A classroom is a place where all can learn, share experiences and, if applicable, sit and pass a professional exam. However, COVID-19 has changed our idea of ‘the classroom’, possibly forever.
Typically, I have been delivering software tester/test engineering training courses of between one and five days ‘in the classroom’ for over 20 years. Comfortable in that model, I’d evolved my style over time to recognise the different characteristics and learning styles of people in the classroom so that I could accommodate all-comers.
COVID changed the rules. We had to change our delivery method immediately, but still work within the same constraints. We had no time to re-design our course materials.
Changing to an online delivery model - the challenges
The problems we had to overcome in making the change to online teaching were, primarily:
- Gauging the body language of people attending virtual learning, which is more difficult than in the classroom.
- Maintaining student engagement and getting feedback from students when we cannot guarantee that we will be able to see them (watching body language is essential when classroom teaching).
- Managing the pacing of the course to include additional breaks (staring at a computer screen for extensive periods of time is extremely tiring).
- Replicating our classroom style of teaching (our training room has a big whiteboard for sketching out real-life examples and showing how to apply techniques in real-time).
- Facilitating set exercises, especially group exercises when not everyone is in the same room.
- Hoping the technology would hold up (especially network bandwidth).
How did it go?
With some creative thinking and the willingness of our students to participate and be flexible, we found that we could make the online format work with one key exception: online exams would be scheduled one to two working days after the last day of the course. This gave us the time to adjust our delivery pace and gave the students a little more exam preparation time.
Many of these challenges were overcome by exploiting screen sharing facilities and by encouraging the participants to ask questions. An important change was that the pace of delivery was relaxed to accommodate a more brokered style of discussion. Online group conversations are difficult to manage when you cannot see your fellow participants’ body language; it is easy to unintentionally talk over each other.
Maintaining student engagement and getting feedback - don’t count on the video feed
Even if the network bandwidth and technology is in place, not all students are comfortable sharing video, especially when studying from home. From the trainers’ perspective, seeing student faces on screen is not the same as having them in the room, as the key visual and non-verbal cues that indicate lack of engagement are picked up using our peripheral senses.
We have found that real-time audio is the most important tool to maintain engagement: by asking questions and waiting for answers (sometimes using silence is a powerful tool), we can get feedback and keep students engaged.
Managing the pacing of the course to include additional breaks
We use shorter, but more frequent breaks to allow participants a chance to get away from the screen. Allowing participants to interrupt the flow of delivery helps with feedback and engagement but consumes time; it is important to anticipate that we will not cover the same amount of material in each time frame, as we would achieve following a standard classroom timetable.
Plus, we must take into consideration that our participants are usually learning from home and are often juggling other things, so we need to be flexible. So far, the causes for additional ‘ad hoc’ breaks have included: responding to the doorbell; the next-door neighbour mowing the lawn outside the window; anything to do with children and misbehaving pets.
Using technology to replicate our classroom teaching style
This proved to be a ‘non-problem’. By using a digitising tablet and stylus or touch-screen computers, we can exploit virtual white boards. We use these to write on and respond to questions, ad-lib practical examples and generally markup whatever we can share on a screen to get the teaching point across to the student.
The flip chart and white board can be effectively replaced with their electronic counterpart and in fact extended, as we can create and pre-prepare multiple whiteboards if necessary. One of the useful features of the tools available in the virtual environment is that students can screen-grab anything from lectures and discussions, without having to make extensive handwritten notes.
Facilitating set exercises, especially group exercises
Group exercises are a big challenge and these forms of exercise cannot always be fully replicated in the virtual learning environment; especially for collaborative tasks, as the group dynamic is significantly different from the classroom. This is an area where lateral thinking can help, and exercises need to be creatively refactored in advance. Trainers need to think ahead, but also be ready to improvise; prior classroom delivery experience is invaluable in these situations.
Sometimes we have found that getting participants to share their screens with the class (but only on a voluntary basis) can be used to replicate some aspects of group working exercises.
Hoping the technology would hold up
The delivery platform we have been using has proven to be robust, but good network connectivity and adequate bandwidth are crucial - the two-way audio conversations are an essential aspect of the course. Even if we have got this sorted out at our end, there can always be potential problems at the participants’ end. However, we always provide a dial-in option for students whose VOIP is being problematic.
Other things that we have learned:
People are amazing
Every participant has shown a willingness to adapt, to bear with the niggles when the technology (or to be honest - usually the operator) has not gone as smoothly as we would have liked it to. They have shown great humour and have generally been supportive and flexible as we have all learned a new way of working together at such a stressful and uncertain time.
The training room does not look like it used to
It can be weird sitting at home with a set of monitors, headset and all the other paraphernalia, on our dining/kitchen table (we were all used to delivering training standing up - with a great big whiteboard and projection screen behind us).
One of our trainers’ households has developed a ‘silent routine’ which is in operation between 8:45 and 17:00 every day when the dining room is ‘on-air’. It is a similar challenge for all those participants who must find a space in which they can focus and concentrate. On reflection, we need to acknowledge and say thanks to all participants’ partners, families and co-habitants who have had to creep around the home while the training event is ongoing.
Over the past 12 months, uptake of virtual instructor-led training has steadily increased and while some participants have said that if they had a choice, their preference would be for classroom learning, the number who have begun to appreciate and prefer online learning has increased.
The feedback from participants tells us that virtual classes have been effective and a positive experience. Our satisfaction scores have remained consistently ‘excellent’ and exam results have been consistent with our pre-lockdown pass rates.
It will be interesting to see how things evolve as ‘normality’ starts to return. Although classroom training will return, it will not be the same as before, as online learning is here to stay. The main reasons that participants have given when expressing a preference for classroom training, is that they were better able to focus when there was a trainer ‘in front of the class’ and prefer to have paper manuals rather than electronic copies as they could mark them up during lessons.
To address these concerns, during September 2020, we delivered a few ‘dual mode’ training sessions, where classroom and online participants attended the same course. We retained the timeline and delivery approach of the online courses and classroom participants could see the same shared screen as the online students, but also be in the same room with the trainer using either paper or electronic manuals. In these sessions, we used the extended timelines of the online approach with the electronic whiteboards but allowed students in the classroom to use either paper manuals or their own laptops. These courses received positive feedback from both sets of participants.
We will continue to be positive-minded and flexible in evolving our approach to training delivery. One thing we have learned over the last 12 months, is that for every problem, there is always a solution out there somewhere and that nothing stands still. Let us see what next week has to offer…
About the author
John Young MBCS, is a principal trainer at TSG Training. He has extensive experience in the development and delivery of training and skills transfer solutions in the disciplines associated with software testing and quality with over 25 years’ experience in testing, project management, quality management, process improvement and training roles on both public sector and private sector projects.
John is a BCS and ISTQB accredited trainer and a member of the UKITB Technical Assurance Group.