We’re Taking the Ranch Online (Part 2)
7 Things We’ve Learned from Three Months of Live, Online Training
In my last post, I spoke about why we were taking Big Nerd Ranch training online. While it seems simple now given that we’ve been in some form of quarantine, shelter-in-place, or other social distancing initiatives for over three months now, at the time, it still felt like a difficult decision. In-person training has been our mainstay since our founding for the simple reason that we’ve found it to be the most effective and efficient way to help our students enter the world of mobile programming or level up their skills. Now that we’ve made the pivot into running live, online training for both corporate clients and bootcamp students, we’ve learned a few things about what it takes to create a great live, online experience.
Here’s how students (and managers) can get the most from your class
At Big Nerd Ranch, we recognize that you are the hero of your learning journey. We’re the guide who helps you get to your destination safely, quickly, and without getting lost. Like all learning experiences, great online learning experiences are a collaborative effort among students, teachers, and even managers. Everyone plays a role in creating an environment in which students can unplug from their day-to-day work and really focus on learning something new. So, here’s what we know that students need to do to set themselves up for success:
- Set up a learning-focused space. You need to be in a place where you can actually focus on what the instructor is saying and doing. As such, your space needs to be one in which you can focus. Make sure you have a reliable internet connection, decent quality audio and video capabilities, and a clutter-free desktop. Just like in your office environment, if you’re constantly toggling back and forth from class to Slack messages, your concentration (and your learning) are diluted. We know that working from home brings new distractions too—kids, spouses, package drop-offs, noisy neighbors—but do your best to minimize interruptions from those things, too. If you need to step away for a time, be upfront with your instructor and figure out how you can get caught up when you return.
- Minimize outside distractions. Set up an out-of-office or slow-to-respond notification so that colleagues know you’re focusing on something other than work, change your Slack status so that managers and other colleagues aren’t barraging you, and, better yet, snooze your notifications so that you’re not being reminded of what you’re missing. Distractions are huge detractors from your learning environment, so root them out as much as possible.
- And for managers, give your students the space to learn. We’re software and digital product developers by trade, so we know how precious (and expensive) it is to have a programmer who is not directly contributing to a project. We also know that if that same programmer is being asked to contribute to a project while also trying to learn something brand-new, neither objective will be met. So, encourage your students to really take this time to unplug from their day-to-day responsibilities. Protect their learning time by fending off requests from other stakeholders that can genuinely wait a few days. This shows your team that the class is important and that you expect them to really make the most of it.
And here’s how we can help you reach your goals
As instructors, curriculum developers, and training operations managers, we know that it’s our responsibility to create the right conditions for learning, to guide you on your journey, and to support you in making the most of your learning experience.
- Give students multiple ways to collaborate. In the classroom environment, it’s easier to build a learning community. With the students and instructor in the same physical space, interactions are fluid and natural opportunities for building rapport arise without special effort. If a student is stuck, they can literally tap their neighbor on the shoulder and ask a question. In a virtual environment, it’s harder to facilitate these types of interactions. That’s why we don’t just rely on video conferencing software, we also use online collaboration tools to share class materials, facilitate student chats, and answer student questions.
- Find ways to provide one-on-one and small group support. Video conferencing has come a long way in the recent past. You used to be lucky if you could have reliable audio and visual presentation, but now you can use video, screen share, and audio almost seamlessly. In addition, there are some new tools that can enable students and instructors to collaborate in richer ways. One thing we’ve used is Zoom breakout rooms, which can allow for instructors to provide private, one-on-one support. While students are all working on a coding project in the lobby, the instructor creates a personal breakout room for each student. If a student has a question they’re not comfortable asking in front of the group, they can invite the instructor to the breakout room for a private chat, helping them to get back on track while maintaining a supportive learning environment.
- Get creative about checking on student progress. It’s really hard to get this one right in a virtual environment. We’ve typically given our students a lot of freedom in our classes because the class is for them and because we’ve built in a lot of flexibility to the learning journey. We recognize that students learn at different paces, have different focuses, and have different struggles, so we make a way for students to focus on what they need to get out of the class. Having said all of that, there’s still a level of comfort students need to reach before moving on to another topic, and in a physical classroom, this is relatively easy to monitor by walking around the classroom, looking at student screens, and checking in with them. In a virtual setting, we need to be more intentional about checking in with students. So we’re now setting clear expectations for how much time students will have for the coding exercises, we’re giving them some opportunity to self-assess how they are coming along, and we’re doing some polling to see how well students are understanding the concepts.
- Have even more empathy for students than normal. While this almost goes without saying, it’s critical to a great live, online class. It’s easy to get caught up in the tools and techniques we’re using to create a rich and supportive environment, but we need to remember that the learning process is made for humans. Sometimes it can be slow and frustrating, other times it can be exhilarating, and it’s certainly not a straight, uninterrupted line from start to finish. With students now likely working from home with the potential for added distractions, it’s more important than ever to seek to understand that they are very likely working in less than ideal situations. In practice, this means being aware of the fact that instructors may need to provide more and different kinds of support to get similar results to in-person training.
As we continue to live in these times of great uncertainty, we know that learning is still important. Having sharp skills or picking up new ones can make you competitive in a difficult job market or help you to demonstrate your commitment to your current role. We’re committed to providing amazing learning experiences and bringing programmers into the world of mobile or responsive-web programming with rigor, humor, and a healthy dose of heart. Happy coding.