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Pivoting to online training with Michael Gwyther

In this podcast Robin is talking with Michael Gwyther about pivoting to online training. Michael often works with Sprout Labs on online facilitation; he was the host of one room for our first virtual conference. Michael has been helping a number of training providers in the Australian vocational education system to pivot rapidly to live online learning. The discussion is an insight to what is happening in the training sector at the moment and Michael shares a number of ‘learning hacks’. The interview finishes with effective suggestions from Michael about assessing what your strengths are in face-to-face teaching and then thinking about how to bring those to live teaching experiences. 

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Pivoting to online training with Michael Gwyther

Robin: You've been doing some work with training providers at the moment, to help them pivot to a very different type of digital learning. What's some of the possibilities you're seeing that are starting to emerge?

Mick: Well, quite a number of opportunities really, Robin. I mean, particularly in the virtual classroom space because that's the only opportunity we have at the moment for trainers and students to remain connected in the same sense that they had been prior to this whole situation, in the same location at the same time. So the first thing we're actually seeing is a rebuilding of relationships after that time being away. There's also a bit of a sense of equality by being in one another's lounge room.

The need to go to an institution has been removed and we're coming into the trainer's household. The student is in their household too. So we're seeing one another’s cats and family members who are helping them, in their lounge rooms as well. So there's a real sense of togetherness and connectedness. Once we move beyond that I think they're starting to see, well how, do we get back to rolling up our sleeves and getting back to work?

And one of the great problems has been how long we have to rethink the delivery sequence of what we're doing because some of our skills have a practical component. And soft skills we can maybe teach online but some of the trade skills and other types of skills we can't. So how might we shuffle that sequence around? So then I guess, it's a matter of how we adapt what we're really good at, in terms of facilitation and group work, demonstration, sharing stories and case study scenarios. Those types of things that we often do, almost off the cuff at times without preparation, as things come to us with the mood of the group. It has to be kind of totally rethought so people get that sense of spontaneity back into an environment and it has to be micromanaged technically, as well as what are the students actually doing.

There's also some questions in content as well because content has always been a bit of a poor neighbour in terms of what we provide students, what we ask them to do, where the expectations are and how we excite and engage them with that learning content. So how do we get a sense of the teacher's presence into that? So looking at video and audio for those kinds of things, making connections between content because there isn't simply a time to rebuild content. A lot of the time we're just sharing what we've already got. Putting some frameworks and scaffolds around it in terms of questions or activities or quizzes and video and audio there can really help set the scene and really clarify what it is that is important.

To individual classrooms too, Robin, what I've seen, people use them as a methodology for short instructional type stuff where students don't need to be there. And also assessment shake downs, where a teacher might get online and work through an assessment task and use that as an opportunity to reach more people at once with the sort of questions that inevitably flow from setting an assessment task.

Robin: Some of the themes that you just talked about were learning design, the agility of face-to-face compared to digital, as well as content and the assessment one's really interesting. I feel also like this rapid move to live online learning has actually made us all really look again at our learning designs and seeing and thinking what medium is really the right medium for particular learning experiences.

How are we going to blend it and work with the experience in a different way?

We’re talking about being socially distanced for at least six months, a year, we're probably not going to have as many people gathering in small teaching spaces. Are people doing a redesign of the actual fundamental design and sequencing of their course?

Mick: I think that definitely happened because there's been a lot of redesign work going on. I think there's probably been as much of that happening as there has been acquiring skills to make it happen. But I think the really interesting thing is that for those of us who've been talking about blended learning for, some cases, 15, 20 years, that the conversation has shifted from content, which is where we thought it would all start, because the face-to-face classroom was pretty sacrosanct, has been totally flipped by this situation. And so now it's special classrooms and teaching online that's front and centre.

I think in some ways perhaps management has sort of also pushed that content focus thinking that it aligns itself more with self-paced and that whole at any time that you need it. When we know that it obviously has to be sequenced and timetabled to keep students in a sequence of learning that's current and keeps them up to date.

