Guest post by Matthew H. Loxton, a Principal Healthcare Analyst and Professional MAXQDA Trainer.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the opportunity to conduct training and consulting remotely, but has also exposed gaps in the ability to use technology to bridge the “tyranny of distance”.
Distance learning is not a new concept and has been carried out successfully with millions of students for many decades. For example, the University of South Africa (UNISA) has an enrolment of over 400,000 students from more than 130 countries and has been in continuous operation since 1873. Likewise, the “School of the Air” has been a collective concept for providing education for remote students in Australia using short-wave radio and various postal services since 1951.
The advent of the internet, screen-sharing technology and conference call platforms has made remote training more efficient, more comprehensive, and more interactive. As the past director in charge of training for a team of >600 geographically dispersed knowledge workers, I found that some colleges and universities were able to rapidly switch to a blended-learning distance model, while others could not make that transition in approach. With the participation of some educational organizations, we were able to weave together curricula based on eLearning courses, college units, and hands-on experiential learning that allowed people to learn at work and at home, and receive credentials for completing courses signed off by their managers.
How to conduct remote training during times of travel restrictions or social distancing
I have since used a similar approach to delivering MAXQDA training to my colleagues and to clients. I have mainly used Lync (now Skype for Business), since this is our corporate standard, but have used several other platforms over the years. The platforms all offer basic voice over internet protocol (VoIP), dial-in numbers, and screen-share functionality. Most allow the call presenter to hand control to another attendee, and some allow the presenter to also request control of the attendee’s mouse and keyboard. This is a valuable feature that allows interactive learning experiences.
Benefits to remote training
There are several benefits to remote learning:
- Reduced costs: Travel and accommodation costs are the obvious expenditures that change when using remote training modalities, but there are also more subtle savings such as less hairstyling, reduced use of cosmetics, and longer life of expensive clothing. A colleague who frequently visited industrial sites calculated that she was spending ~$400 per month on business clothing and shoes.
- Greater efficiency: While the preparation time for delivering remote learning is on par with face-to-face modalities, cutting out travel preparation, travel, and set-up and tear-down, enables one to spend far less time on low-value tasks, and perform more high-value tasks per day. This is especially true when recorded material can be reused and blended with real-time content.
- Greater efficacy: While it may seem contradictory, remote training provides an avenue for a greater degree of individualization and flexibility than face to face training. There are almost always some learners who are outliers and either “get” the material faster than the rest, or lag significantly. In face-to-face training, one can carve out a small amount of time to give the fast learners advanced topics, and spend break times bringing up to speed those who lagged, but this time is very small and limited to the duration of the visit. With remote learning modalities, it is far easier to conduct side-bar conversations and to revisit topics after training or on another day.
- Greater flexibility: With face-to-face training, the hours are set and difficult to shift, and any topic for which the instructor has not brought materials is more difficult to cover. With remote training modalities, schedule changes are easier, session lengths can be changed at short notice, and instead of running to the airport, extra time can be added to sessions if required.
Drawbacks to remote training
The benefits listed above may seem idyllic, and you may be wondering if there are any downsides to remote training. There are indeed, and they may be formidable.
- Psychosocial: The loss of face to face interaction and physical presence can be demoralizing for both the instructor and the learners, and can lead to a sense of isolation, disconnectedness, and result in increased anxiety. It can easily feel that the lack of travel and physical presence makes the training less “real”. To combat this, it can help to set aside time during the online sessions to simply chat. To reduce the sense of unreality, make a list of objectives and tasks that can be ticked off.
- Multitasking: Perhaps the biggest risk of remote learning is that learners assume that they can listen with half an ear while they carry on doing regular work, answering emails, talking to others, or using social media. Some people may even physically walk away from the session in order to fetch food or drink, answer the door, or engage in conversation in another room. This is especially true when the material is a presentation rather than an immersive and interactive workshop session.
- Tacit feedback: Without seeing the faces and body language of the learners, it may be difficult to notice if they are confused, distracted, or frustrated. It is also more difficult during remote sessions to ask, “is everyone with me?”
- Technical hurdles: Upload and download speeds may be very different to the office IT infrastructure, and while most home-office internet connections have high download speeds, the upload speed and connection stability may be far lower and can be an unexpected limitation to the quality of the video or audio sent by the trainer. It is important to double-check and to test beforehand that adequate quality video can be shared. Likewise, while most headsets are suitable for listening to music, they may not be sufficient for clear two-way communications.
