I spent this week at home, remotely attending a class, VMware vSphere 5: Install, Configure, Manage. This is the first time I’ve ever taken a class in this format, after being too skeptical to try it until now. Given the cost-savings to my employer (no travel expenses) and the fact that I don’t have to be away from my family for a week, I was willing to give it a shot, especially for this particular class. I’ve worked with one version or another of VMware’s virtualization products since implementing our IT organization’s first production virtualization system in 2005 using ESX Server 2.5. So I figured if I were going to risk taking a class that didn’t work out well, I might as well do it with one for a product with which I have a decent bit of experience.
I’ll save you a bit of reading if you’re only interested in my final opinion – remote/online training isn’t my cup of tea at all. I imagine there are times when it would be better than nothing, but not by much, at least not for me. Now for the why.
No personal interaction with the instructor or fellow classmates
And by none, I mean zero. No eye contact. No facial expressions. No body language. Just you and a screen filled with (in this case anyway) the WebEx app showing a slide deck and a chat window. Disembodied voices filling the room. Thankfully I did this class at home, because during the same week my wife remotely attended a couple of training classes, but oddly enough at a New Horizon learning center, where she got to sit in a room with other people, each with headsets on and attending various remote classes. No way I’d ever do that – then the disembodied voices would literally be in my head.
I’ve been dubious of this class delivery format for a while. In fact, I rebuffed numerous attempts by a local training provider to consider attending Citrix classes this way. But several of my coworkers have attended training this way during the past year, and they all said the experience was good. One, however, laughed when he finished telling me that, yes, he was satisfied with the format. He told me that I would hate it because, in his words, I’m “too much of a people person.” And he’s right. I’m an extrovert, and I enjoy training classes because I get to meet a variety of people who work in my field, and usually at least someone with more experience than me. I feared that a remote/online class would eliminate all of the social aspects of the class – lunches with one or more fellow students and/or the instructor, conversations about our respective data centers, major systems we run, war stories of failed upgrades, etc. And I was absolutely right. This week the only people for whom that was possible were the two students who were sitting in the training facility with the instructor in Colorado.
What did those of us, nine in all, attending the class remotely, get, as far as personal interactions go? We introduced ourselves over our various crummy phone/VOIP connections at the beginning of the first day, after which we all promptly forgot what everyone else had said – or at least I did. I remember there was one woman in the class, mainly because her audio connection was pretty bad, and I remember my lab partner’s name, Mohamed, and that’s about it.
The technology for doing this is surprisingly mediocre
I attend a lot of webinars, and have given a presentation over one, and aside from the problem of people not remembering (or caring) to mute themselves, I’ve been reasonably happy with the experience. Nearly all of those webinars have been delivered via GoToMeeting, which makes sense considering how much of my professional life has focused on implementing Citrix products for the last few years. So I’ve grown accustomed to clicking the GoToMeeting link, having it do its thing on my Mac, and listening and often speaking via my Logitech headset. In fact, after trying to sit through an hour-long webinar a few years back using some random crummy headset I had at work, I ordered the same Logitech headset my wife and I use at home for raiding in World of Warcraft. I knew there was always, or almost always, an option to dial into the conference, but why would I?
So I was surprised this past Monday when I clicked through to the WebEx session for the class and didn’t hear any audio. Luckily I signed in 15 minutes early so I had time to ask in the chat window if dialing into the conference was the only option. Indeed it was, which presented me with a moment of panic, as I checked my AT&T usage for the month and saw that I only had 140 of my 550 minutes left for the month, with 8 days left in the billing cycle. Yes, my wife and I have the puniest minutes plan for our iPhones because a) we don’t make that many phone calls and b) those we do are usually to each other. I guess that’s one thing I won’t have to worry about when I switch us over to Verizon and get unlimited minutes, but last Monday I needed an alternative. Thankfully, I was signed into my Gmail account and I saw the little chat window with the phone icon above it and said to myself, “I wonder if Google is still doing free VOIP calls over Google Talk in the US?” Yes, Google is. So that problem was solved, although I discovered the hard way during lunch that Google cuts off calls after about 2.5 hours.
