How to Engage Trades Learners in a Virtual Class?
In March 2020, when the pandemic had just started to affect us in Australia, I got sick with a common cold. At that time I was working part time as an electrical teacher at one of the TAFEs and had a scheduled class. The discussions around remote teaching had just started at the time in trades departments and there were no examples to follow. Instead of handing my class to another teacher, I decided to run it remotely.
In this blog, I will share with you my experiences of my first attempt at conducting a class remotely and how I improved to make the learning virtual and engaging. I’ll also share a list of tools that I used and recommend when running a class remotely or virtually.
My first experience with remote classes
Since my first attempt at this was in response to my ailment, I did not have time to set anything up so I requested assistance from one of my colleagues. The learners were in the classroom, because there were no restrictions at the time, and so I asked my colleague to set up a webcam and login into the classroom computer and start the meeting.
I used a webcam at my end and used the whiteboard to do all the training. I love using a whiteboard to explain concepts before getting into demonstrations because it gives the learners an opportunity to take notes their own way. Besides the class notes, the learners also had to use the learning management system (LMS) for their learning material but mainly the focus was on classroom quizzes and some assessments.
This setup was new for everyone but the learners adopted it very well, which proved that technology is usually not something they shy away from. In fact, they took it as a challenge and tried to get the most out of the situation
What tools did I use in my first attempt
Here is the list of tools I used during my first attempt and a short explanation about them. I improved a lot on this list which I will explain later in this post.
- Computers with webcams
These are some of those crucial items that are now indispensable in remote or virtual learning environments. I still remember running face to face classes, where we had to ask the learners to stop using their devices to concentrate on what was being discussed in the class. Not any more though; without their laptops, computers, etc the remote or virtual teaching would be impossible.
I used C922 Logitech webcam on a tripod and my desktop computer for this.
- Whiteboard and markers
As mentioned earlier, I love using a whiteboard when explaining concepts during my classes because it encourages learners to take notes. My other reason for using it was change management. In organisations, we spend so much time and effort in carefully managing change but when transitioning to remote learning, we had no guidelines for it.
Because I always used a whiteboard in my class, not using it in the remote learning would’ve been a huge change and may have affected my learners’ capacity to absorb the information.
- Video conferencing software
We used Cisco Webex for the virtual meets but there were so many options at the time. Zoom, Microsoft teams, google meet, etc but Webex was the prescribed software for the TAFE I used to work at.
- Communications channel
Outlook email and facebook messenger. I know that messenger is not usually a prescribed platform to use for communication in classes but it was the quickest to get started with. I realised that I applied a big lesson that we learn in business and marketing – use what your customers use and go where your customers gather. Almost all of our learners use facebook and messenger and by using that for communicating I managed to reduce the resistance to almost none.
- Content sharing
LMS is vital for remote learning. Without a well functioning learning platform, I feel that I would’ve struggled to teach any of my remote classes. Youtube was another channel that I heavily dependent on for showing certain concepts.
What worked well and what didn't go so well in my first attempt
The learners adapted better than I expected and took charge of their learning and the change. They had no problem communicating with me and each other seamlessly, using technology or following the instructions given remotely. Kudos to them for being so adaptive.
Support from my colleagues was also a great help, without which I’m sure I would’ve struggled.
In a feedback form, I asked the learners what did they like about the virtual class? Here are some of their comments:
- We actually got to learn rather than just waste time
- Having a teacher via webcam is better than not having a teacher
- Felt like a standard class
- that class could go ahead even though you weren’t physically here
- I like it because it’s a different way of learning
What didn’t go well
As much as we like the technology, it can sometimes let us down and this was no different. At times, my feed would blur and the learners wouldn’t be able to see what I wrote. This happened a few times but they were very patient and asked me to repeat myself. The quality of the speakers in the classroom wasn’t great so they were struggling to understand me at times.
Some learners did feel disconnected from me and felt disengaged. This is quite understandable since this was their first experience with remote learning as well. For example, during my classes, I would give one on one help to the learners who would need it and that was not possible in this setup.
Here are some of the learner comments when asked what they didn’t like about this way of teaching
- Sound and visual quality is poor
- There’s no face to face or one on one so it makes it a little harder to get help from you and class goes a little slower than normal as once you have finished set task you have wait for everyone else to catch up so you can continue on to next unit of work but no one says they have finished that unit so you have to wait even longer for teacher to move on
- Camera quality
- Not being able to ask questions when needed, felt like a burden
- It was very hard to read what was being written and sometimes understand you
Improvements and recommendations
Once I got a chance to plan my classes, I realise that there were many things I could improve to make my classes more engaging. Here were the three ways of training I found that other teachers were using.
Teachers show learners what they have to complete on the LMS and then let them work through it at their own pace. They had an option of emailing or messaging the teacher if and when they had any questions. I don’t believe this is the best way of teaching trades students. In universities, it’s perhaps a good way to go because there is an expectation set to begin with that they are responsible for their learning but in trades, we have to be hands on even if it is virtually. I feel that self paced learning leaves out many types of learners we encounter in trades.
- Check in method
This is similar to the self-paced method with the difference of meeting multiple times on Zoom or the preferred platform for regular catch ups to see the progress. In my opinion, this is better than complete self-paced but still not for trades learners.
- Full virtual class
I prefer this method. It a normal class where learners join the meeting at the scheduled time and engage in class as if it was a normal face to face class. The major difference is that we are all at our homes or home offices. This method is certainly harder and more involved than the two above but it’s much more engaging and rewarding for the learners. I’ll explain how I did this in the next section.
Improved virtual classes
Full virtual classes, as mentioned earlier, means that we virtually meet with the learners at the time scheduled as their normal classes, go to breaks and finish at the scheduled times. I have had much success with this method and a lot of positive feedback from the learners, some of which I’ll share here.
