Back in August, I called for volunteers to help me experiment with online training. Many folks expressed interest in what I’m trying to do. So I thought I’d write a little status report.
First, let me summarize what I’m trying to accomplish.
Over the years I have received several inquiries asking if I have online versions of my instructor-led testing classes available. I always say “no.” That’s because my classes are interactive, collaborative, and experiential. Participants don’t just do exercises. They take on roles in simulations, play with toys, work in small groups on realistic testing problems, and generate ideas in big group brainstorms. A typical webinar structure doesn’t even come close to supporting that style of training.
But these days virtual collaboration solutions do much more than just let a presenter display slides and talk. So I began to wonder…maybe the technology is finally ready to support the kind of training I do?
I started by defining what I would really need in a virtual classroom, given that I want my online classes to feel as interactive and spontaneous as in real-space. And that means the following:
- Supports at least 6 and preferably 10 or more people connecting from around the world.
- Supports Firefox and Mac seamlessly. (IE-only solutions need not apply.)
- Has integrated VoIP so there’s no phone line needed, and no need to make international phone calls.
- Has integrated video that allows participants to see each other, all at once, in realtime.
- Allows for multiple simultaneous speakers so the conversation can flow at least as smoothly as on a telephone call (no “pass the microphone” metaphor).
- Allows participants to drive a shared browser so they can collaborate on web-based exercises, such as testing a web app.
- Allows participants to capture their individual insights and contribute ideas in a shared workspace, visible to all, in text and drawings.
And of course the performance and reliability has to be at an acceptable level. I don’t know how to quantify what constitutes “acceptable.” But I do know that every time I have to say “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. The sound dropped out. Could you repeat what you said?” I’m going to get progressively grumpier. Ultimately my intent would be to offer commercial public classes online, and I can’t ask people to pay for classes when they can only hear 50% of the conversation.
So to figure out if the technology was ready for prime time, I held a series experiments. Many were small, involving just me and one other person. Two were larger experiments with six and five people respectively (including me).
The results were mixed. I’m still cautiously optimistic, but not completely convinced the technology is ready for this kind of usage.
In each of the two big experiments – held on two different virtual meeting solutions – the sequence of events was remarkably similar:
- Got everyone connected. That involved a lot of rounds of “Can you hear me now?” and “I can’t see you!” and “How do I…?”
- Discovered that the VoIP audio was flaking out, and took steps to throttle back on the video bandwidth in an attempt to correct the problem.
- Did a round of introductions.
- Did an online version of a short exercise that I use in real classroom settings.
- Debriefed the exercise.
- Debriefed the overall experience.
So far, the lessons I’ve learned include…
Have Two Machines
As the meeting leader, I find it incredibly useful to be logged into the meeting twice, once as Host, and once as a normal participant. This ensures that I see what the participants see. And it gives me a safety net so that if one machine is experiencing technical difficulties, I have another way to connect with participants.
The Webcams Are Important
When I started this process, I wondered if webcams were actually necessary or if they were gold-plating. I discovered that the webcams are essential to create the kind of collaborative atmosphere I want to create. As one of the participants in the first experiment put it: being able to see the other people created a bond. Amazing how a 1″x1″ 1-frame-per-second-stop-motion-animation of a person contributes so much to forging a connection.
Let Participants Type
In the first experiment I ran with other people, I did the same things I do in a classroom setting. So when I shared the web page with the exercise we were going to work through together as a group, I drove, just as I would if I were projecting the exercise onto a screen at the front of the room. And when we debriefed the exercise, I typed. Finally one of the participants said, “Wait a minute…we all have keyboards, so why are you the only one typing?” Doh! Of course! That’s why the whiteboard is a shared resource: so everyone can contribute insights without having me act as a scribe. It’s why I wanted a shared collaborative space to begin with. Silly me! I was too accustomed to the physical constraints of laptops and projectors and pens and flipcharts.
So I made the participants type more in the second experiment, and I think the results were better. (Not perfect, but better.) I will continue to find ways to ensure all participants have the opportunity to drive and type. I think that this is actually one way in which a virtual venue could be MORE effective than a real classroom.
Watch the Momentum
In the real world when I run extended exercises, the participants tend to have a fair amount of momentum. My problem usually isn’t keeping the participants engaged in the work, but getting them to stop. In a virtual context, I have observed that the discussion seems to grind to a halt much more easily. I’m not sure why yet. But it’s something I need to watch and find ways to address.
Keep the Group Small
Initially I thought I might be able to handle groups of up to a dozen people in a virtual setting. Now I’m thinking eight. It takes more effort and attention than I’d originally imagined to ensure that everyone is participating and engaged, to keep track of who’s saying what, and to monitor the technology to make sure all is well. Also, I think there are still issues with scaling the number of participants, and even eight might push the limits of the technology too much. Maybe six is the right number.
Moving forward, I need to:
- Make the whole experience smoother. That means I need to become much more familiar with all the options and controls so everything is second nature (no more “Now where was that menu option…?”). I think that some of the awkwardness the group felt in the sessions had more to do with my blunders than with real limitations in the technology. So I need to spend more time rehearsing.
- Hold a separate one-on-one session with each participant to check their audio and visual and practice the mechanics of using the technology in advance of the actual session. And that means developing a set of good and preferably relevant-to-the-topic Getting Started one-on-one exercises.
- Experiment with different exercise structures to see if some are better for keeping the momentum going than others. Also experiment with overall course structures. My in-person classes have a blend of individual, small group, and big group work, but emphasize working in groups. I suspect the optimal balance for online training is different. So I plan to experiment with incorporating more self-paced individual work done in preparation for the interactive online sessions.
But before I get too far ahead of myself, I have to decide how much (more) time and money I want to invest in this endeavor. To do that, I need two vital pieces of information:
- Can the technology really and truly do what I need it to do? My experiments to date have been promising but inconclusive. So in the next few weeks I’ll be running one more big experiment to test performance and audio/video quality with more people. If you’re interested in participating, watch this space for details…
- Will anyone pay money for it if I can make it work? So far I’ve been much more focused on the question “Is it possible?” than on the question “Does anyone want it?” But I need to assess interest. And you can help. If you would be interested in seeing my company offer online experiential training as a for-pay service, drop a note in the comments or send me an email. (No obligation. No sales person will call. I will not add you to my mail list unless you ask me to. Your feedback just helps me decide if there’s enough public interest to pursue this.)
Oh, and if you have additional questions or comments, feel free to drop a note in the comments about those too!