What has 500 days of online teaching taught me?
It’s been over 500 days that we are enduring the hardship inflicted upon us by the COVID-19. Though we are still not entirely out of the woods, there is semblance of sanity in some quarters. As a trainer and an executive coach, I have had quite a steep learning curve over the last year-and-a-half conducting over 50 workshops and engaging with scores of corporate and academia. We did see Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, and the likes becoming ubiquitous, new vocabulary taking shape and the ever-adaptive employees finding their own rhythm amid unprecedented times, and learning goes on.
This piece is on my vocation and how it’s shaped me both as professional and a human, thanks to the COVID-19 times. I have identified three significant ways in which the executive education, learning and development industry has embraced the change and changed in turn. It is about context, connect and content.
Start with the context of why to learn now
Learning is never obvious, especially for working executives and that too in times where there’s job uncertainty looming all the time and family pressure mounting. Even on a normal day (read pre-pandemic), if given a choice between working for the company and learning for oneself, most employees would choose the former, for there is a clear and often immediate gratification in the form of appraisal, compensation or at least not getting into trouble. But for learning the returns are deferred and mostly ambiguous. That’s where your role as a teacher is paramount.
Even before you go down your own introduction or the matter for the session, it’s important to answer the big question: why this training now? You must spend time impressing upon your audience the imperative of learning and that the economic and social downturns are best to augment one’s talent. One can bounce back handsomely when things get better. You need to believe in it yourself and then communicate with compassion. Remember Aristotle’s rule of Ethos, Pathos, Logos. Start with credibility (Ethos), then get into the emotional connect (Pathos), before you engage in the logical content (Logos). You would want to get them all to the big picture at the outset and keep revisiting it all along the learning journey.
Adopt appropriate technology to connect to your audience cerebrally and emotionally
The most pressing issue in online teaching is – How do you connect to your audience before you start transforming them? While the virtual economy strips us of the tactile connect which is core to learning through our multiple intelligences, the milieu has to offer some clever tools to sometimes more than compensate for this loss. Instead of steamrolling your audience with your well-rehearsed slides it’s important to get to know their motivation level and to pep it up a bit more. Technology, surprisingly, can come to avail here.
Over the last few months, I have been using the online collaboration platform ‘Mural’ to conduct my Design Thinking workshops. A typical creative problem solving workshop involves a lot of exercises, brainstorming sessions, prototyping, iteration, presentation and improvisation and a virtual mode seems a gross compromise. But I was rather impressed by what Mural and ilk has in store with its sticky notes, library of frameworks, features like voting, timer, etcetera. It elevates collaboration effectiveness to a whole new level and might rival the physical world. Couple this with breakout rooms feature of Zoom and you have multiple teams working in parallel on theme areas. That’s something I have had difficulty managing in the erstwhile era. Surprisingly, thanks to all such avenues, timekeeping becomes far more convenient and polite in the non-physical world. Keep in mind that virtual tools are only to assist you with what you have and have to deliver and mustn’t lead the conversation. That’s what brings us to our last insight and it’s about the king: content.
Remember, content is still supreme
We all understand quite intuitively that content rules, even though some may get deluded with their panache or network. When your audience can’t see you in action, which is a major part of any training program, the theatrics are of little value. Even in the best of the video facilities, just about 30 percent of your expressions are visible and with unstable Internet connectivity and device related limitations the audience experience remains nonuniform and far from predictable. It means that you must not only master your content but also develop new, updated one. What you would typically deliver over an hour in a real-world engagement might run dry in just about 30 minutes and there might be several episodes of uncomfortable silence.
You need better and more intuitive presentation, engaging narratives and a far greater clarity in your speech. All this brings the content back to the centre stage and it would be a mistake to merely show up in the class half-prepared. So, brush-up and beef-up your content, as that’s your only savior. Be multi-modal. Don’t just use a powerpoint presentation. Use excel, word document, Mural board, Zoom white board and good old narratives to break the pattern and keep your audience from drifting away in their thoughts or day job.
In summary, the last 500 days of teaching and learning has enabled me to augment my content, skills and temperament, connect to learners from far and wide, go deeper into concepts and applications and spend more time with my family without facing much financial hardship. Would I like to teach this way? Maybe not. Am I waiting for things to open up and engage in tactile workshops? Affirmative. Do I carry precious lessons from the pandemic? Time will tell.