The virtual classroom space is the one where we are in and which is going to sell the benefits of thinking when we come out of that, then well, how might we look at what it is that we do and how we deliver and reinforce the role of a trainer even more heavily than we've probably even considered in the past with a new learning model? Given that the concerns are all about we don't know trainers anymore.

I mean, to future delivery. So how might we bust up a unit in terms of how we work with skills and devote more time with the whites of students' eyes together? Whereas we can push a whole lot of other things off into facilitated activities for knowledge, underpinning knowledge, communication, teamwork, group work, all those kinds of things and there's still a role for self-paced training but it's probably diminished in this situation compared to now, what will be the majority experience for many teachers.

Robin: That is a lovely sentiment in some ways. I think it'd be a little bit like a maturity curve. People do this sort of rush to online to make it self-paced. It's resource based. It's like most of the experience on the web is passive, resource content focus and all of a sudden what's actually happened is this great shift where in actual fact the processes and the learning processes. Often teachers, facilitators and trainers really help guide that learning process and that has now become the forefront of learning design.

This is often quicker and more rapid than what the self-paced resource development is as well. It's a bit like we've actually had to accelerate the learning curve.

Mick: Absolutely. That's kind of how I'm seeing it too. And I think underpinning that, it's probably another look at digital literacy because that's been a kind of nefarious Zeplin over the industry in terms of a barrier for people participating which students have largely exploded through all sorts of assistance. And for those who don't have technology, there's some wonderful catch-up adaptions happening around print and post, which is what you kind of expect. But certainly, in terms of this situation probably caught out a few organisation in terms of what we haven't really introduced students to the kinds of skills they might need in the workforce in terms of personal productivity, even basics such as email and calendars and shared document spaces and online apps for communicating and participating in publishing, which most providers provide their students.

So I think there's going to be some revisiting of that too as how we can more strategically embed all those kinds of workplace digital skills into competencies that reference them and discuss those things. And we've been caught out a little bit with that because a lot of students couldn't be contacted via email even if they had it. So there's been a lot of catch up work done in that area. So I think it's going to help us really shake down the whole of what it is to be a digital citizen and a digital worker in this space, as a result of the Zoom, which I don't think would have happened if we'd gone down the content model instead.

Robin: I think that particular digital literacy is often not addressed in learning experiences. There was a really great law graduate we worked with at one stage as a subject matter expert and he confessed that during the first two or three months of being in employment what he really struggled with was Outlook and the etiquette around Outlook. He was like, "Email, I understood, but this whole shared calendar thing, it was really complicated." And I think that's a really good example of the fact I wasn't explicitly shown how to use it, the etiquette explained to him.

To backtrack, you made the comment that face-to-face quite often has this beautiful agility. You can sort of go with where the group is, pick up another story. Live online, so sessions and then tools like Zoom just need to be more structured, otherwise they quite often go totally wrong. What sort of strategies are you trying to help teachers balance structure with agility?

Mick: We have talked a few times with some of the people about how in particular sessions you have to sometimes make a decision as to whether you're comfortable to lose your training agenda for that particular moment or session or day, for example, based on the level of questioning you might get. Which either shows a deep or shallow understanding of the topic that can help them go in a number of different ways. If it's a deep understanding, then your agenda may not reflect that. So you have to think pretty quickly on the fly. So, how can you extend this knowledge that you didn't think was there because that's what you've kind of provided for?

So that can lead you into all sorts of wonderful conversations, conundrums, scenarios. So it's useful to maybe jot down questions that you can ask in either situation. The shallow ones, probably much more where we're comfortable because we're much more comfortable with a deficit model I guess, where students exhibit to us they don't know because we can fall back on our content knowledge. Because in the face-to-face setting and virtual classroom setting, the teacher or trainer is, generally, most of the content by how they deliver it. So we're comfortable in that space. But I think it's where we may under prepare or pitch the class at a lower level that when we get caught out but we have to adjust and we would do that quite comfortably in a virtual class and we consider stories or scenarios or examples or next level skills or ask open questions to deepen and apply that students know it.

