Even as stay at home orders relax, social distancing may continue to put a damper on classroom training. Class size and travel concerns impact people's decisions to attend. Luckily, virtual training has come a long way. I'm not talking about computer-based training (CBT) or on-demand self-study options. I'm talking about live, instructor-led, interactive, hands-on lab-based training via your own device and location.
Vendors have offered these training options for years. They use cloud-hosted lab environments and a combination of video, audio, and chat systems to connect the class. I've both taught and attended this type of training and seen the technology improve each year. I'll admit, for me, there is still nothing like being in the room with a full class. I find it easier to concentrate as a student absorbing the energy, and more natural as an instructor to adapt the delivery as I read the body language of my students. There are some things, however, that can help produce the same focus, energy, and advantages in a virtual environment.
1. Use your calendar effectively
When you plan to attend classroom training, you obtain the support of your team and management in terms of both budget and time away from your desk. Your family may to have to adjust to a different commute schedule or even a week out of town. Approach your virtual training schedule the same way. The live training you choose will have specified hours. Do you have the support of all your teams, both at work and at home, to be attentive to class? Like any class or meeting, block the time on your calendar, so other meetings are not scheduled in conflict. For any training that is a full day or more, I also set an out of office message so others know I am in training and may not respond immediately.
2. Explore nontraditional classroom hours
Red Hat virtual training typically schedules a four day (eight hours each) course across five shorter days (5.5 hours each) with a shorter lunch break. In North America, classes tend to start at 10 AM or 11 AM on the East Coast to not be too early for the West Coast students to join. Recently, Red Hat Training has added free and specially priced classes for those impacted by world events. Some of these sessions are spread across two weeks, with half-day meetings. The SANS Institute, which does intensive information security training, has been promoting new offerings for their one-week classes delivered virtually across one, three, or six weeks. A greater number of weeks usually means fewer hours per day but may also include fewer days per week. If you are scheduling a private class for your company or department, ask about alternate schedule options. If it is less disruptive to your business, it can even be worth a slight extra cost for the opportunity.
Most of these training sessions are delivered around the globe. I have had Europeans in my North American virtual classes, and I know of US instructors teaching overnight for Asia. If your schedule allows, you may want to check into options for classes outside your normal working hours. Be sure to verify trade laws and the language of instruction before booking.
3. Seek an ideal learning environment
When you attend a course in a classroom, that room is booked for you by the sponsor of the training. Even if it is an on-site class, someone else arranged for the room and the equipment. When you attend a virtual training, you need to find your own space and equipment. If you are in an open office floor plan area, you may need to schedule a small room where you can speak freely, frequently, and with fewer interruptions. At home, you may also have to schedule Internet bandwidth. Having others stream videos while I try to upload my screen-share on old copper wire DSL just does not work.
In the classroom setting, you are frequently provided with a dedicated system for the labs, and you also may have your own device for keeping notes or reading supplemental materials. In a virtual training environment, you use your own device and connect to cloud-hosted lab environments. You can still use multiple devices, but if you do not have that option, a second monitor can go a long way in making the learning environment more comfortable to manage. On one screen, I have the video conferencing system with the instructor's video or screen-share. On the other monitor, I have my connection to the lab environment and other resources.
4. For clear conversations, use a headset
You can get through a virtual class with just the speakers and microphone in your laptop, but conversations are much smoother and have less feedback if you use a headset. This is important enough that I have even seen one training company ship a headset to each student for virtual training. A headset with a boom mic is a low-cost option with decent sound. The most significant disruption is microphone feedback from the speaker, so a combination of earbuds and the computer microphone is also an option. Decide whether earbuds or an over-the-ear headset works best for you, then make the same investment in hardware that you would for a series of long conference calls with customers. Remember that wireless headsets and earbuds require batteries, and even rechargeable batteries require regular charging. Additionally, busy offices may have too many devices and interference for a stable Bluetooth connection.
