usually as someone was forced to skip a session and they asked for the notes to catch up. I generally take a very dim view of people skipping sessions on a course, I design the course with a flow of information that grows and builds over the days, but we live in weird times. Some people were juggling childcare, relatives, stuff simply going wrong.

On the topic of course materials… Don’t you hate it when bullet points appear on the screen one-by-one? It usually makes for a relatively poor presentation. But when remote training and you want to slow down the rate of information you are delivering or make points clearly, they can come back into their own – IF you don’t over-do it. People are concentrating on the screen way more than in a normal presentation, when you the presenter are a main feature, so the point-by-pointy method is more suitable. (A friend did point me at some software that would overlay my image over my slides so I could “present” as normal, but I would have had to re-jig a lot of slides for that and it was an added complexity I wanted to avoid. Maybe next time).

If you can, concentrate on images and diagrams, especially if you can animate them. Even something simple and cartoon-like gives a bit more, well, animation! More visual stimulus and something you can talk around is better than text. You still have the wordy slides, but they are more for the delegates to refer back to or to quickly remind me of things I need to cover.

5 – Odds & Sods

I kind of touched on this earlier, but up the human, interactive side as much as you can. Banter. I do this in physical course too, but it really helped with the remote sessions when I got it to happen. Someone is usually OK for a bit of mild mickey-taking. If you say something self-derogatory people will often join in and you go from there. I also try and tell a few more anecdotes and they sometimes prompt one of the delegates to reciprocate. The more conversational flow you can generate the more people are willing to both listen and speak up.

Do keep track of the anecdotes, especially if you are running a course multiple times. I do have specific points in the course where an anecdote highlights a point, others are more “on a whim”. I remember being a delegate on a course about 28 years ago and the instructor, a very entertaining chap, told quite a few little stories. I noticed that after doing one he would often make a note or something on his paper pad. I asked him about this at a break and he explained that, as he ran training courses pretty much every week, he lost track of which stories he had told. So he made a little note of each one.

Get the delegates to ask as many questions as you can, almost beg them to – and always been keen to answer them immediately, even if you know you’ll cover the point later in the course. It’s good interaction, encourages more questions to be asked, and there is a reason they asked that question then. If it is something that is not covered later in the course, the next version of the course may well have a new slide on it!

My only exception is if someone asks a question about a part of the course I knew they goofed off from or they were late for the start of. I’ll probably answer the first one or two and make the point we covered this, and then I’ll say we don’t have time. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll answer the same stupid question 3 or 4 times if the person is just not getting it, but I don’t condone people skipping parts of the course by re-iterating what they chose to miss. I give the course to people who want to learn.

Numbers. Have fewer delegates on the course than you would in the flesh. With a web cast, a single presentation at an audience, the more people listening the better. The communication is one way. But a training course is actually nothing like that, not if it is a good course. You need to be able to interact in all the ways I have described, and it is harder to do that remotely, and the whole process is just so much more draining via screens & microphones. I had to really kick back on this one initially and I am glad I did. I had delegates numbers from 4 to 12. When there was more than 8 of them, I had to give up on keeping tabs on all of them and those weeks left me shattered. I can handle 12 in a room no problem, but I think 6-8 is the ideal for a remote, interactive course.






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