So we're really kind of saying, "Well, how do you recognise that when it's happening and how do you adjust? And what's your comfort level, your risk appetite for ditching the session and backing your teacher gut and rolling with some things you hadn't planned for in terms of brainstorming and how you might, with a couple of simple questions on a whiteboard, buy yourself some time as students prepare their answers to quickly structure how you might take the session now the students have surprised you and showed you a depth of understanding you weren't anticipating?

So I think that's the bigger challenge than when stuff's shown not to be known or where students got an opportunity to demonstrate what they know and it's not quite there because that's the natural space where we're comfortable with, either at an individual or group level in class.

Robin: Always fascinated about how strategies or work face-to-face can be translated online as well, Mick. Because even when you get that spot where you haven't quite hit the mark with what you're planning face-to-face, you quite often dive for a whiteboard. You sit there and go, "What's the fastest way I can rework what I was planning on doing? Where's the whiteboard?" We still have those sorts of tools online. It does mean taking a little bit more risk because you have to deviate from your plan. This does mean more technical risks when you're online as well. So it does take a little bit more confidence doesn't it?

Mick: Well, it's interesting. I've had some really fantastic examples where one trainer who, first time in Zoom, split it up into breakout rooms, gave them a task to go and search for something as a group, gave 20 minutes for them to do that, then meet back in the room, form a quick report and then come back to the group and report on what they've been searching for, which is pretty high level stuff for a kind of beginner session. And she said it worked beautifully. That also bought her time too. It meant she wasn't facilitating the whole time, students were off doing things and then she could monitor that when they came back. So yeah, I think it's very much about how you buy yourself some time in a session, to get beyond having to consider the technology all the time and think more about what can you do to extend this understanding on the fly.

I mean, other trainers have said, "Well, look," when we asked them, we asked them, "Well, if you had assistance tomorrow on a session, where would you start?" And we give them a few options. A lot of people say informal learning. Informal learning and questioning, “what if” kind of questions or scenarios, those types of things because they give that student the opportunity to join the gaps a little bit with their kind of knowledge which is where facilitation is all about.

We haven't kind of solved the informal learning part where someone sitting next to another person and nuts something out because of something that person tells them by their peers. But buying time is really, really important. And to maybe think about a strategy going into a session that you tried one of each of a few different things. One demonstration, one bit of instruction, one case study you share which could be a story and then maybe open it up to what lessons might come from that.

But one scenario that might build on that case study and then one problem that students can solve, in kind of small groups. So strategize, how are you going to deliver the content so that it flows through increasing level of sophistication but has some different elements to it to keep that engagement up.

Robin: That approach has that lovely link to the word engagement where if you keep on doing the same thing all the time and don't respond to the group, that's when you become unengaging. If you just flip through the PowerPoint, stay with the plan but that's sort of mixing up different types of activities. It's a lovely blend you just talked about it as well, Mick. So a teacher goes into online sessions, less with a slide deck, more with a toolkit of activities.

Mick: The other thing is that you don't necessarily have to stay there. Sessions can also capture evidence on the way you can, this is worthwhile for me actually, just to scaffold out to a forum. So, your learning management system or you scaffold out to a survey or a quiz or a scenario and so you can then use that data as student content to get a bit of a temperature of the room, but you can also share that back with students to see. If you get those kind of survey tools that give you some analysis of what students have selected as far as good options for problems or their thoughts on solving a scenario.

I mean, you can kind of build off that task. What's missing, what's missing? What more could we kind of do? Which is the best of these options, what are the pros and cons of each of them? So we don't have to sort of stay in that environment, we can branch out to other tools that we might be using with students. Content's a little bit like that way too, bringing in video or audio as a bit of a breather from you backing that up with pasting in the main points of what you've been talking about to reinforce them into text chat. The way that you posit your PowerPoints with images to give students mentally a break in this environment and minimum text, dot points and single words that you speak to briefly and lots of opportunity for students to be tactile with the tools.

