Trying Something New

This week, I share some thoughts about a new training experience I had on Tuesday, when I led my first Web seminar. Afterward, it occurred to me that dropping into instructor mode wasn't difficult, even though I was alone in my office. In many ways, the experience was like conducting a seminar at a large conference, because when you're in front of 100 or more people, developing any kind of eye contact or one-on-one connection with more than a handful of people can be difficult. In fact, the experience was so much like teaching in a classroom that I found I had to stand the whole time—it just didn't seem right to sit down while teaching.

Sitting in on a similar seminar as a participant earlier in the summer showed me that online seminars seem more like attending a conference than sitting in a classroom. At a conference, you often have to wait until the end of a session to ask questions, whereas in a classroom, you can raise your hand when questions arise. At a conference, you might have a printout of the speaker's slides, if anything, but in class, you have a copy of the courseware and can read along as the instructor speaks. A conference can host hundreds of people; a class tends to have fewer than 15 students.

From my experience both as a lecturer and a student at a Web-based seminar, at a conference, and in a classroom, I can say that whether a particular environment offers effective training depends on the learning style of the student and the structure of the curriculum. For example, each Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) course has a specific set of goals. These goals guide the instructor in the order of the topics and how much of each topic to present at once. In contrast, conferences typically have session tracks that follow a similar theme but rarely foster the kind of structured flow of ideas that regular classes do. Students have to "stitch" together all the different pieces of information from a group of sessions and fill in the missing parts on their own.

If you're just beginning to learn about a new technology, beginning and overview sessions can be good ways to build a foundation to which you can add with later classes. If you're a more advanced student, conference sessions can often enhance your understanding of a complex topic. People who are somewhere in the middle—between beginners and experts—often get lost at conferences because they don't find enough structure in the curriculum to help them understand how different parts of a technology relate to one another. I believe that advanced students tend to benefit most from going to conferences and that beginning- to intermediate-level students tend to find classroom instruction more valuable. The question, then, is whether Web-based sessions can become more like classes and less like conferences.

One change that would make the Web experience more like the classroom experience would be to make sure that courseware is in the hands of the students while they listen to the lectures. I'm not convinced that electronic courseware content is as effective as printed materials. Most of the common learning habits we picked up in school don't work without hard copy—writing notes or highlighting important sections is difficult or impossible. And giving students the ability to look ahead often helps them understand the relationship between concepts. Many of my night-class students preview the sections before they come to class to help them relate what they find in the book to what they hear in the lecture.

An advantage of the classroom over the Web is the close proximity of the students to the instructor. Duplicating that "closeness" on the Web has been difficult. For my seminar on Tuesday, I used the telephone to deliver the audio portion because teleconferencing is a much more mature technology than streaming audio. For example, most teleconferencing companies can let individual listeners speak to the rest of the group, a feature that Web-based streaming audio is still missing. Perhaps sending chat messages to an instructor and then using teleconferencing to let everyone else hear the answers is the way to duplicate the give and take that occurs in classrooms.

What's certain is that the Web-based approach has two significant advantages over the classroom: the ability to reach many, many more people, and the fact that those people can be almost anywhere in the world. Conferences can handle thousands of attendees, while regular class sizes are typically limited to 20 people or fewer. If a company wants to train dozens of employees, it might have to pay for several regular classes as opposed to one or two Web-based classes. As I discovered during my session on Tuesday, the Web lets me deliver lectures to many more people than would fit in a classroom, without the hassle and cost of transporting them to the one location. The savings in travel costs and lost productivity associated with going to a class or a conference should make adapting to a new way of learning worth the effort.

The delivery method, however, is irrelevant if it isn't effective for the students. My experience left me excited about Web-based delivery of training, but ultimately you must decide whether this new kind of classroom is right for you.

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