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Live virtual training

Since the world was hit by the COVID-19 virus a lot, if not everything, has changed. Among these things are live training classes I usually teach. Due to the risk of an infection and the contact restrictions in Germany business as usual is no longer possible. Aside from in-house C++ training classes I also lecture at a university. The impact there is equal, but yet different. These students need grades at the end of the semester. They need to know whether they can proceed with their study.

The digital world

Both groups switched to live virtual classes. Since mid of March I'm teaching C++ and computer architecture live online. I was absolutely positively surprised by how well it went. For example, one of my university lectures requires a lot of board work from both my students and me. All of my classes are highly interactive, which is another thing that needed to be replicated into the online world.

Another part which I initially perceived as difficult to transfer to a live virtual class, are elements like "hand raising" or expressing yes or no to a question in a large group.

The tool

There are plenty of tools and solutions out there which support video conferencing. I guess, that most of you had contact with a lot of them in the recent weeks. I myself had to deal with at least three and I heard more about others. Equipped with my list I quickly came to zoom. They offer elements for non-verbal communication, a whiteboard and screen sharing of either the entire screen or just an app. The latter thing is something I like and always point out, if a student takes over. I'm very much dislike to disclose private information which may be on my screen. Needless to say, other solutions offer similar features, but not all of them, for example include a white board. This especially turned out to be valuable during lecturing. Students could draw their own solutions, and we were able to discuss them.

I'm also under the impression, that it was more comfortable for them to use the non-verbal communication elements rather than just speaking up. One problematic thing for me still is, that these indications are small annotations next to the name of a person. At least for me, hard to spot while not directly standing in front of the screen.

As a side note, I'm aware that zoom had some security and privacy issues recently. They seemed to address them timely. Given the pressure and demand for conferencing tools it is not wonder to me that flaws were discovered. I'm happier about the flaw I known than those that are still hidden. In case, you like to book one of my live virtual training classes, as much I prefer zoom, I'm open to discuss your preferred tool.

The technical part

The more technical part was how to arrange things for me. I'm used to walking around, either on stage or during a class. Switch position so people do not have to stare at the same spot for three days. I ended up purchasing a wireless lavaliere microphone and a headset for it. Ok, plus the occasional adapters as I'm a Mac user. With that choice I'm quite happy. It gives me freedom to walk around without trapping on some cable or knocking down my laptop because the cable is too short.

When I had that figured out it turned out, that using the normal speakers of my computer did not work well. It caused echos and was still hard to understand for me. Luckily I have a very cheap Bluetooth sports headset. The microphone in it is terrible but the audio is fine. So over the last couple of weeks, despite gyms are closed, I used it more than ever before and it does an excellent job. It is also more or less invisible such that my head appears more or less normal. Another good thing when trying to emulate normality.

To have a good overview about all the different elements, my slides, the students, chat and so on I'm using three screens. Firing up the setup is somewhat time-consuming. Ensuring that microphone, headset and camera working and picking up the right things is one part. Ensuring that the different elements are located at the desired screen is another. For me, physical training usually require a thorough check only on the first day.

There is another feature that conferencing tools bring today: virtual backgrounds. I like them. Very, very much. We are again in the "I don't like to reveal private information" situation, plus for me seeing it makes me feel less like in a usual training and more sitting at home.

Surprisingly, have all attendees to turn on their video is not always that easy, despite feature like virtual background. Sometimes the company disabled access to the video camera for security or privacy reasons. Getting the right to enable the camera was not always easy or possible. However, for a multi day training, for me, seeing even small faces is much better than looking at a dark screen.

The more human part

While I'm happy that things can be switched to a virtual environment I very much like and appreciate physical training. For instance, I enjoy meeting people in person. Being able to talk to them. As great as all the conferencing solutions are, only one can speak at a time. That is a feature, but an occasional joke with the neighbor does not hurt.

I also altered the class hours. While I usually do 1.5 hrs sessions with 15 minute breaks I cut it down to 45 mins or an hour tops. Just because most of us need to stay home these days doesn't imply that the setup at home is the best. Even for people who previously did a lot of home office this is not always the case when it comes to things like training. Sometimes people needed just a good phone because a lot of meetings could be joined via audio only. Others have an excellent computer at home, but it is for development purposes and not for conferencing. Then there is family. With kids need to stay home as well, the house may not be as quiet as usual and probably not as quiet as it should be for focused learning. Some never did home office for various reasons and do not have a dedicated room. Things like chairs, desks are also not necessarily optimized for a three-day training class.

With shorted sessions I try to work around these things. It gives people time to stand up and walk around or organized things in the household.

Aside from cutting down the session times I also switch to half day sessions instead of doing full day sessions. For example, a regular 2 days class now takes 4 half days. We alter each day from morning to afternoon and back. That should give another grade of flexibility when it comes to child care or simple things like going to the supermarket at a convenient time.

My overall experience

As said earlier, I'm very much surprised how well everything went. Aside from the occasional speaking with the microphone off nothing really bad happened. The students where also adapting it quickly.

For myself, it is ok. I'm happy that in my field of work I have this opportunity to switch to a digital form, even that not all customers want to switch to it. However, whoever thinks, that because I do not have to leave home for this and practically can fall out of bed and start the training is wrong. I experience live virtual training classes as more exhausting compared to in-person classes. It might be the small screen at which I'm starring for quite a while. The technical aspects I have to worry about (running out of battery, or a broken internet connection). I have no idea. My hope is, that we all can switch back to in-person classes, well, soon. But, I'm also fine with providing live virtual training further, even in times when we successfully fought the virus. It seems like a good way to train teams which are located across countries.

Andreas