Here are some ideas that came up in a discussion with others who shared their experience and ideas about training from a distance.

Agile coaching includes training individuals, teams and other random assemblages of people in various subjects. I have enjoyed doing seminar type training for many years. Recently there has been more demand for remote training – webinars, web-enabled workshops and so forth. I have always been resistant to doing them simply because it is much more fun to be in the same room with everyone in the class. I am pretty well convinced that in-person training is more effective, too.

I have done a fair amount of distance-training and find it to be challenging to know how people are receiving it and how effective I am at delivering it. I had a chance to talk to some other people about this at a recent gathering in San Francisco called AgilePalooza. (I am a bit late in posting this and can’t find a link to the actual event anymore – it was on 5/29/09). This is a summary of the discussion. It may be useful if you find yourself in the position of delivering distance training.

Just to be clear, I am talking primarily about technique here, not instructional design or content. I spent several years in the distance learning field and am going to steer clear of those areas long enough to get this post finished.

I just coined the term Distance Training though it is apparently not original. I see a book with that title at Amazon. It is also used in the world of running. I originally used the term Faceless Faciliation but, in fact, I did have tiny digital representations of people’s faces in my TDD class.

Challenges of Distance Training

Here are some challenges of conducting a training session over the internet.

  • Technology setup
    • It always seems to take a lot of time to get set up and working, often without achieving high-quality communication channels. That is, unless you have access to very expensive services. And even that can be troublesome.
  • Lack of body language – total and/or facial expressions
    • As a trainer, I rely on body language for feedback on what is working and what is not. It is much harder to get when the bodies are reduced to small, incomplete pictures and sound information is reduced.
  • Language and cultural differences
    • These are pretty universal these days in my field (IT) anyway, but these gaps are definitely easier to bridge when you are in the same room with people.
  • Time zone differences
    • Try being at your best when you are working very late to accomodate the work day far away, or expecting the best from people who are matching your preferred time.
  • Lack of feedback
    • Distance training tends to be very one-way. Pacing is difficult. Participants are reluctant to interrupt.
  • Lack of interaction
    • Distance training tends to be very directed. People are less likely to ask for clarification.
  • Reluctance to speak/lack of safe environment (who is in the room?)
    • If you, the trainer, are not physically present and in control of the room, you do not know who else is present.
  • One-way communication – participant phones are muted
    • The mute button is a dangerous tool. Anyone who has done remote conferencing knows this. It can be divisive.

Simulating Presence

If you have not done much distance training before, you may be inclined to treat it as a completely different experience. I had a tendency to make assumptions about what was not going to work and act accordingly. In fact, there are some things that you can do to more closely simulate the live, co-located experience. These include:

  • Have the virtual space set up ahead of time
    • collaboration software, video links, presentation materials
    • test communication channels
  • Know your tools
    • practice with the technology way before the class
  • Have a list of participant names and roles
  • Draw a picture of the virtual space with people’s names marked
  • Use video and audio
    • face-to-face
    • face-to-room

New Opportunities

While we tend to focus on what is missing, consider what new opportunities there may be. Some are:

  • Multiple simultaneous communication channels (ex. IM for questions while speaking on audio)
  • Mute button (be careful)
  • Shared white board with archiving capability
  • IM for anonymity to enhance safety when giving opinions
  • Some people have begun to use Second Life type settings for remote training
  • Sococo.net virtual office technology looks interesting
  • for technical training, screen sharing from a remote location is almost as good as pair programming in person

General Tips

Here is a random collection of other tips to consider when doing remote training:

  • Address people by name
  • Invite comments and questions
  • Ask directed questions to groups (roles, locations, workshop teams)
  • Ask directed questions to indivduals by name
  • Encourage questions via IM, Queue up and filter to save time
  • Have questions hit the 3 key on their phone when they want to ask a question (it makes a tone but has no other function, typically)
  • Ping the audience periodically
  • Remember to take breaks in long sessions
  • Limit to 2-hour chunks per day
  • Use screen sharing for technical workshops
  • Have someone or a small group in the room with you in order to get live feedback
  • Prepare questions in case no one asks any
  • For multi-window video, limit to 8 feeds (Brady Bunch Design)

I have not been faced with the distance training challenge since this session. I am sure it will come up again. Hopefully some of these thoughts will come in handy. I share them here in case you may find them useful as well.

These notes came from an Open Space session. People who shared their ideas included Elisabeth Hendrickson, Dhiraj Dogra, Ian Culling, David Hussman and Pete whose last name I did not write down. Sorry Pete.

There is some irony with posting this now. My distance training issues were prompted by a workshop I did in TDD for a split group, half in Denver and half in Bangalore. I did it from my office in San Jose. This was an 8-hour workshop that I normally do live, in person. But this time I had to do it remotely. The irony is that just 6 weeks later I was actually with most of the same people in Bangalore to do some coaching. And guess what? I got a chance to see that my distance training efforts were actually successful. I was able to reinforce the lessons in person, but the participants actually internalized much of the basic message of the distributed workshop.

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Tips for Distance Training

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