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Lessons from building the classroom in the cloud
How effective will the cloud be for training and education? It will be excellent - if you follow some rules
Computers have long been associated with learning, and many educational services use technology in one way or another.
But what if you want to take an entire learning environment and deliver it online? That's precisely the challenge that those responsible for training Microsoft’s technical field were set. Traditionally, Microsoft has delivered a week long technology training conference covering a broad range of technical subjects, with classroom-based courses before and after the main event.
But given current constraints on travel budgets and time, is it possible to deliver the same training from the cloud? The solution, according to Microsoft, is a programme called MS Involve, available twice a year to the same consultants and field engineers.
Following an interview with Zaakera Stratman, Senior Program Manager for MS Involve, and Alison Woolford, Operations Manager at Microsoft learning partner CM Group, here we distil into bite-sized pieces the lessons learned, challenges overcome and the plans for the future.
Aim to replicate the learning experience with skilled trainers
Technologists may feel they know best how computers can be used to aid collaboration, deliver content and so on, but education involves a far older set of disciplines. "Classroom training is as old as education in tribal societies," explains Zaakera Stratman. "You need to replicate that experience as closely as possible, build on best practices, otherwise it just doesn't work as well."
Experience learned on the programme demonstrates that the old techniques are the best, and there's no substitute for having a seasoned instructor in place: "It's important to use skilled trainers rather than just subject matter experts - that is, people who understand how to train, rather than present a set of PowerPoint slides. At the beginning we had people turn up, speak for half an hour and leave - which isn't enough for imparting knowledge!"
Plan the content to the task, using available technology
Not everything works as well online as in a real classroom - it's not possible, for example, to write on a flip-chart then stick the result on the wall for the duration of a course. However technology can bring new techniques to the party, such as using instant messaging to log questions and answers.
For Microsoft this is a work in progress as it reaches right back into the content development process. "There's been some changes in the way content is planned, put together for a subset of the courses," says Zaakera. "We also need some way to deal with smaller group break-out sessions and we shall continue to look at student evaluation of individual content within the course."
Schedule like a live event, but build in learner and instructor flexibility
While it is important to set expectations and plan lecturers' time, you should ensure schedules fit with learners' availability as well - particularly across time zones. "People needed to be able to take training in situ, to self-consume," recalls Zaakera. "Students needed more flexibility in terms of the scheduled pieces: the number one piece of feedback was to deliver over a three-week period, then leave the site open for a further week. Initially we only had one time to do a lecture - that didn't work so well either, so we changed it to multiple times."
Greater flexibility suits instructors better as well, recalls Alison Woolford. "We had one instructor in Prague, he was needed for weeks one and three, so he was able to get on with another assignment on the middle week."
Enable the pedagogue to connect to the pupil.
For learning to succeed, it's important to ensure that the connection between the trainer and the person they are trying to train is as good as possible. The better the connection, the better the learning: this requires more than a simple providing a video and audio feed, says Zaakera. "Instruction can be very visual - instructors thrive on interactions. We thought very hard about how to enable instructors to really collaborate."
For Alison, this is equally about putting instructors in the driving seat. "The instructor needs to 'own' the course if they are really going to get a rapport going. It's their domain for the time they are training."
Be absolutely sure it all works, and have support in situ
Live training events require the very best cat-herding and techno-logistical skills, but at least they are all held at a fixed venue. While online instruction enables more flexibility, a large number of things can still go wrong at any moment - particularly as the instructors can be anywhere in the world.
"Instructor access absolutely needs belt and braces," comments Alison. "One instructor lives in a remote location, his ISP had an outage so he jumped in a land rover and drove to the top of the nearest hill, pulled into a farm gateway and delivered an hour-long lecture using a mobile 3G dongle!" Microsoft has implemented a system of lab 'proctors', available 24x6 - "On-hand experts who moderate forums, help with live lectures and provide technical support," explains Zaakera. "Proctors have been invaluable to ensure that the flow of the training isn't interrupted."
Encourage interaction, within and beyond the classroom
"You can put a lot of content together but if you don't have people supporting the students, the delivery will be less effective. That's why it shouldn't all be on demand - people do want to be led through content by an instructor, and interact with their peers," says Zaakera.
As well as enabling the connection between teacher and learner, online technologies offer opportunities for higher levels of interaction between students. "We are enabling greater levels of collaboration within the class, and there's still more we can do on how collaboration extends beyond the classroom - for example, using social tools or enabling people to see where their colleagues are up to." This process can extend beyond the MS Involve scheduled period, and to a broader audience. "Already, two hours afterward, sessions can be played on demand and students can access the hosted labs whenever they need."
The $64K question is - is it working? "Our registrations and attendance have grown, people are saying, 'this is great' which is a good sign!" laughs Zaakera. "The bottom line is, this is all about using technology to enable a relationship between whoever is imparting knowledge, and whoever is coming to learn.
Success is all about the people: people are expensive, but cost per head has continued to go down even as attendance numbers have grown, largely because of significantly reduced travel costs. In the future we're going to be focusing more and more on the people aspects - these have the biggest influence on the event. It's very important that people hit their training goals, but equally important that they will want to come back!"
With all the potential technology can bring, focusing on the people and the learning experience looks like the way to go.