Taking the Classroom Online

An effective, ‘at-home’ whiteboard solution needn’t be complex. A simple set-up is all, using a phone, held above a piece of paper (use books, boxes, or a stand to adjust the height of the phone). A lamp ensures the paper is lit sufficiently to be seen on a screen.

Taking the Classroom Online

Author: Alex Chabot-Leclerc, Ph.D., Vice President, Digital Transformation

COVID-19 Has Made the Decision 

COVID-19 and its associated physical distancing measures have forced all education and commercial training programs worldwide online. It is fair to say the majority of ‘training hours’ were already taking place online, whether they’re synchronous (live) or on-demand, and whether they’re done in group or independently. However, when it comes to in-person (classroom) versus online, not all topics are the same.

Certain topics are better learned from classroom training, with some hard-to-reproduce benefits, for example live feedback, collaborative problem solving, networking, and a shared experience.

For training in Python, and scientific software development in general, Enthought has always preferred the classroom option, having tried the alternative. Forced to make the change, we have adapted our programs to be virtual, and have worked to retain the features unique to a classroom that make for a more effective learning environment.

This blog post presents important features of classroom training for scientific software development (Python) that companies should ensure are retained as learning is forced online and individuals work to gain an increasingly important expertise in ‘thinking digitally’. 

1. Teach Live Rather Than On Demand 

Live virtual training takes the classroom experience digital. Instructors are teaching in real-time, fielding questions from students as they arise, and working to create a supportive environment to ensure key knowledge points are learned.

A good example is the importance of not having students get stuck; a simple typo can prevent an entire program from running. In a live class, the instructor can immediately respond to students and ensure they can continue making progress.

When giving a virtual course, it is significantly more difficult to tell when a student has been left behind. Instructors can’t catch those looks and brief exchanges with a neighbor – telltale signs of being lost. 

There are simple ways to get around this – continuously encourage students to ask questions, and offer ways for students to help each other via chat. In last resort, consider offering recordings of sessions after it has occurred, for those who want to review, and after-class tutoring.

2. Limit Class Size and Adjust Duration

When moving a classroom online, it’s tempting to increase the number of students on a course since ‘space’ is not an issue. But going online doesn’t mean students need less attention from the instructor. They need just as much, if not more. Unless you can afford having multiple instructors in each class, limit the size to 20 students or so.

Another important aspect is the duration of each session. A full-day of in-person training is intense but effective. Students are often offsite, or in an environment that allows them to focus on learning. But one day of online learning is exhausting (we’ve all experienced “Zoom fatigue”), and it can be difficult to focus when home with a partner, children, or pets who need attention. 

In our experience, it’s better to break up virtual training into multiple sessions per day. Two 2-hour, or three 1.5-hour sessions per day, are an upper limit.

3. Encourage Dynamic Interaction

Pair programming, in-classroom discussions, group exercises and other interactions create a problem-solving dynamic within the group that is challenging to recreate online. The social aspect of classroom-style training can accelerate student understanding of complex concepts and build a much more solid foundation upon which to draw for future work.

Instructors for virtual classes must work to create an interactive culture in the online classroom conducive to learning.

Both live and on-demand courses should build in interactive elements designed to recreate the classroom experience. Enthought has an approach that we nicknamed “code karaoke” (we think it’s more fun than “live coding”), in which students follow along as the instructor codes in Python. It gives students a chance to apply new knowledge immediately and provides a base for experimentation.

Students also solve problems individually, but this is always followed by a review and discussion of the solutions by the instructor. Learning the thought process to arrive at a solution, and not just the solution itself, has proven one of the most powerful learning tools in the classroom, and Enthought ensures this continues virtually. 

4. Use the Right Tools

Going online means a few things that were easy in a classroom have become a significant challenge.

Whiteboards are an essential tool to illustrate complex topics and externalize discussions and thinking. Consider setting one up with your phone as a second camera (see image at the top of this article), or use a virtual whiteboard like AWW, Zitepad, or Miro. The gold standard is definitely the open source hardware project Lightboard (by Northwestern University), which turns a pane of glass into a whiteboard.

A video meeting tool is essential. Google Hangouts/Meet, Zoom, Skype, Jitsi are among the popular video call/screen sharing platforms. In all cases, instructors must know it very well – how to screen-share, annotate, mute yourself and others. Time must be allowed for students to also learn the tools and get comfortable with them.

It is important to provide an easy way for students to provide feedback and ask questions, and ensure they are using it. The built-in chat interface of video tools is effective, or a class-specific Slack channel, share a Google Doc or  Etherpad. There are also more involved Q&A tools, for example Piazza, a free online question-and-answer platform that blends the functionality of a discussion forum with that of a wiki.

The potential for collaboration online has never been greater, and identifying the right tools can ensure the power of classroom dynamic in a virtual program. It is the responsibility of the instructor to ensure that participants of a virtual course still benefit from a community they can rely on to further their learning and continue to solve problems once the course has concluded. There are many ways to do this, for example collaborating on open source initiatives, or participating in hackathons.

The New Normal

The global pandemic has placed urgency on effective online engagement in business; first in remote working, and on to service delivery, customer support, sales, and for companies thinking and investing long term (a challenge today), in training.

Over the years, Enthought has provided both in-person and virtual courses, both open to the public and privately in client offices. From those, multiple testimonials confirm our classroom approach enables attendees to learn in a way to have an immediate impact on business challenges upon returning to work.

The above 4 points have been significant in ensuring an equal effectiveness of our virtual training courses in enabling students to learn, return to work and deliver results. 

About the Author

Alex Chabot-Leclerc, Ph.D., Director of Training Solutions at Enthought holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and a M.Sc. in acoustics engineering from the Technical University of Denmark, and a B.Eng. in electrical engineering from the Université de Sherbrooke.

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