- Built environment: Conducting training from home requires an environment that is quiet, free from distractions, and not liable to unexpected interruptions from children, pets, and others. This does not require an entire room devoted to the delivery of remote training, but it does need to be a dedicated and controllable area. In some cases, a parked car may be the best option.
The essential technical components to delivering an effective session include:
- A suitable headset with a good quality microphone
- An additional monitor
- A reliable high-speed internet connection
- Conferencing software that provides
- Dial-in numbers and VoIP links
- Screen sharing
- Ability to switch presenters
- Ability to control a participant’s mouse and keyboard input
- Ability for participants to enter text in a chat panel
- Power standby, such as a UPS, for the screens and router
An additional beneficial feature is the ability to split the presenter display over multiple screens in order to share one screen but see on another screen what the next slide will be. This is very useful in keeping track of the next topic and avoiding “slide overrun” in which you start discussing what the next slide will show and then having to backtrack when the slide transitions.
The ability to use multiple screens also supports a very useful feature in MAXQDA – the ability to undock panels and stay synchronized. This undock feature supports training by allowing a single pane to be shown in isolation, or to bring related panes and results to be shown together without additional unrelated elements that may cause confusion.
Sometimes in training sessions, it is important to focus learner attention on either a single pane or on a set of views that are related to the topic. Learners sometimes get lost in the complexity of a screen and miss instructional points because they were unable to isolate the component the presenter is discussing. MAXQDA allows all the core panes to be undocked and moved onto a shared screen on their own, or shifted to a position that most suits the topic.
In the figure below, the “Undock Window” icon is circled in red, and in this example, the code system has been undocked and overlapped with the Coded Segments pane to support a discussion of the Bioengineering code and a specific document and summary. I have found this feature very valuable in focusing attention, as well as in demonstrating how each window stays synchronized. I could demonstrate that clicking on a row in a results screen like the Coded Segments pane, will also bring up the associated document and coded segment.
To ensure that you have given participants what they needed, you may want to allow one or more question and answer periods. To accomplish these, I find it best to not have an open microphone but to rather require questions to be entered using the text chat functionality.
This rule can be safely broken with very small groups of participants but seems to be exponentially more problematic once there are more than ~5 people participating. I have seen situations where microphones were opened for Q&A for over 50 participants, and the results were typically chaotic. There is almost a guarantee that someone will have a dog barking, a child yelling, noisy maintenance work being done, or forget they have an open mic and start a conversation with someone – usually about something highly embarrassing for all.
I also find that allowing questions to be asked anonymously by text achieves several other benefits:
- Minority participants or those from vulnerable population groups are far more likely to ask a question by text than orally
- People who have long rambling “this is more a statement than a question” questions can be filtered out or paraphrased
- People who have speech impediments, or are embarrassed by their voice or accent, are also far more likely to participate using text than using a microphone
- It avoids people forgetting what it was they wanted to ask when their turn comes, and they are suddenly “in the spotlight”
- It subtly forces people to think about their question, and perhaps to refine it before sending
- The presenter (or assistant) is able to summarize or combine questions that are similar or prioritize or introduce highly salient questions
- It automatically creates a handy transcript of questions
- It is far more time-efficient and one can address many more questions than when a microphone is used
The checklist I go through before remote training is a matter of personal taste, but does reflect the lessons learned from years of experience:
- Send materials ahead of time in case video display is interrupted
- Test technology before the session and DON’T be tempted to add some “small change” in technology without testing (this has bitten me far more times than I can remember)
- Deliver the content to yourself first, and time activities or slides to check flow and transitions
- Use split-screen with multiple monitors (but test first!)
- If there will be switching between the presentation of a slide and a live application, test the transitions with the meeting software (Doing transitions while running WebEx/Goto/Lync etc. may behave very differently than just using the apps)
- Have snacks and lots of liquids at hand
- Provide learners with a “Tick list” upfront of what will be addressed (and check before the session ends)
- Turn off and shut down all other applications, including messenger and chat apps, email systems and calendars prior to starting a session
- Ensure that everyone in the house is aware that you are conducting a live session and may have a live microphone
- Remember to enjoy yourself!
- Follow up afterwards on any unanswered questions, and seek feedback on what worked well and didn’t work well from the learner’s perspective
- Update this list!
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