Remote Class Begins

I’m teaching a “remote” class today. I’m in Phoenix Arizona, they’re in White Plains New York.

Most of my day will be showing PowerPoint slides through my PC and out to them via Webex while we’re all on the same conference call for the audio. I talk about the slides and they occasionally interrupt to ask a question.

Later in the day, however, we will also have some “lab” time. They will connect to additional computers on the internet that have been pre-configured for this specific class. Those computers have all the software they will need. And those computers will allow their “desktop” (the video display) to be “shared” across the internet so the people in class can see them. While sharing, each person’s mouse and keyboard will interact with the remote lab system, more or less, like it would with their own (local) system. For the most part, this works very nicely.

In addition, I can see their lab system desktops – I get miniature views of all of them at once – and can tell if someone is in trouble. When that happens, I can zoom in to that one desktop and, if the person has stayed on the conference call (as we ask them to do – it’s an 800 number so we’re paying the bill), I can talk to them about what’s happening. And, if needed, I can “take over” their system and move the mouse, etc. to fix the problem, and they will see me doing it.

The remote environment works pretty well and we’ve been running classes this way – in addition to “in person” – for a couple of years.

But there are some negatives.

First, in the lecture portion, I can’t see them so if someone falls asleep or just plain walks out, I don’t know. In practice, this means I can’t tell when someone is confused or lost. If they are too timid to speak up, then I just don’t know. We’ve tried a couple of approaches such as asking questions of specific individuals, using polls and such but the bottom line is that if someone isn’t interested or is unmotivated to get help, there’s just not a whole lot we can do. In-person teaching has the same limitations; they just come up sooner with a remote class but you don’t know it until later.

Secondly, while the remote lab environment works very well for most, it is subject to internet speeds and congestion. If one person has a bad connection, it can become a real struggle for them to complete the labs. We have some backup procedures to try and deal with such situations but they’re less than perfect.

So, before class, we have some “recommendations”.

  1. If you don’t understand something, speak up. (If you don’t, we won’t know you are lost.)
  2. Check your internet bandwidth (to a test site we recommend that is internet-close to the lab system provider). If you have good bandwidth to the test facility, you should be OK for class. (This doesn’t help if the Internet hiccups.)
  3. To accommodate anyone in North America, a given class will run from 10:00AM Eastern to 6:00PM Eastern. For me in Arizona, that means class starts at 7:00AM or 8:00AM – Arizona does not use Daylight Savings Time. While that’s not particularly early, it does mean that on the first day of class when I’m refreshing licenses on the lab systems, I start work at 6:00AM. And to have my coffee and shower before that, the alarm is set for 5:00AM. People taking class that are in California have a similar “early” schedule while attending class.

But everyone gets to sleep in their own bed at night and nobody has to be irradiated or patted down by the TSA.

And I like that.

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