The trials and tribulations of teaching online
Before the pandemic descended, we would never have considered running either of our flagship training programmes purely ‘online’. SkyChess and Buying The Big Jets-Live! were working very well in a face-to-face setting, thank you very much. But the new reality quickly hit home. Without rapid development of online versions, we would be dead in the water.
Finding the platform
We were confident that SkyChess would run online, as the software was already hosted in a cloud-based server. The critical question was the communication platform. Which one should we choose? In the spring of 2020, Zoom was only beginning to make an impression and Microsoft Teams was just plain confusing. We had tested Adobe Connect ten years earlier, when we were living in Canada, and had been less than impressed. It was mildly disturbing to find that the overall ‘look’ of Adobe Connect had hardly altered since those days. A cursory internet search suggested that practically all video conferencing tools were focused either on meetings or webinars. Adobe Connect seemed to be the only option that offered a version specifically aimed at educators.
Making the decision
Our decision was driven largely by the flexibility of the breakout rooms offered by the contenders, and Adobe Connect won that battle hands down. With no time to waste, we invested in a license for ‘named host’ access for up to 100 participants. It was helpful that our work with City, University of London was also migrating to Adobe Connect, although they subsequently dropped it in favour of Microsoft Teams. To ensure that we had our bases well covered, we also signed up for Zoom at the same time. This would turn out to be a wise move, as not all of our customers were as committed to Adobe Connect as we were.
A big plus of Adobe Connect is that you can control exactly what the participants see. If you want the focus to be on the screen, or a presentation slide, or the chat, then you can resize and organise the ‘pods’ in advance. Also, you can shift people around the breakout rooms without missing a beat. Adobe Connect allows the presenter to upload material in advance to the site and drop files into the meeting room environment at will. We have found this helpful. Another ‘plus’ is that there are no on-screen distractions unless you create them. This notion of control is very powerful.
What doesn’t work
For some reason, we always seem to have audio and video connection issues, which is not the case with Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Adobe upgraded their system at the end of 2020, and we were hoping for a major change in functionality and style. Well, that never happened. Version 11 has some improvements, but Adobe missed the opportunity to leap ahead of its rivals. Judith and I tried working from our respective offices as well as working in the same room. Audio leakage is frustrating for the audience when we are both talking in different breakout rooms at the same time.
A major problem is that you can never be sure if a student is physically present, or whether they have kept their connection open and popped out to the shops. When this happens, people are quickly caught out. For example, when placing someone in a Zoom breakout room they must click themselves into the room. If they are not in front of their screen at that moment, we can spot this!
On a recent course, some students were struggling with internet speeds and connected from a cat café. One might argue that this shows commitment, but our feeling is that this diminishes the learning experience somewhat.
Something that is quite annoying is that it can be difficult to persuade people to turn on their videos. We can understand that students may not want others to see the state of their rooms but, frankly, do we really care? This is particularly irksome with Zoom, and we are sometimes confronted with a screen full of black boxes. For us, these are the lowest moments.
And how was it for our customers?
Feedback from our courses usually includes comments that people would much prefer face-to-face teaching. Of course! All of us are eager for things to return to normal, but surely it is better to conduct the activity online than not at all. Students can lose their internet connections with Adobe Connect (and much less so with Zoom, by the way) and this creates frustration when they log back in and we do not spot them quickly. Also, we get the sense that people are beginning to tire of online polls.
The novelty of online training is wearing off. It is doubtful that we will see major advances in the technology for a while, by which time we may have already forgotten this episode. Everyone is itching to get back to a face-to-face ‘live’ environment and, to be brutally honest, so do we!