Since the start of the pandemic, we have begun offering our trainings virtually. As a virtual training experience is quite different from the experience a classroom training offers, I’d like to give an overview of how a virtual training works and some of the (design) choices we made when we transitioned our classroom trainings to a virtual environment.

It makes sense to view two types of training separately: our technology trainings (think Kubernetes, PowerBI etc.) and our methodology trainings (think Scrum, Kanban etc.).

Technology Trainings

Our technology trainings are typically comprised of theoretical parts, where the trainer explains or demonstrates something using slides or an UI of the discussed technology, and practical parts where the participants work on exercises.

As the exercises were mostly Cloud-based (e.g. in our Kubernetes training every participant gets access to their private Kubernetes cluster in the cloud) the way you work on them doesn’t really differ if you are participating in a classroom or remotely from home. What matters, is that you have a direct line (so to speak) to the trainer, so that if you’re stuck or you encounter a problem you can get help easily (more on that in a second).

The parts of the training where the trainer presents something are also easily moved from a projector in a classroom setting to a screen share in a virtual conference call. We tried a couple of different video conferencing solutions for this and settled on Zoom, as it implements all the standard features well, but also offers the very neat feature of breakout rooms, which allows the trainer to easily have a private conversation with one of the participants. This is very helpful to address the aforementioned situation when a participant needs help during one of the exercises.

There’re a couple of things we learned during the first couple of trainings run this way:

  • It’s important that the participants can see the trainer, even if they are presenting something. So the video conference solution should be configured this way.
  • It’s also important for the trainer to be able to see the participants. Getting implicit feedback from facial expressions, body language etc. is very important to structure the theoretical content (Should I explain that again in different terms or did everyone understand the concept?). So now we always ask the participants to turn on their camera during the training (obviously it’s fine if they don’t want to).

Methodology Trainings

Last year (2019) we already transitioned our methodology trainings to a training from the back of the room approach (invented by Sharon Bowman). The central idea of this approach is that learners learn more effectively when they have to do something themselves instead of just listening to a teacher. In practice this means that you try to avoid modules where the trainer explains concepts. Instead you design exercises that have the learners research the topics at hand and teach them to themselves. Our two-day Scrum Basics training e.g. currently uses no slides and doesn’t even have a module where the trainer stands in front of a flipchart explaining something.

Another big part of training from the back of the room, and something we had in our methodology trainings from the beginning, are games to teach certain concepts in a more visceral way. In our Scrum Basics training e. g., we use the ball point game by Boris Gloger, where the participants have to throw tennis balls to each other according to certain rules to teach the advantages of working iteratively (in contrast to following a predefined plan). We also have a simulation of a complete project run with Scrum, where the participants build a product using Legos.

Transitioning all of that to a virtual setting seemed very challenging at first, but was actually quite straightforward when we discovered the power of digital whiteboards. Tools like Miro or Mural which offer a (very) large, zoomable whiteboard on which many people can work simultaneously using sticky notes, diagrams, drawings, tables etc. allowed us to transition the aforementioned research exercises and even the games to a virtual training. Obviously some changes had to be made, e.g. instead of building a product out of Legos, the participants now create a fairy tale book. But it’s still a simulation of a complete Scrum project with the same learning objectives (and judging from the feedback of the participants, it’s still as fun).

Picture of a fairy tale book in Miro.

Result of the fairy tale book exercise in Miro.

That means we’re still training from the back of the room, but we’re doing it virtually using a digital whiteboard and a video conference.

Conclusion

All in all we are quite happy with our transition. We anticipated the virtual trainings losing quite a bit of quality in comparison to on-site trainings and were pleasantly surprised when they didn’t. Judging from this, virtual trainings will become a permanent part of our offerings and not just something we do during a pandemic.