April 5, 2022

A teacher’s learning moment

Webinars have been a boon for learning. They have enabled people from anywhere in the world to learn new things without the time and expense of travel. And it’s enabled people like me to offer training that’s affordable. But there are a few downsides to webinars. One that’s been a concern to me is knowing how well people are learning.

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Over the past several years I've taught hundreds of metallurgy webinars to thousands of people whose faces I never saw. When I first started, it was a little weird speaking out into the vast internet and hoping that people were listening. It's a little lonely.

I've gotten used to teaching webinars and now there's only weirdness when it's a small group and no one responds to questions through the chat feature. It doesn't happen much.

But, one thing missing from webinars that’s more critical for learning is the immediate sense of when people are not getting the concepts I teach. People are not comfortable typing out a chat to tell me that they don't understand a concept. So, there’s few cues to help me know whether people really get it.

So, I had to get creative. I started asking quiz questions throughout a webinar to gauge whether people understand the concepts. I’ll review a concept when too many people don’t select the correct answer for a quiz. Even with this, I’m not sure whether people get the concept 100%. I’ve spoken with other people who offer technical training, and they have similar experiences.

Recently I tried something new - teaching a 4-hour course to a small group of people as an online meeting instead of as a webinar. With this arrangement people had their cameras turned on, at least at the start of class, and were able to mute and unmute their microphones to ask questions. This turned out to be very enlightening. A few times people stopped me and asked me to review concepts. It was gratifying to know for sure that people finally did understand the concepts. Also, it helped me better understand how to teach the material regardless of the teaching set-up.

Like anyone who's been doing something for a long time, I have a good understanding of fundamental concepts. But, as a teacher this familiarity can be a problem - things that seem so simple to an expert are often not simple to non-experts.

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Going forward there are a few things I’m going to do to improve the experience for the people taking my courses. First, I’m going to revisit my courses and assess the concepts that require more explanation. Also, I want to figure out more ways to get people to engage. Finally, the idea that less is more definitely applies here. I cover a decent amount of material in my courses. Reducing the content a little and spending more time on the remaining concepts may be appreciated by my non-metallurgists learners.

Finally, I’d like to continue to offer courses to smaller groups of people. It’s a good experience for all of us. Let me know if you’re interested in attending a class-style online course. mike@imetllc.com.

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