For me, it was when I was in an empty room, talking to a chair (you can find the photo I shared momentarily on Linkedin below).
What was supposed to be a regular two-week data science training for a dutch bank, became an eye-opening realization for my colleagues and me at GoDataDriven — a consultancy helping large organizations take on world-renown data practices.
After two days of training as usual we had to switch to virtual instructor-led training.
What began with me looking at a camera, placed on a chair standing on a table, needed to evolve into something more professional. We needed to think quickly. Furthermore, the PyData Amsterdam committee and me had an annually planned 3-day conference coming up.
Bringing 300+ people together in an auditorium was not an option anymore.
In the beginning, it was a bit rough. But with experimentation and collaboration, we succeeded. We transformed GoDataDriven’s onsite training and PyData Amsterdam’s conference into an engaging and effective virtual learning experience.
In this blog post, you will learn 7 key learnings from my colleagues and me on transforming physical training and events into engaging virtual experiences.
Key Learning 1: Use the right technology
For programming training, I cannot stress enough how important it is to use the right tool. I highly recommend using a technology that eases the pain of debugging the installation on each participant’s computer – remotely!
There will always be installation errors due to the variety of computers your learners will use. You will always have people who do not have the right to install the required software. I’ve experienced this in the past with in-person training. And with virtual training, the nightmare only becomes worse with trying to solve these issues remotely.
This is why I am thrilled with the online IT learning platform, Instruqt. Now we have our content ready in the browser. The look and feel are similar to the usual development setup. You can spin up anything that fits in a Docker container.
The setup for our learners is incredibly easy. We provide them with a link that allows everybody to start an instance, and a minute later, everyone is up and running, ready to start the training.
At the PyData festival, some workshops struggled because of the setup. Experts had one and a half hours to do a workshop; time was precious. Sadly, some did not have the right learning tools to support quick access and set up for the audience.
Again, I cannot stress this enough! You do not want to debug each participant’s computer at the start of your workshop, especially not remotely.
Key Learning 2: Test your setup
We all know the golden rule for giving great presentations; always test if the projector works, have the right cables, and double-check if the PowerPoint is in the flow and structure. Too often, these simple things do not work, leaving you standing in a room full of engineers who can’t get PowerPoint to work.
Moving to virtual instructor-led training, now you do not need to test only your setup, but also the setup for your learners.
By doing presentations digitally, we need to ensure that it will work with everyone attending the training or event. The hard part is, it’s no longer possible to help others with their setup by directly looking over their shoulders.
It always has been important, but now even more: test your setup!
At the conference, it was impractical to test the setup with every attendee. We chose to go with Zoom as our video hosting tool, which made it very likely that most attendees already know how to use it.
I did test the setup beforehand with the speakers and walked them through the functionality.
The same applied when giving training. It might be impractical to test the setup with everyone. In that case, we at least check the setup with one person from the company to check if Teams or Zoom works.
Key Learning 3: Webcam on
Any teacher will tell you that communication is more than words. Body language is essential in understanding how an attendee is doing. If someone sighs loudly and miserably looks at their computer, it is doubtful that the assignment is going well.
The same goes for the other way around. I’ve attended presentations without seeing the presenter — a PowerPoint with a voice-over. It was terrible! It is essential to establish interaction during training. It is harder to create engagement virtually, but seeing someone’s face increases the chances of cooperation.
Put your webcam on, and do not forget to smile!
Key Learning 4: Take breaks
Everybody needs breaks, the trainer included! The first thing I noticed when giving training online is that it requires more energy and attention to look at a screen for hours. Especially for a trainer, who has ten floating heads on their screen and is trying to read their faces.
Take more breaks and take them regularly. At the GoDataDriven training, we decided to split up the training over more days. Now there is a morning and afternoon session for different groups. The added benefit here is that this allows the participants to internalize the content better. We do not need to block two or three consecutive days in everyone’s busy schedule. Those days are gone.
Key Learning 5: Give more guidance – before, during and after
The assignments given at a training should be clear and to the point for all participants. But I prefer assignments where students can provide more than one solution. Why?
There should be enough room to explore and think about what approach is needed to solve the problem. Getting this balance right is the difference between good and excellent training.
Moving to a virtual classroom, I immediately noticed that more (upfront) guidance, the better! For example, in a physical classroom, I usually could steer students in the right direction when they’ve stuck on a problem.
In an online classroom, you can not quietly walk around the room to peak over each student’s shoulders to see where they are in the assignment. You can ask each student to share their screen. However, this requires action from the students and is less anonymous.
In general: Provide your audience with more guidance before, during, and after the assignments. Because now it is more difficult for them to approach you.
At the PyData festival, we asked the host of the workshop to provide the students with some “homework” to look at afterward – not only assignments but also additional reading materials.
Key Learning 6: Switch learning formats
Classroom style training is old, more bluntly put, it’s outdated. Most of us are used to this way of learning, it can be a good option, but there are many more options you should explore. When moving to an online classroom format, this is the perfect opportunity to try something new!
Let me list a couple of examples.
At the PyData Festival, we had a mix of learning formats;
- talks (like a classroom, yes)
- discussion panels
- challenges with online leaderboard
- chat- and voice channels for communication
- open-source sprint including guidance from maintainers and prep sessions
We did not want the conference to be like watching live Youtube — “live” Youtube kinda defeats the point of YouTube. The same goes for online training. Why go through a slide deck/notebook all at the same time? Why focus on everyone doing the basic assignments at the same time?
Again, I will give a shout out to Instruqt, where people can work on the assignments themselves while being provided with all learning content. The group can come together to learn from each other or to collaborate on a mini-project.
Key Learning 7: Embrace the awkwardness
Besides the usual hick-ups with muted microphones and sometimes lag in video or voice, online video communication will be awkward from time to time. Try making a joke, especially when many people have their camera off. As a tutor, it feels like talking to a wall; sometimes, as a student, you can feel ignored.
My usual approach here is to meta-communicate about dead silences by asking the question, “Is everyone still on board?” Finally, I embrace the awkwardness!
I do not expect to never give in-person training anymore. Some forms of communication are not natural via computers. However, I do expect technologies to become even more prominent in the classroom. The question is which role do we like these technologies to fulfill.
Probably it will be a hybrid of in-person and virtual. In-person gatherings can be used for group activities like projects or sprints. Virtually, everybody can work at their own pace, whenever it fits their schedule and with asynchronous forms of communications to provide guidance.
A platform like Instruqt allows my colleagues and me to move some part of our training to an online learning portal, giving us more time at the in-person training for one-to-one guidance and group work. With the mentioned tips, I hope that switching to an online virtual learning space should go a bit smoother!
Cor is a consultant and trainer for GoDataDriven. His expertise lay in improving business processes with data.
With a background in physics and an MSc in data science, he is well-versed in a wide variety of tools and practices. Cor understands on a fundamental level the techniques that he applies. Simply put: Cor believes that actions lead to insights more often than insights lead to actions.
He just loves to automate solutions to turn your most daunting business challenges into a walk in the park.