In the current world-wide lockdown due to Covid-19, many things that were done in-person in the past have to become virtual. The Simics® New User Training that we run at Intel and with our customers and partners is no different. In normal times, we run in-person classes around the world, but that is not an option right now. Thus, we shifted to running remote live classes as a substitute for the time being. This blog shares some of my experience from running remote live classes.
As I see it, there are two alternatives to in-person training:
- Recorded videos
- Live teaching, done remotely
The remote-live format is superior in my opinion since it keeps the energy and immediacy of an in-person class and allows the students to ask questions interactively. It also requires a lot less work to do and can be set up pretty much immediately.
Recording a quality video is a ton of work. You need to write a script and follow it To. The. Word. While still sounding natural. Add editing and retakes, and the pandemic might well be over before the work is completed.
Reformatting for Remote Live
The standard Simics New User Training format is to do two full days in-person, for approximately eight hours per day. Lectures and labs are interleaved, giving the teacher some time to catch her or his breath between sections, and providing students a chance to immediately practice what they learned in the lectures.
That format does not work for remote live training – having the conference call sit idle while students work is not a workable method (I have discussed this with other training organizers in the past, and most agree that labs are best done offline and not in-conference). Instead, lectures and labs have to be split up in a more coarse-grained fashion.
Another aspect to consider is attention span. For a student, it is a lot easier to stay focused on a topic when in the same room as the teacher, and it is easier for the teacher to adjust to the attention level of the students. Previously, I did some improvised remote trainings that crammed the lectures into two four-hour sessions. That was totally exhausting for everyone involved.
The current concept is shown below. The course is spread out over three days, with about three hours of lectures each day (and a rather large buffer towards the end). Each day also has a set of associated labs that the students are expected to do on their own after lunch.
The topic sections of the training had to be reshuffled a bit to fit this format and get the labs spread out in a reasonable way. It is not exactly the same sequence as in the in-person training, but fortunately some of the sections were rather stand-alone and possible to move around a bit in the schedule.
There are still some small breaks inserted between the sections, just like when teaching live. When working from home, even five minutes is enough to get a cup of coffee or other refreshment.
Remote Live Training Technology – Video, Screenshare, and Chat
For the lecture part, it made sense to use video of the teacher alongside the slides. We did not use video for the students, since that would just waste bandwidth and reduce the quality of the screen-share. It is also hard for the trainer to both present and look at the student video streams at once – especially if there are tens of students in the class. I used to be rather skeptical to video conferencing, but I must admit to coming around to finding it rather valuable.
For the labs, it makes sense to use chat in an app like Microsoft Teams or Skype to answer questions. There are usually not all that many questions, and having the teacher sit and wait on the video conference for the occasional interaction is not an efficient use of time. When I present a class live, I tend to walk around the front of the room and point at the projector screen using either hands or a laser pointer. Sometimes, to illustrate a point or an answer to a question, I will draw things on white boards or a flip board. Neither of these things work with a remote screen-sharing session, but using annotation tools to draw on top of what is shown on the screen offers a decent replacement. The screenshot below shows an example of a heavily-annotated slide from the training.
It is quite feasible to run a training session like this from home using an average laptop. However, it is worth investing a little bit in audio and video gear to provide the best experience and the most effective teaching setup.
You want a good web camera, instead of using the rather poor camera built into most laptops. It makes sense to put it on top of an external screen to get it up a bit compared to where a laptop screen typically resides and avoid the “up your nose” angle. For the sound, a headset works, but it is better to use a good external microphone. This looks better on the video (no headset on top of the speaker) and produces superior sound compared to most headsets. Using a “pop filter” is definitely beneficial. Figure 3 shows my personal home office setup used in the training, including an external keyboard and mouse.
For best results, it is good to work in a room featuring some amount of fabric to dampen echos and provide a better sound environment. For the video, a reasonably neutral background makes sense. Also for the video, it is a good idea to avoid clothes with busy patterns as that tends to result in very messy videos (especially when the image is shrunk down to a thumbnail).
One upside of live remote training is that product demos using screen sharing actually work better than at most in-person trainings since reading a screen with small fonts from the back of a room is a lot harder than seeing it on your own local screen.
Simics is also a good subject for remote training in that it is just a piece of software. There is no need for specialized hardware or development boards for the students. Simics can be downloaded and installed on the students’ local computers, reducing the load on VPNs to connect back to corporate servers to access the software. In particular for training, the required software is well-packaged and easy to download and install.
Doing a live remote training works, but it is not a perfect substitute for an in-person class. You do not get the same connection with the audience, and as a trainer you cannot sense the attention of the class. You also miss a lot of the informal discussions you get over lunch and before and after classes.
On the positive side, remote live lets us keep doing training even during mandatory work-from-home times and with people scattered across multiple cities and sites. It is still live, and we still get interactive discussions going. The technical requirements are not overwhelming, and most people should be able to partake in training from home as well as teach it from home. Technology really works, and it can help us get through these trying times.