By Kevin Watt
IT professionals are often asked to address a new concern or fulfill a new need without adding any new resources in the process. This was the situation I faced when I was asked to find a way to create an instructor-led distance learning class for our employees within our company network and infrastructure.
I've been involved with my company's research in distance learning technologies for nearly 10 months now and I’ve spent a lot of time on this project. In the process I’ve learned how to repurpose existing software to fit educational needs, as well as how to alter my teaching style to fit a new format: live online training. Lessons I’ve learned from this experience should also help you figure out how to make this change.
Selecting the correct tools
Finding the necessary technology wasn't difficult since products are being introduced almost daily that focus on distance learning and knowledge management. The problem was working within the existing budget while meeting the immediate need for distance training.
With those limitations, I turned to a software product already on our network called Remotely Possible. Our help desk had purchased this software, initially. It allows them to take remote control of employees' computer workstations to resolve technical problems. Using this software, in conjunction with telephones to provide an audio link, allowed us to deliver limited training modules.
I experimented with the remote control features in selected training situations, but the real test of the software’s distance learning capabilities came when our department received a request from our London office for training on Excel’s pivot tables. I was the distance learning expert at the home office in San Antonio, but not the subject matter expert. So I had to prepare another instructor—who had only taught in the traditional classroom style—to teach online, in addition to handling the other logistic preparations.
Preparing the class materials
So what was involved? First, as with any lesson, content is the driver. In our case, we'd been teaching pivot tables as a regular part of our lessons, so the instructor and student material was ready. The material required very little modification for remote delivery. The student exercise files were e-mailed to the students in advance of the training with detailed instructions about how and where to save the files. Likewise, printed handbooks were specially prepared from the existing course and mailed to the students before the training date. However, the remote control software includes a drag-and-drop file transfer feature that could make this step even easier.
Testing the network’s capabilities
Next, I conducted a test of the software with the help of the London office IT support staff. The test was done mainly to check latency on the network using the remote control features. The purpose was to establish a "worst case" scenario so that the instructor could pace herself during the lesson delivery.
Regardless of how robust a network is, geographical differences affect response times when sending and receiving computer commands. If the latency were too great, the training would not be effective. We encountered about a 15-second delay when launching Excel remotely. That time lag was deemed workable for our purposes.
Working across time zones
Scheduling online training time can be more involved than planning time for traditional classroom training. Our schedule had to take into account the time difference between San Antonio and London. I've also conducted training to employees in several time zones simultaneously. You have to contact the various locations ahead of time and coordinate the best time to deliver instruction, avoiding overtime and disruption of work schedules.
Change the instructor’s teaching style first
Instructor preparation was the most difficult aspect of this project. The classroom instructor relies on visual and verbal clues to determine student understanding. With remote training, video may not be incorporated, so the trainer must rely on verbal responses to ensure the learner is engaged, not bored, or worse yet, still in the room!
Online instructors must use more direct questions to maintain an active exchange with the students. Also, the lesson must be structured to provide frequent interaction. If providing a demonstration or performance lesson, the demo portion must be presented in short bursts, otherwise the student will lose interest.
The instructor also has to rehearse his or her lecture and make changes to account for the new format. One of the first things I did to prepare our instructor was to play the part of student, with her seated behind me. She could see my computer screen but had to talk me through the lesson using only verbal directions.
A good way to simulate this experience is to sit back-to-back with a coworker. Position a mirror so that you can see only their shoes, and then teach the person how to tie a shoe, step by step. Initially, you'll find it more difficult than you imagined. Our instructor, who had taught pivot tables for years, said she thought she knew all about them until she tried to adapt the lessons for online teaching.
Then introduce the remote learning software
This practice session was done without using the remote control software. I conducted separate training on the use and features of the software later when the instructor was connected to several computers and could observe the cause and effect of commands sent from her computer to the ”student” computers.
It’s important for the trainer to have a good idea of what students will see and how it might differ slightly from what is on her screen. We simulated many of the differences that can result from different screen resolution settings or video cards.
The remote software is capable of simultaneously connecting to multiple computers and offers a variety of displays for monitoring the students' activity. We rehearsed using split screens, individual monitors to view each student, and single displays.
We delivered the training to London using individual monitors to view the student desktops. Since our company uses numerical computer names, our instructor used a simple technique to match the desktop to the computer name. She completed an action on a screen and asked which student saw it. When they responded, she wrote the student's name on a sticky note and attached it to the corresponding monitor. This allowed her to personalize her dialogue with them and made it easier to communicate directions to the individual students. We documented simple techniques like this for reference in future training.
How did we do?
We measured our success through a short, verbal evaluation by the students. That was followed up with written evaluations.
One student's comment summed up how most of us felt, "I was skeptical about learning this way but after this experience, I'm looking forward to the next time."
I saw success as the training was being delivered. Our once apprehensive instructor was noticeably more comfortable with the delivery method within about 10 minutes. As she coached the students through the exercises, she was leaning back in her chair, talking with her hands as if the students were right there with her.
If a student made a mistake, she talked them through the correction, taking control of the student’s computer only when absolutely necessary. The student responses, coupled with the instructor’s gratified look when she was through, let me know we’d successfully met the training challenge.
Kevin "Kilo" Watt is a performance specialist in the information technology training department of USAA in San Antonio. He is a MOUS Authorized Instructor with expert level certifications in Word, PowerPoint, and Excel 2000. He is currently working on distance learning for USAA. He teaches Resumix, the Human Resources resume reading software, Remote LAN Access courses, Outlook e-mail and calendar classes, and other Microsoft Office business applications.Have you worked with software that is a good fit with distance learning, whether synchronous or asynchronous? Have you used something that wasn’t initially designed for distance learning? Send us your recommendations so we can share them with other TechRepublic members.