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Four Tips for Transforming an Instructor-led Class to Virtual Classroom Delivery

portrait of Chris Scadden

September 10, 2020
By Chris Scadden
Head of Training

As head of customer training for Infinera, I have two options during the Covid-19 pandemic. One is to accept the cancellations and postponements, sit back and wait for the pandemic to blow over, and then schedule classes when customers are ready. The other option is to be proactive, recognize problems, and figure out a way to mitigate them. Let me first give you a warning: this is not an overnight solution – it takes time, resources, and a bottoms-up overhaul of all content. Here are my four tips:

Be aware that virtual training is not the same as remote training

Remote training can often end up being a one-way broadcast by the instructor. The danger is that there is little interaction from the students and the experience will be boring and easily forgettable, with the students retaining little, if any, of the information relevant to the objectives of the class, resulting in a poor outcome.

Good instructors are masters at building rapport with their students. They build trust in the classroom and an environment where students can ask questions freely. The instructor can then gauge students’ understanding of the topics and work with them to spend time to ensure their knowledge and comprehension. How easy is it for a student to ask questions or raise concerns in a remote class? If no thought has been given to transferring a class to a virtual format, then these things are the most difficult to achieve and the easiest to forget about.

Training in the classroom is not a one-way street – there should be practical exercises for students to complete and opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge. A remote class has every chance that these activities will be dropped without proper planning, which is a key difference between remote and virtual training, as virtual should still facilitate exercises.

The difference between remote and virtual is huge.

Use the right technology

In my training portfolio, we have classes that teach how to use proprietary software to manage networks. This requires students to download and install the client software on their laptops and log into our labs via a VPN connection. This becomes an issue if students do not have admin rights to do these things.

This is the easy part to fix. Cloud-based desktops, or desktops as a service (DaaS), are available, and we have made everything accessible on them so that the student simply logs into them remotely to find all the relevant software, documentation, notes, etc. on there in advance. It saves them time by not having to install anything before a class or fix any issues in day one of a class.

The pay-as-you-go pricing model of DaaS is attractive to me, but there are other compelling reasons which mean that I may now put my network management servers in the cloud too. The biggest is reliability – knowing that the cloud provider has seamless redundancy of my servers. The other reason is cost. Servers are expensive and need software updates and hardware upgrades.

Virtual training needs to use the right classroom environment software for the students and instructor to engage with each other efficiently. Whatever software is used, it should facilitate some basic requirements. Yes, as in a remote session, the students should be able to hear the instructor and see their presentation.

But as stated, a good class is more than this. Users should be able to see a whiteboard easily for those concepts that require it. Can you see the instructor’s face? It will help build rapport. Can the students share their webcams if they want to? A lot of time is spent by the instructor looking at the student’s laptop screens to see where they went wrong on a particular task on the graphical user interface (GUI) – can the instructor easily see this? Can a student ask a question easily?

One really important feature that I have insisted on is something called “break-out rooms.” This enables two or more students to work together on an activity in the class so that they can talk easily, share screens, and collaborate. You can’t have the whole class talking simultaneously over a single Skype call! This means the instructor can pop in and out of the different break-out rooms to assist, answer questions, and check up to ensure the comprehension of each student and that they complete the objectives successfully.

Invest time and energy in redesigning the course

Now for the difficult part: a practical course that is usually delivered in a live instructor-led class cannot simply be transferred as it is to a virtual class. A live class has the instructor there with the students to deal with any issues and adapt as needed as they progress through the class. In a virtual environment, issues become much bigger challenges and are magnified considerably. Also, how do you enable a student to perform a practical task such as plugging in a module during a node commissioning?

The answer is to redesign the course. It’s not easy. It’s not quick. The course redesign has to consider every single student exercise that has to be done – and this is something else that sets apart virtual training from remote training. Virtual training should include all the same exercises and interactions of students.

All student exercises have to be carefully planned out so that each student gets to complete them. The exercise must be explicitly detailed in the session plan so that there is flow to the class and students are not left with nothing to do. We have planned it so that even though a student cannot physically plug in a new module, the instructor can make the module appear in the GUI at the right moment so that the student can continue with the commissioning and configure the module – in the breakout room of course. Learning objectives are defined by knowledge of the commissioning process and what happens when and why rather than the simple act of physically pushing in a module or a fiber connector in isolation.

The session plan must include all the timings and exercise details to ensure continuity so all students are kept engaged through the course and don’t have any home office distractions in this virtual environment.

Realize the benefits

Apart from reasons stated why “virtual” is advantageous over “remote,” there are additional benefits to why I would like to virtual training to be the default option going forward. The cost of sending students to a training center for a customer can be very high – thousands of dollars for flights and hotels for a week. Virtual training can achieve the same objectives in a time when people are wary of travel. Customers could sign up for more classes if the travel costs have been eliminated, resulting in a better trained, upskilled work force.

Virtual training allows me to have a more focused, dedicated team of instructors that are not regionally bound. Instead, instructors can be located anywhere in the world. I also have the opportunity to drop in subject matter experts much more easily for added value. It doesn’t matter if the optical expert is in Chicago or if the Layer 3 expert is in Helsinki, they can join a virtual class easily. It’s a win-win situation for all the stakeholders.

My aim is to have virtual classes as the default option for customers. It won’t entirely eliminate the need for a live instructor-led event for those ad-hoc bespoke classes, but it will address the “new normal” and mitigate any further lockdowns and second waves in the future.

Tags: Innovation