As an instructor, I have invested in a bundle of gear, including a separate microphone designed more for live or recorded podcasts with an over the ear studio headset that includes a very long cable. I also own a lightweight, over-the-ear USB headset with a boom microphone. Even with those, when students are working on labs and during any other long breaks, I switch to the speakers on my monitor. Headsets can get uncomfortable after 6-8 hours of video conferencing. To ensure that I don't forget to switch back, I also keep the sound settings open on my system so that I am quickly reminded which output I am using as well as whether the microphone is hot or muted.
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5. Video boosts energy
The use of video throughout class can really help with focus. This is true for both your own learning focus and that of the entire class. Instructors adapt the pace, demos, and discussions based on the reactions of the students. This includes questions that are asked but also includes body language and facial expressions showing boredom or confusion. For students, seeing the faces of other learners makes the adventure more of a team or community event, with everyone working towards the same goal. Video sharing adds energy and focus to the distributed "room."
Be patient and willing to work with alternatives. Video is not always possible. Understand this and help make the alternatives work just as well. If enough people in the class have low bandwidth, uploading and downloading video can be more of a hindrance than an advantage to virtual training. If video is not a full-time option for your course, increase the community feel through the chat room and by unmuting student mics for audio questions and discussions. Video may still be possible for parts of the class. For example, during introductions, morning reviews, after long breaks, and for complex questions it may be better to enable video. Continue those discussions in the chat room by sharing links and asking and answering additional questions.
6. Take advantage of the power of online chat
Use all means of communication possible. Virtual training platforms include a chat feature. This resource is often not available for in-person, classroom training. A question can be posted in the chat to be answered later if it is not directly related to the topic being discussed. Questions and comments can be posted during a break, so they are not forgotten. Similarly, answers are then available to all students when everyone returns from the break. Additional links or example command-line syntax pasted into the chat are easily copied by other students that need the same information. This can be better than having to read your own handwriting from notes taken in a classroom.
7. Don't over work! Take breaks!
Just like in the classroom, ask for breaks when needed. They are often worked into lab time, but if the lecture runs long and a break is needed, post a request in the chat or unmute and ask for a few minutes to step away. This is another example where having video turned on helps the instructor anticipate the need for a break, and the distributed learning environment means that the students have to be more vocal in their needs to get the best experience. If you need an extra break, chances so does someone else.
Similarly, when the live session ends and class is over for the day - leave the room! For many classroom deliveries, the facility closes at the end of the day. If you choose to do additional studies at home or in the hotel, you do so on your own devices. For virtual training, the virtual classroom is available all hours from the first to the last day of the course. That by itself does not mean you have to stay connected all night.
Sometimes the schedule for virtual training includes some "homework" outside of live classes, but this is usually in combination with shorter live hours. Additionally, some students find overloaded home Internet connections slow things down, and catching up on labs later is less frustrating. While virtual environments let you adjust the schedule for your needs, be sure to set a schedule and stick to it. Do not just add more hours of study. The brain can only absorb so much information at once.
8. Missing a module happens, be proactive in catching up
Staying at home and working is not the same as work from home. Remote schooling is not the same as homeschooling. Virtual training, however, is often designed to mimic the classroom as much as possible. Like any training session, life goes on around you, and sometimes you have to step away. If you were in the classroom, an instructor would see you had been gone and see you working to catch up. They can check in and offer to help. In virtual training, the instructor might not notice you dropped off. If you are not sure what you missed, how far the class got while you were gone, or how to do a lab while catching up, ASK.
Connections drop. Other calls or meetings happen. The reasons are varied, but the details are not important to the class. Use the chat to ask where to pick up. A simple "I had to step away, what are we working on now?" can get you back on track quickly. Any student can answer with a page number or lab title. Review the material you missed then ask specific questions for clarification. Other students can also benefit from additional discussions in the group chat or an audio conversation with the instructor during the next break.
Wrap up and more resources
With today's world events, virtual training is more popular and more important than ever. I hope that these eight tips help you get the most out of your next training event! Meanwhile, here are some additional resources to check out
- Training and certification during COVID-19
- Red Hat certification exams go remote: a first look
- Virtual classrooms anywhere you are
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