Which leads me to another annoyance. We weren’t actually dialing into a WebEx conference, but rather to a separate bridge provided by the training company. Boy did that bridge stink. Every single time anyone connected or disconnected, the bridge loudly announced to everyone, “Someone is entering/leaving the conference” followed by the person’s name if they provided it during the prompt when the person dialed in. I stopped providing my name after the first day, but several of my classmates dutifully provided it every day. So for the entire week, and throughout each day, class was interrupted numerous times by these obnoxious announcements. Was there a way to silence them? Beats me. My instructor wondered aloud if he could do something about it, but said he’d have to check with the training provider and for all I know he was told no.
So the audio stunk. But the screen & application sharing wasn’t exactly trouble-free either. There were plenty of times when the instructor couldn’t show us something he was doing on his laptop, and several times when the breakout rooms didn’t function properly.
Maybe I’m being unfair to the class format or to WebEx, and I’ll readily admit this is just my opinion and I’ve only gone through this one time, but I just didn’t expect for there to be this many glitches. I’d give the audio side of this class an F and the screen-sharing side a B-.
The instructor was pretty good
I’ll give the guy credit – he did his best to make lemonade with all the various lemons he found himself working with in this format. He had a lot of energy, was very friendly, and caught on several times as a couple of us tried to express some smidgeon of personality via emoticons in the chat interface. I wish I’d been in the same room with him, because I think he would have been a good guy to have lunch with or to talk about aspects of the class that we didn’t spend a ton of time on. He tried to make the remote students feel included, and he did a pretty decent job of monitoring the chat for questions. Not a perfect job, as he was standing in front of a couple of real live students in Colorado, but a decent job. Having delivered a webinar myself, I understand it is much more difficult to maintain two-way communication with multiple people who are only just voices on the line.
I will say that this instructor didn’t seem to fit my idea of the perfect instructor – that being a consultant or engineer who works with the technology on a regular basis in a variety of production environments and moonlights as an instructor. He seemed to be a professional instructor, but he knew his stuff and he did a good job not only of covering the very basic material in the beginning of the class, but of handling student questions about the material or its implications outside of the classroom or lab.
One thing the instructor couldn’t overcome was the inherent limitations of not being in the same room with his students. Problems with labs that could have been solved with a quick glance at a student’s screen took much longer to deal with when the person having the issue was a remote student. Even getting the instructor’s attention to ask for help with an issue was inefficient, and typically required either waiting for him to stop talking, or interrupting him to try to get the issue addressed without waiting for him to notice a question in the chat window.
So would I take a class in this format again? Only if it was my only option. Saving travel expenses was good for my employer. Avoiding a week away from home was good for me and my family. But this was, without a doubt, the least satisfying training experience I’ve had. While I know personal preference and my own extroverted personality contributed to my dissatisfaction, I also know the format itself and the imperfect technology supporting it were to blame as well. I also know that my wife, who is very much an introvert, also found her remote classes to be dissatisfying, for many of the same reasons I did.
I also admit to having a bit of an attention span problem. I like to multitask, and while I typically limit that to glancing at my iPhone every now and then during an in-person class, I was much more easily distracted this week. Having a real live person standing in front of me and real live students sitting around me just makes it easier to stay focused on the class, if for no other reason than simple courtesy. Sitting in my house alone, with the class running on my iMac and my MacBook Pro sitting right next to it, meant I payed less attention to the class and more attention to work email and Twitter. I’m sure my employer appreciated me responding to email quickly and remotely tackling a few fires that popped up, but each of those came at the expense of paying closer attention to the class.
Before I would take another remote/online class, I would investigate available self-paced options. I don’t believe that was an option here, as part of my goal was to finally get my VCP certification. But next time around, if attending a class in-person isn’t an option, I would prefer a self-paced alternative, either one provided by the vendor or a company like TrainSignal. I’m working through a Cisco UCS course from TrainSignal right now, and I plan to write a post about it soon, as well as a comparison between in-person, remote/online, and self-paced courses.