Updated: Mar 31, 2020
"Hello? Is anyone out there?” I found myself asking while delivering one of my first live online classes. I’m having a “black hole syndrome” moment, and I’m panicked that I lost my connection and stranded my students. There are many reasons to launch a live online program, but how are you engaging students and ensuring they learn something?
Delivering live online learning requires two main tools to keep engagement high: a remote classroom, and a remote training environment.
A remote classroom tool presents the lecture part of the course and provides a way to communicate with students. Participants join the class and use either phone or computer (with VOIP) for audio. Depending on the software, students raise their hands, enter questions in the chat, enter breakout rooms, view a timer for breaks and labs, access course materials from the content library, and most importantly view the instructor’s screen.
Tools on the market include Zoom, Webex Training Center, Adobe Connect, and GoToTraining. Choose the tool that provides the functionality you need and connects with your existing platforms. Make sure you use the trainingversion of the tools, rather than the Webinar ones. Webinars are for presenting to large audiences, keeping the audience focused on the presenter, with the audience muted, and all communication through the chat. The training versions specialize in interactive learning and sharing within small groups. I prefer GoToTraining since it’s a simple and easy to use platform.
Remote Training Environment
Hands-on labs are a critical part of technical training, aiding student retention. While a live online session without labs provides some value, students don’t walk away with the hands-on experience they need to master your software. Research shows that time devoted to a hands-on experience, or doing, increases retention to 75% or more, so it’s important that your live online class isn’t just “show-and-tell.”
Originally, I had students load our software on their personal machines for the class labs. This was a disaster. Invariably, several students couldn’t install the software or hadn’t even started the download before class start, so class delays were normal. Next, I created virtual machines for students to download before course start, but the images were so large that it wasn’t a viable solution for students to download.
Instead, leveraging a remote training environment ensures the focus is on the students and their learning. Students log into environments through their browsers, with everything installed and set up for the labs. This includes training data, sample files, applications, or other tools needed for the labs. For example for a developer class, you might have your own software as well as Eclipse installed for coding required during the labs.
There are many ways to provide remote training environments, including Amazon Web Services, Katacoda, virtual machines, instances of your SaaS software, as well as vendors specific to the education space. Vendors include Skytap, Readytech, Cloudshare, and Hatsize, each with different pricing models and approaches.
For a live online classroom to be engaging and successful, it’s important for the instructor to view and access the student environments. Because of this, I prefer using applications specifically built for our world of training. I used ReadyTech for several years, because I can pay as I go, scaling up and down as demand for classes changes. The instructor view of the student environments provides full functionality to view, control, and even re-image each environment. Picking a vendor depends on your resources and budget. For example, while options like AWS are cheaper, they take internal resources to spin up and down the environments before and after each class. If your tool doesn’t provide the instructor view, then passing presenter rights to each student in your remote classroom tools is a workable approach, but it’s not as seamless using a tool built for training.
Engagement Best Practices
The main concern with live online training is, of course, the potential for students to do other things during class. However, even in a classroom, we easily check emails, texts, and shop online instead of paying attention to the instructor, so there isn’t a big difference between the two approaches. Treat your live online class as a small interactive classroom, and use the same best practices for classroom training.
Keep the instructor/student ratio to 1:10 - 20 for best results; bring in a moderator or co-teacher for larger classes. Remember, these aren’t Webinars. Have the instructor arrive early to greet the students as they arrive and get to know them. Take the time to have everyone introduce themselves, sharing where they are from, and what their expectations for the class are. Encourage folks to use cameras just during the introductions; since videos take up a lot of bandwidth there’s no need to have them on throughout the course. Encourage participants to ask questions over the audio, just like in a classroom setting, and not just hide out in chat.
Using your remote classroom software polls and quizzes functions throughout the class is a great way to keep students engaged. Instructors should also make sure they use a good headset, and ideally hardwired into the internet to keep a strong connection.
Other best practices include taking regular breaks and using the timer tool to let students know exactly when to return. Online classes can be more intense and tiring then in person, so deliver classes over half days, and multi-day classes over multiple half-days. This benefits both the students and the instructors. Students don’t have to completely check out of work for several days so they can engage more during class, and instructors deliver separate courses each half day. Everyone benefits from clear guidelines and checklists, so provide overviews for both students and instructors so they know exactly what to expect and how to prepare.
Effective live online training takes the right tools and just a little extra effort to keep customers engaged and adopting your products.
This article originally appeared on the Learndot blog on February 14, 2017.