The Benefit of Live Teachers (Applied to Myself)

I have been spending quite a bit of time in recent years developing training materials and doing trainings for Simics. There is always a discussion on how best to do training, in particular between live sessions with actual trainers and offline video and other self-study resources. I am a firm believer in the value of live training, and during our recent winter vacation up in the Swedish mountains I made myself provide a perfect example of the value of a teacher. I took a skiing lesson.

Skiing Better

I really needed to do something with my downhill skiing skills. I have never really been very good at it, to be honest. When I was a kid and we went on winter vacations, I would see big piles of snow and go digging, as that was far more fun than trying to figure out how to steer some skis down a slope. Since then, I have not done a whole l lot of skiing – until recent years when I have started to realize that it is kind of fun after all. However, I also realize that my technique is not particularly good. Indeed, my wife called my style rather gorilla-like in its lack of elegance.

The slopes in Storlien, as captured in the first day of 2020. Looking down towards the village. Notice the rather distinct lack of people in the way.

While I do think that I have improved some in recent years, just by actually having a few days each year to practice, it was clear that something more was needed. We put the kids through skiing lessons, and it has definitely helped them get better. Why not take a lesson myself, despite being a middle-aged man well out of school? Finally I overcame the natural inertia and booked a one hour private class (which is really good value for money up in Storlien where we tend to go skiing).

Thanks to my son, I got this picture of me skiing under supervision. Note that the camera did something rather strange with the left-hand pole while trying to capture a sharp image of me in motion.

The Value of a Live Teacher

During that hour, I probably improved more in skiing than I would have in several years on my own. Why? I can see three main reasons…

Feedback. First of all, the teacher looked my current technique (such as it was), and could tell me what I was doing right and what had room for improvement (to put it nicely). He found some really obvious things that I never would have figured out on my own. The key point is that an experienced teacher knows what to look for, and how to formulate useful feedback that you can actually apply. Compare this to making a video of myself skiing and looking at it afterwards – I could tell that it looks bad, but I would have a very faint idea of just why that is.

Interaction. The second great value of live teaching is interacting with the teacher around the subject at hand. In this case, talking about how to skiing and how to think about it. It made it possible for me to start looking at what other people are doing and potentially learn from it. Having a teacher to talk to is a shortcut to the vast knowledge that exists in the field – I guess in theory I could spend a lot of time reading about skiing and looking at videos, and eventually get an idea for what is going on. But talking to an expert gets you there a lot faster.

Pushing. Finally, a good teacher knows how to challenge and push the students. In my case, I was dragged out into some slopes that had not been groomed for a few days and which were basically morasses of wet loose snow. Way beyond what I would attempt on my own accord – but a good learning experience compared to just going around on newly groomed and easy-to-ski slope. An experienced teacher typically has a standard set of challenges that can be used with most students. Building good exercises that push students to learn is one of my favorite parts of doing training.

Doing without a Teacher?

Note that while a live teacher is clearly the highest-quality solution to a training problem, there are unfortunately cases where it is not feasible or economical to employ a live teacher for each student in each location. In such cases, using offline videos, tutorials, and on-your-own labs is clearly a lot better than nothing at all.

For example, I am looking into building a new desktop machine sometime in 2020. For this project, I realize I want to fix some problems I have discovered over the years with my current desktop, and that I have a pretty poor handle on things like cable management. However, I would never consider paying someone money to teach me how to pull cables… it makes more sense to figure it out with the help of online tutorials and just plain experimentation.

One thing that must always be kept in mind is the huge investment needed to create good self-study materials, and in particular lectures. In a live class, you can easily adjust and fix things on the fly. Misunderstandings and poor examples can be addressed immediately in interaction with the students. For a canned class, you need to painstakingly go over each video, each lab, and each tutorial to make sure there are no mistakes and minimal room for misunderstanding. This is very different from just running a live class – the quality bar is much higher, you really need a script, and you need to follow the script and edit out mistakes. I would guess it takes at least ten hours to produce a single solid hour of video that I would find acceptable to deploy.

One possible intermediate point is to do a remote live class, running the lecture part of a class over a platform like Skype or Zoom. This is not as good as a live local teacher, but definitely better than canned materials. However, it is very hard to do that for more than three or four hours in a row… the engagement and focus you get in a live class just isn’t there. And it would definitely not work for something hands-on like skiing…

In any case – the point is that live teaching is the best way to do training. All other alternatives try to approximate its effect in some way or another. My experience last week with skiing just felt like a very good example of how effective live interaction with a teacher can be.

Notes about Storlien

Storlien is a small place, and wonderfully relaxed. With no lines and very few people around at this time of the year, you go roaming around pistes that are not groomed but still left available for skiing. Lots of opportunities to go a bit off-piste with minimal risk. The mountain is small enough that you do not really risk anything like an avalanche. You get mornings like this:

Only one person has gone across this ungroomed field of snow between two slopes. That’s what I like about going to Storlien.

The other side of the low density of people is zero nightlife (but who needs that anyway with a family, never understood the connection between skiing and partying) and nothing to really challenge the advanced skier (which I could not care less about). I do hope that more people will go to Storlien so that place can stay open. It would be a real loss if it had to close as it offers a very good alternative to fancy expensive places like Åre.

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