So draw their response and then speak to them or use the emoticons that they find to describe their feeling, almost in code. And also to maintain contact with students over as many different means as you can. Emoticons for quick feedback and text chat for discussions amongst themselves and then the whiteboard for your more public brainstorming and ideas with a kind of a bit of a focus on anonymity, so that students can then be invited in to talk more about rather than identified, which you can get to when they're a bit more comfortable.

Robin: Wow. This is just a lovely list of different types of interactions, Mick. I actually want to pick up on, actually I'm going to call them almost interaction hacks.

Mick: Yeah. Very cool.

Robin: I'm going to pick up on another bit of a hack that you talked about, which was an interesting one that I never quite thought about. If you've got a teacher, trainer that's actually not great with digital skills and you show them how to use Zoom and then showing them how to use Zoom to record a session means that they can build a bit of video content really rapidly and quickly that can be given to students before or after, in a way that they possibly normally wouldn't be able to and I hadn't actually thought about Zoom as a tool for doing that. It's quite a nice little hack.

Mick: I think it sort of buries itself because some people are kind of performers I guess and others aren't. And I think the other interesting discussion that might flip out of all of this is that in RTOs we often put people into silos. The assessment writer, the SMA, the trainer, small organisations, they're all probably one and the same person. But those organisations that have got different people who are delivering the similar qualifications have got the ability to sort of zoom out and have a look at who might be a good instructional performer in Zoom, who might be better running the facilitation for you?

They don't necessarily teach all the time. But that are in the ballpark of SME expertise. So we start to kind of assume all trainers are good at facilitating but some of them are much better at demonstrating, which is a wonderful skill and means that you're performing something almost without a script to sheet home to students how to do something.

So the other conversation, I think along with blends, is to look at where the strengths are in this teaching and assessment caper and maybe start to think a bit more broadly about using those horses for courses in different environments. Someone does a recording for content. Someone does the online assessment, someone does the sexy facilitation stuff and someone records the sessions around assessment and the others can provide technical support for one another. But yeah, just to deploy personnel in a kind of a broader way. I mean, if you've got a blend, might say, "Well, you're not much good in Zoom, you don't like it but you're demonstrating is amazing. So that's your role in the face-to-face environment."

And the other person might do the assessment and contents function videos and another person might do the facilitation. So looking at it a bit more kind of strategically. We've been talking about micro-credentials for the difference, you don't talk about it for training. When I look at training as a learning organisation where we can deploy the best assets for the best outcome, including human assets. We're just, you're the trainer, you're doing the lot.

Robin: I think that's a really good point. It's going to be interesting to see how that sort of develops and especially that sort of sense that quite often the best Zoom sessions and best online teaching is quite often team teaching. It's different types of flexibility to people as well. Other people get energy out of performing. That means they can perform all day. If someone wants to coach all day, they can coach all day.

One of the best eLearning developers I've come across in the VET sector said to me "I'm not going back to a classroom. I don't like classrooms. I don't like facilitating. I don't like groups." She was a really good instructional designer and a resource driven person.

Mick: I suspect a lot of it will get lost when we have to go back quickly because I think it might be the purview of managers to come up with that and there's some difficulties with the awards I imagine as well. But it's interesting that teachers have those experiences, not so much managers, so they still may have a bit of a blind spot in terms of what the experiences have been and the human resources shake-down of that is potentially possible. So the challenge that's been to teachers may not float up to the high watermark of management to kind of make those decisions, which I'm happy to be surprised on but I suspect that's what will occur.

Robin: It's going to be interesting over the next few months to see how things shift or don't shift for multiple different reasons. I want to go back to the assessment piece that you talked about and rethinking and redoing assessment. What's an example of that, Mick?

Mick: With assessment, I think the whole online learning thing comes back to that constructivist model of students demonstrating what they know to other people is the focus of learning. And so in a virtual classroom assessment, you're opening the assessment up, so you get it for things like work products or projects or those kinds of things. It lends itself to that because when a student presents their assessment, once you've been to three or four of those, you've opened up your own industry knowledge quite substantially, in terms of what you now understand, different approaches. You can think about something like building your retaining wall, you've got different challenges if you're in sandy soil, as what you got from as what you've got from granite soils, as what you've got from loamy soil, to what you've got from clay soils. 

