COVID-19 turned the world we knew upside down. It affected many people, countries, and industries. Among others, the life of a trainer has changed a lot too. In the new reality, where everyone works from home, it is impossible to organize regular face-to-face training for engineers. The only solution for many of us was to add live online training to our offer.
Initially, most of the trainers and engineers did not have much experience with this form of training delivery, but with time we learned and got better in it. The world pushes hard now to "unfreeze" after a long period of isolation and to return to full production bandwidth. However, it seems that remote work for many IT corporations will remain a popular option for many months, or even years, to come. This is why we can expect that live online training will stay with us for a longer time. In this post, I would like to share what I learned in this subject through the last months. I will also refer to the outcome from the feedback I got from online training participants in a post-training questionnaire.
Online training is not that scary at all
First of all, do not get discouraged. The online form of training does not mean it is a worse experience for anyone, both the trainer and the audience. According to the received feedback, the students are happy with this form of delivery. Most of them (66%) rated the online experience to be the same good as in the case of a traditional training. The majority of the rest (25%) was even slightly inclined to prefer an online form of delivery, and only a few stated that it is a bit worse.
Among others, the preference for an online form of delivery might be caused by the fact that we like to try out something new and play with cool toys. It turns out that an online training might be full of gadgets. The online meeting platforms like Zoom provide breakout rooms, polls, whiteboards, non-verbal feedback buttons, virtual backgrounds, and more. If needed, you can also support the training with additional collaboration tools like Miro. It is hard to get bored with such a broad range of toys in your hand. A good trainer will use them to entertain the audience and keep students engaged through the training.
5 points to provide a great user experience
In the poll I run after the online training, among others, I ask two questions about the user experience. First is the question about how important is the look-and-feel of the online training. On one side of the scale is the "don't care" option, which states that the most important thing is to have good material and an experienced trainer. The other side of the scale says that the delivery means have to be of high-quality and entertaining. 75% of the answers bend towards the funny side.
In the second question, the poll explicitly asks which online training features are the most critical factors of the user experience.
The most popular is always a high-quality trainer's audio (>90%). If students do not hear or understand you because of the poor quality sound, the online training can't be successful.
The second-rated item (75%) is the usage of breakout rooms, which allow splitting students into smaller groups for the time of workshops and practical exercises. In a group of 2-4 people, they are more effective comparing to working alone and do not get stuck in case of problems that easily. Additionally, a small number of breakout rooms allow the trainer to be in touch and provide help to everyone, as it is impossible to provide remote support to all students independently.
The third on the list (58%) are polls, which are an excellent way to break the monotony of a long theoretical part of the material. They are also one of the most significant benefits compared to the traditional training where the discussion in the room sometimes gets dominated by a few, often the most experienced engineers. Those tend to provide most of the answers, while the rest just nod their heads, and sometimes it is not clear if they knew the answer by themselves. With anonymous polls that have to be filled by every student in the class, a trainer can get immediate feedback on how well everyone understood a specific topic.
It might be surprising, but the trainer's camera video quality comes only in fourth place (33%). It can be caused by the fact that for most of the training we share the screen with slides, webpage, or an online compiler. Many engineers at their homes don't have external monitors and attend the training on their laptops. For them, the trainer's camera feed is only a small icon in the corner of the screen. However, if someone has a second monitor, the experience can be exactly the opposite. With Zoom, it is possible to display a shared screen on the primary monitor while the other one can contain a gallery of all the participants' camera feeds or a large speaker's view. In such a case, a good quality trainer's video is expected.
It is essential to mention that having the camera turned on is not expected only from the trainer. Having it on also by all the students is another critical aspect of improving the user experience. First, it gets more entertaining to see the faces of your friends. Second, it allows trainers to monitor how students react to the things they say. Third but not least, it improves communication. In a group of 10 or more people attending an online training, it is hard to conduct discussion without interrupting each other. Seeing other people's reactions helps a lot here. Thanks to this, we can immediately notice when someone wants to tell something and give that person a chance to speak without collisions. However, from mine and other trainers' experience, it is hard to convince everyone to have a camera turned on. Do not be disappointed if only 30-50% will comply here. Be proactive and use every chance to communicate the importance of turning the camera on by all the participants. Encouraging students to play with virtual backgrounds helps here. Be creative! For example, you can announce the competition for the best virtual background of the training. ;-)
The fifth factor (25%) in increasing the user experience is the usage of non-verbal communication buttons. People can raise a virtual hand when they want to interrupt someone and speak. The same hand button can be used to notify the trainer that they are back from a break (especially when the camera is turned off). "Yes"/"No" buttons can be used to answer the questions asked by the trainer. "Go slower" is useful to notify the trainer that the subject is not clear and demands a better explanation. With an "away" button, students can communicate that something important happened at home so they have to leave their computer for a while (again relevant when the camera is turned off). Such usage of non-verbal feedback buttons should be communicated by the trainer at the very beginning of the training when the training contract is being established.
To be continued...
In this article, we learned that online training can be perceived as the same or even better user experience by the students than the traditional one. In the next part, I will share some insights on the hardware setup needed to achieve such results, as well as some logistics requirements and constraints that are unique to the online form of delivery.