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Online Learning: A Brave, Kinda New World


The COVID-19 pandemic is stretching into the better part of the year, depending on how you date its beginning. But the effect on education in the US really started in March, and that seems a lifetime ago.

At that time, everything that used to happen in person abruptly stopped happening or at least stopped happening in person: going out to eat, getting together with friends, going to bars, going to concerts and movies, and, yes, taking classes in classrooms with live instructors.

It was a radical shift throughout society, and a horrible blow to training businesses, schools, and those who, like 30 Bird, serve those businesses. But we and our customers—like so many businesses—are finding ways to stick around, stay relevant, cope. I reached out to a handful of our customers to find out how they’re adjusting and how they’re doing.

“Look,” says Chuck Moore, an instructor for UMBC Training Centers, “I teach every class as if my son or daughter needs it to keep or get a job.” That commitment to the job, the mission, came through loud and clear in all my conversations. Chuck—who went from teaching primarily in person to almost completely online overnight—talked a lot of the effort required to have real engagement in an online learning environment.

“The pressure has always been there to certify, particularly in the military and the three-letter camps (CIA, FBI, etc.),” and, online, it’s very difficult to get a read on how students are doing. “I tell them, ‘Don’t type into the chat as a first option,’” Chuck says. “Unmute and talk.” He faults both Zoom and WebEx for their chat areas being small and going away quickly after they pop up. It’s hard enough to focus on a chat window when it’s present. “I really want to give that live-class feeling,” he says, where students can say, “Seriously, Chuck, slow down and let me ask this doggone question!”

It hasn’t been as extreme a transition for everyone. Lynn Fisher of Applied Technology Academy in Florida says the mix (of live to online training) has changed some, but, “we already had a robust online offering.” Her staff mostly worked from home, and Applied Technology had some favorable agreements where they have brick and mortar spaces, which means they aren’t overly extended with costs for physical space.

I asked everyone about asynchronous vs synchronous classes and got an interesting variety of answers. Fisher says Applied Technology is teaching almost entirely synchronously. Nathan Heinze of St. Petersburg College, on the other hand, says most of their classes are asynchronous.

“Students prefer it,” Heinze says, “as they have a hard time paying attention in online synchronous environments.” That’s a different echo of what Chuck Moore said. Heinze will have an asynchronous class but also offer asynchronous Zoom session as well. “It’s primarily for Q&A,” he says, “and everyone seems to enjoy it.”

Butch Arthur with Tennessee College of Applied Technology does a combination of synchronous and asynchronous teaching. “I’ll record my lecture,” he says, “and then assign it for students to watch. Then we’ll meet using Zoom or Google Meet to follow up.” He says the key to this new paradigm is—and this word came up over and over—engagement. The students, he says, “have to have interesting things to do.” So, he provides a mix of lecture, reading, and group assignments.

At Centriq, Leanora Wendling says they went from 40-50% to almost 100% virtual. Because they had a good bit of experience with online classes, the transition hasn’t been as difficult as it has been for some. Centriq still does a few in-person classes, but with precautions, of course: more physical distance, no snacks in the breakroom. And, she says, “Certain content areas are harder than others to teach virtually, things like Agile, Scrum, and project management in general.”

Centriq—like most of the customers I spoke to—uses online labs from a variety of vendors and platforms. “The worse parts,” Weldling says, “are speed of access, images not looking right, and sometimes just the process of getting started.” But she likes that Centriq’s platform allows instructors to look “over-the-shoulder” at how students are doing, and she likes the scalability of online labs.

Butch Arthur at TCAT isn’t a fan of online labs. “Students are unfamiliar with them, and you wonder, is this really how you do this?” That’s a common complaint about VM-based online labs, especially for subjects that use multiple machines. Switching between VMs just isn’t like switching between physical machines.

At Applied Technology, Lynn Fisher says the pain points with online labs are platform stability and time to install and get set up. “It’s about reliability, stability, and accessibility,” she says, “I’d be willing to spend more if the student experience were better.”

Some of the trouble with online labs seems baked in: if servers are in one place, instructors in another, and students at various locations (like their homes), how do you ensure consistent performance with so many internet providers and connection options in play? Some lab providers are sure that serving from the cloud is the best option, but others swear by the control they get in having their own servers. There isn’t much good data on which approach is best.

Nathan Heinze thinks that publishers, in general, are doing a bit better with online labs, particularly on compatibility with learning management systems. But for cloud courses? “I’m teaching a cloud course right now,” he says, “where students have to sign up for AWS, Azure, GCP, and Yellow Circle accounts. It’s been an administrative nightmare, trying to make sure all the students sign up for the correct account versions.”

At 30 Bird, we’re thinking a good bit about this issue with cloud topics; we have courses coming out shortly on Azure, AWS, and Google Cloud. Through our partnership with uCertify, we’re confident that we’ll be taking at least some of the pain out of the online lab experience for these types of courses.

What about ebooks for distanced learners? Again, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all here. Everyone who uses ebooks wants students to be able to take them on the go (mobile device delivery), and wants note-taking and highlighting features. And almost everyone asks for the ability to print ebooks. From a publisher’s point of view, printing is problematic because, well, we like to get paid for our intellectual property.

Different ebook platforms handle the printing issue differently. Our main platform, VitalSource, allows a student to print only two pages at a time. Others are similar, while some use watermarking or some degree of Adobe’s security baked into a PDF download.

That said, 30 Bird is going to make PDF downloads of some sort possible going forward. If you need that now, tell your rep and we’ll make it happen while we work out our technological solution.

More generally, tell us what you need, what your pain points are, what you like and don’t, and we’ll work with you. One of my interviewees chided certain providers for making a “landgrab during the pandemic,” putting out new products like online training certifications. I feel sufficiently chastened by that comment to not respond to many of the points in this blog with Our Solutions to Your Problems. But we’re sincere when we say we’ll listen to you and do our best to help.

Not everyone echoed Nathan Heinze’s comment that “face-to-face courses are dying a slow death, obviously because of the internet and the lower costs associated with providing online training.” I’m fairly certain Butch Arthur and Chuck Moore would argue the point. But while both Centriq and Applied Technology see a place for face-to-face, those businesses are gearing up for online becoming the rule and not the exception. That seems like the reality we face.

I think we’re all learning so much through this stress test of online learning that the pandemic has engendered, and we’re all in this together. Drop us a line and we’ll do our best to help with your specific implementation of online training.

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