So people can learn about those particular things through that same reflex, things like role plays, demonstrations of communication or software or even work products, things that students have made or built that they can talk through with the use of images of their type of video. So I think most assessments, I think to me they're the main assessments you could do in a virtual classroom but the key principle is that assessment is just another context for learning. So when you're getting students together to inculcate them into the marking guide, they want to brainstorm that. So students brainstorm what the best practise is going to be or good practise looks like and you equate it to the marking guide and similar language or the language that students have given you.

You give it back to the students, then they're guided by that. And how they build their assessment. And then they use it to evaluate one another's work product but you obviously mark them with a marketing guide that you've plain Anglicized and what they now present as the students take on that best practise at their own levels. When they've contributed to it, when it's been integrated into them looking for examples of how they might apply it in their own assessment task and when they've looked at it and seen it in others. So all you’re kind of really doing is embedding in them a sense of what good practise is, by the capacity not only to demonstrate it but to identify in others, which is a really key thing to maintain standards anywhere.

Robin: That ability to be able to identify good performance and give feedback and understand it is certainly linked to your own self-reflection and ability to be able to improve as well. That particular collaborative assessment strategy is a really, really lovely one on so many levels. 

If you bring in work samples in a virtual space, an assessor doesn't have to go out to a work site. A learner can bring it into a virtual space. They can turn around a camera, show something. It can be quite a tactile experience.

Mick: Even an exemplar assessment or sample assessments can help you with that too by identifying what's good and bad practise as well. So there's a lot of things you can do. They won't all be summative assessment, final assessment but they can all contribute to it in the long run.

Robin: I've got a confession to make. There’s a series of people in my life, who I sit there and go ‘Actually, I learned how to facilitate almost online and face-to-face from you, from them and you and you're one of those people.”

Mick: Really?

Robin: Yeah. You probably don't even realise that there's some subtle things in those early days of some of those webinars you ran. I actually tell the story of how you managed someone who'd essentially Zoom-bombed one session and it was just so well done. I'm going to actually ask you to do something which is, I imagine, quite hard. I'm going to actually ask you what's your greatest gem for wisdom to someone who's needing to pivot to online and about what they should do?

Mick: Identify what their strengths are in face to face with working with groups and with problem solving, I think because that's the strength and then perhaps back from that, identify where, particularly with PowerPoint, how they could carve that up. How they need to understand that they've got a five minute window for everything, five minute structure and five minute activity and five minute engagement and repeat and vary. So if you're comfortable with understanding and being able to really critically reflect, well, what are my strengths working with people? What are the activities people really enjoy doing that always hit the mark with students and how can I adapt them so that they would work here? Knowing that really all I've got to work with is a white board text chat, my video cam, which might end up making me look like I've got a good head for radio and maybe some other tricks like emoticons and a PowerPoint and break-out room.

So how can I start off nice and simply with maybe one or two of those to make two of the three activities I'm going really awesome at, happen and work in here? So always visualise your practise with actual active facilitation, managing students, reading how they're understanding or not. Searching furtively and quickly for another explanation of a story, another case study from your experience and bring all that over because it really isn't much different. It's just that the technology creates a bit of a barrier, like looking at the world through a wine glass, the world's still there, but it's just slightly coloured and a bit harder to see. So it's that, I think, which goes from the known into the unknown of the technology. And I dare say, you won't fail, whereas if you think, "Well, I'm really good at talking to my PowerPoints," that's probably not a bad place to start either but how do I talk to them and then invite people to understand? How do I show them that's going to happen. So yeah, going from your strengths, doing a bit of a self audit. Think of what you're amazing at. We've got a bit of a list of the different things teachers do and then that would be your first session. Once you've done some, and use icebreakers to introduce your content. So every activity you might have is always an ice breaker to the tools and the environment as well.

Robin: That's a lovely, really powerful idea, Mick, and a lovely way to finish this conversation.