Recommended tools list
- Computers with webcams
This is still the most important part of the setup. However, I found out that some learners preferred using their phones to join instead of computers because they preferred using their laptops for the LMS. That’s the beauty of virtual learning, the learners are allowed to set up their own learning environment.
- iPad with Goodnotes and Airserver
As I have mentioned before, I prefer using a whiteboard when teaching but after the feedback that they couldn’t see clearly, I decided to try something new. I got an iPad with a note taking app called Goodnotes and shared the iPad screen to my computer via Airserver. Now everything I write I can share with the learners and they said that it looked really crisp. What was even better, I didn’t have to clear my screen like I would have to with a whiteboard. I just changed to the new page. Now all the notes a saved. At the end of each class, I used to share the notes with the learners and they loved that because now they could check their notes and compare them with mine.
- Video conferencing software
We still used Cisco Webex because it was the prescribed platform and is a great virtual meeting tool.
- Communications channel
I started creating groups in facebook messenger and they worked really well. In fact, even now after more than 6 months, when I’m not teaching anymore, the learners are still using that messenger group to share information and ask each other questions.
- Content sharing
LMS was still the key platform and youtube was very useful in delivering video content.
- Practical demonstration equipment
Just talking about concepts can be quite boring for trades learners, not because they are not interested but the majority of them prefer seeing the real things rather than just talking about the theory. When I included our practical demonstration equipment within our remote classes, it truly turned into a virtual learning environment. They could see the effects of the concepts in real demonstrations. It was a game-changer for my classes.
At Infinispark, we manufacture training and assessment equipment that map to the training packages. When I introduced one of our equipment, AC Pracbox, in a class where I was teaching AC theory (UEENEEG102A), the learners were extremely excited. The number of good questions pouring in the chats was fantastic. I almost felt that it was better than face to face learning because the learners didn’t have to huddle up to see a demo, they could see it on their screens, almost like on-demand.
They would tell me to change the angles to see better, ask me what would happen if a parameter like voltage changed or a component changed – it was just amazing. They were truly interacting and engaging and made a world of difference to their learning.
To make this happen, I set up the AC Pracbox with the power supply on my bench and pointed the webcam on the whole setup. As I drew the circuit on the iPad which I shared with them first and then connected the circuit on the webcam that they could follow. I then turned the power on and guided them to every point of the circuit and the measurements.
I thought if it worked for this class, perhaps it might work for others as well. So I tried it in a class that was learning induction motors (UEENEEG006A).
In this subject, I was teaching three-phase motors and was discussing star and delta connections. One of our products, called Motor Faults Pracbox, is designed for this subject so I set it up for them just like I did for the last class. First I connected the motor in Star and conducted the measurements and then changed it to delta and then repeated the measurements.
As I had expected, it worked fantastically. The engagement was amazing, they loved that they could see the real equipment straight after talking about the theoretical concepts about the topic.
Survey result after the improvements
Here are some of the comments I got from my learners about my virtual training and the equipment
- How clear everything was explained, and when someone didn’t understand you found a different way to explain it. The Videos you create were really useful as well.
- your style of teaching makes the student be involved and understand the content.
- Your presentation of the subjects and the practical demonstration of equipment was also very professional. Even though I didn’t take it up, but I appreciate the fact that you offer to help at anytime.
- teaching in depth includes some interesting practicals while learning.
- the way you teach us is very hands on, I struggled with the whole learning from home, but you made it easy and exciting, couldn’t ask for a better teacher.
- The teacher provides very good demo part with all equipments needed
As in any training, there was some criticism as well. Here are some
- I think having people go through the online content and then you going over it would be better as we come in to the class already having an idea of what is going on and then you clear up any missing bits.
- I believe the notes you made would be better kept and more easily reviewed if your handwriting was a little easier to read. Doctors also have illegible handwriting too, so it might be an IQ thing .
- maybe do more demos. I know it’s easier said than done but I really enjoyed and took more in when I was visually looking at it
- I honestly don’t have anything negative to say Hus. Considering we had to go online because of Covid, a lot of us were hesitant about how it would go. But you had the entire setup ready to go and everything! …If I could give some positive improvement. I wouldn’t bother with the whiteboard next time! The Ipad worked heaps better! and was much easier to follow along with! Plus you can just email the notes document instead of having to video record stuff (if you wanted to) and also the videos that you made were super helpful, and really helped me because I’m very much a visual/tactile learner, so I really benefitted out of those, and I know that others would be the same.
- only criticism I have is handwriting, but this is only a (barely) issue due to online learning I think.
I also asked them if the practical equipment I used helped them or not. Here are some of their responses
- Enjoyed this. Perhaps better camera angles
- very helpful and good practical learning
- Very helpful, made it easier to understand theoretical concepts when seeing it applied practically
- I enjoyed watching the practical presentations. It made me more interested.
- the pracbox was good helped explain what was going on
Virtual and remote classes were a godsend for the training organisation during the lockdown and whether we wanted or not we had to adapt to the situation and use them. We did really well with getting on board with it and with minimal disruption to our learners. Perhaps this had become a semi permanent solution for most organisations but for trades it’s only temporary.
Learners join the VET sector to gain hands-on knowledge, which can be very challenging to achieve remotely. However, with the right preparation and equipment, I and many other trainers were able to achieve it. The best things about the planning and the equipment is that when we move back to training in the preCOVID setup, these efforts will transfer easily. Kudos to all the teachers in all sectors of education for embracing the technology and continuing to provide an excellent education amidst all the chaos.
Thanks for reading. If you would like to know more about the Pracboxes, please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org