Online teaching tips for synchronous classrooms

I’ve been teaching AWS courses for the past year or so.  Many have been with an online teaching environment.  This opens up the class to more people–there’s less cost in taking a course from your office or living room, as compared to flying an instructor out for an on-site.  However, this learning environment does have challenges.  Below is my set of best practices, some suggested by other instructors.

Pre class:

  • Set up your physical environment.  This includes making sure you have a fast internet connection, a room with no noise, and that your computer and audio equipment are set up.
  • Set up the virtual room.  Load the materials, set up any links or other notes.  I like to run virtual courses entirely with chat (audio conferences are really hard with 20 people) so I make a note about that.
  • Test your sound.  This includes having a friend login and listen to you beforehand.  This run through can help make sure your voice (which is your primary engagement tool) is accessible to your students.
  • Email a welcome message to all the students, 2-3 days before class starts.  Include when the class is happening, how to get materials, etc.  I’ve definitely had interactions with students from these emails that led to a better outcome for everyone.

During class:

  • Calculate your latency.  Ask an initial question that requires a response as soon as the question is asked.  Something easy like “where are you from?” or “how many years of AWS experience do you have?”  Note the latency and add it into the time you wait before asking for questions.
  • Ask for questions.   How often can vary based on previous AWS experience, but every 5-10 slides is a good place to start.
  • Answer questions honestly.  If you don’t know, say so.  But then say, “I’ll find out for you.”  (And then, of course, find out.)
  • Allow time for students to read the slide.  At least 15 seconds for each slide.
  • You, however, should not read the slide.
  • Draw or use the pointer tool to help engage the students and pull them into the material.
  • Find out what students want out of the class.  Try to angle some of the content toward those desires.  You may be constrained by knowledge or time or presentation material, but you can at least try.
  • Engage your students.  I like to make corny jokes (“have you heard the one about the two hard problems in computers science?“), refer back to technologies they mention having familiarity with, and talk about internet kitten pictures.
  • Remember your voice and energy are the only things keeping these students engaged.

After class:

  • Follow up on any loose ends.  This could be questions you didn’t get answered or more mundane items like how they can get a certificate of completion.  I had one student who couldn’t get access to the materials and it took a few weeks of bugging customer service reps across organizations before he did.  Not a lot of time on my end, but a big deal for him.

Note that I didn’t cover the content or particular technology at all.  They aren’t really relevant.

 


Railsconf Call For Proposals

Railsconf, a conference focused on, well, Ruby on Rails, is happening in Pittsburgh in April this year.  I attended last year and it was a fantastic experience.  I enjoyed the people I met, the problems I saw discussed, and the size and content of the presentations and workshops.  It definitely had a vendor experience (thank you, Heroku, for the t-shirts), but wasn’t too explicit.

Railsconf organizers are now accepting proposals for workshops, panels and speaking.  For some reason the CFP isn’t on the website, but I noticed it was announced via twitter.  I just submitted, so I can’t speak to the entire process, but the initial submission was pretty painless, just few sections on what you’re interested in presenting and why you might be a good fit.

They actually have a blind submission format, so I had to edit my initial submission to remove any reference to my identity.  Seems like a good idea.

So, go forth and submit!


Panel on Net Neutrality

I’ll be participating in a livestreamed panel at 7pm mountain tonight, hosted by Representative Jared Polis.  We’ll be discussing FCC net neutrality actions.  (They’re rolling back ‘common carrier’ status from ISPs as of today.)  (Update 12/12, apparently the reclassification is happening this week, not today.)

Please feel free to join!


Meetup talk outline

If you are thinking about doing a tech talk at a meetup, you should!  It’s a great way to deepen your experience, try a different skill and learn a lot.  It also has the benefit of making you a higher profile developer.

I was coercing a friend into talking at a meetup and he asked if I had any questions for his talk.  ‘X’ is what he was talking about.  (Where ‘X’ in this case was webhooks, but it could be any technology or protocol that is of interest to you.)

I rattled off the following set of questions that would be of interest.  I thought they might make a good template for any future meetup talks, so wanted to record them here for posterity.

  • what is X?
  • why does X exist?
  • what are prominent apps that use this tech?
  • how do you use it?
  • how would you test it?
  • how do you deal with dev/test/prod environments?
  • are there any gotchas?  Have any war stories?
  • how do you troubleshoot?
  • alternatives?  strengths and weaknesses of this solution or the alternatives?
  • any third party libraries that someone should be aware of?  How about tools?

What do you want to hear from presenters?


AWS machine learning talk

I enjoyed giving my “Intro to Amazon Machine Learning” talk at the AWS Denver Boulder meetup.   (Shout out to an old friend and colleague who came out to see it.) I didn’t get through the whole pipeline demonstration (I didn’t get a chance to do the batch prediction), but the demo gods were kind and the demo went well.

We also had a good discussion.  A few folks present had used machine learning before, so we talked about where AML made sense (hint, it’s not a fit for every problem).  Also had some good questions about AML, about performance and pricing.  One of the members shared a reinvent anecdote: the AML team looked at all the machine learning used in Amazon and graphed the use cases and solved for the most common ones.

As, usual, I also learned something. OpenRefine is a tool to help you prepare data for machine learning.  And when you change the score cut-off, you need to restart your real-time end point.

The “Intro to Amazon Machine Learning” slides are up on SlideShare, and big thanks to the Meetup organizers.




Running a brown bag lunch series in your office

Courtesy of smoothfluid

Courtesy of maxually

Brown bag lunches are great opportunities for employees to share their knowledge, learn new skills, and bring a small company together.  By ‘brown bag lunch’, I mean an internal presentation lasting about an hour, made by an employee on an interesting topic of their choice.  The name comes from everyone bringing their lunch to work on that day, rather than eating out.

8z has been doing them for over two years, and here are some lessons.

  • Schedule them monthly, and one mont at a time.  Don’t try to schedule out the whole year.
  • Have presenters spend as little time as possible building a powerpoint.  It’s hard to get away from them as a structural crutch, but they don’t really add a lot of value.
  • Bring in real business situations.  One of the most memorable presentations occurred when presenters analyzed a recorded call during the presenation.
  • Have someone be point and recruit people individually.  Don’t count on volunteers, especially at the beginning.
  • It’s OK to miss a month or two if other stuff is going on.  Hello December.
  • Record them if you can.  All you need is an ipad and a youtube account.
  • Technical presentations (like application architecture) are appreciated by the business folks.
  • Everyone has something to say.
  • You can have people repeat every six months or so.
  • Some people won’t want to speak.
  • Presenting in pairs can work.
  • Make sure the presenter leaves plenty of time for Q&A.  8z budgets an hour for the talk and Q&A.
  • Schedule it so founders/executives attend.  This makes a powerful statement and exposes them to direct ideas.
  • Be prepared to capture changes/feedback from the presentation.
  • The departmental cross pollination is a major benefit.
  • Consider themed potlucks (mexican, breakfast for lunch, etc) instead of brown bag lunches.

How do you spread knowledge within your small company?


The future of the web browser…

… from the perspective of people building platforms for add-ons (or plugins or extensions or what-have-you): this collection of videos from the keynote of the Add-on-Con covers a variety of interesting topics regarding browser development, the security model and how extensions fit, ad blockers and what they mean, and more.

Of the major browsers, Chrome, Opera and Firefox are represented–the Microsoft/IE representative was sick, and Apple/Safari was MIA.  It’s about 30 minutes of video, unfortunately split into 5 separate segments.  Well worth a view.

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