Published on July 21, 2020
So this post is part apology and part roadmap for others looking to do the same. That is, looking to make a fully remote learning experience that’s even better than one presented in person.
First of all, the apology: we’ve been a bunch of damn hypocrites. We’ve been passionately fully remote since we started and yet when we presented our Docker and Kubernetes workshops we’d been adamant that we deliver them on-site, at a customer’s location. The implication being that the fully remote world was great for us, but somehow not suited to our customers. This was all driven by an unwillingness to tackle new problems and an inertia that kept us in the comfort zone of what trainers have done before us.
The world has changed, and we have had to adapt along with it. At first, this was pretty damn scary, but I’m now convinced that we’ve been able to turn it into a huge improvement. Our fully remote workshops (launched just last month) are a better experience for our students than the in-person workshops ever were.
We had to force ourselves to retool our workshop process to be successfully delivered remotely. We took a step back and question some of our other initial decisions. By being flexible and imaginative with the new format, we were able to make some changes that improved things across the board.
I’m going to walk you through these and how they transformed our training into something so successful.
Who wants to spend two days stuck in a room?
We’re fully remote, so in-person training obviously means taking the time to fly to the customer’s site. This also means managing the logistics of flights and hotels, which in turn means we needed to compact the training into as few days as possible.
Invariably, we would also end up shoving the class of 20-25 students in whatever room was available at the client’s location. Some of our clients in the enterprise space with larger budgets tended to have really amazing training facilities. However, some of our friends in the startup world just didn’t have those available. Either way, spending two full days at an uncomfortable desk in a hot room with 25 of your closest friends learning incredibly complicated and difficult technologies… well… Let’s just say it wasn’t the best part of the experience. It was exhausting.
And the travel wasn’t just hard on our instructors. It turned out that many of our students had to fly to the “central office” for the workshops as well! We were fine with a bit of hardship for our trainers, but forcing that same on our students was out of the question.
Home sweet home
Learning requires comfort and an enlightened space. We think more clearly when we’re in a space we choose. A space that we’ve decorated. A space that looks out upon our own back yard. Our students can now take our workshops from the comfort of their home office, couch, or patio (and we’ve seen them all). This helps them internalize the knowledge, and helps with their stamina.
Time to learn
Since we no longer have to manage that whole logistical nightmare, we’ve been able to change the format of our workshops to be much more conducive to active learning.
In particular, we now give our workshops as 3-hour sessions across a five-day workweek. It’s exhausting to try and drink from the fire-hose for eight straight hours, and it’s also not how our brains work best when learning new information. Having the sessions broken up so that you have an entire afternoon to think about what you’ve learned and to come up with new questions for tomorrow not only helps you retain the knowledge, but also helps bring up interesting topics for the class the next day.
This flexibility also allowed us to be more creative with our time. We now offer office hours sessions every day in the afternoon. It’s not at all mandatory – probably 25% of the class shows up. But it’s great for getting deeper insight on those topics that were a little more challenging, or for the team to ask specific questions about projects that they’re working on.
Everything’s better with a friend
We’ve always encouraged students to team up during our workshops. This isn’t college - you’re not getting graded and collaboration isn’t cheating. We’re huge fans of pair programming and the XP process in general, and think it’s especially valuable in a learning environment.
But pairing is daunting if you’re new to it. This small amount of friction often meant that most of the class just didn’t bother.
With the new format, we’re able to pair people up ahead of time. When students move into their breakout rooms to perform the lab work, the pairing is a natural part of the process. This really helps the students who are struggling keep up with those who had a head start.
Here’s a cool bonus side effect: this helps the advanced students, too! They learn even more when they have to explain the concepts to a more junior pair. Explaining ideas that you take for granted often forces you to question your assumptions and identify your own knowledge gaps. It’s a supremely powerful way of learning.
It’s easier to fix things on the fly when something goes wrong in an in-person workshop. You’re sitting there with the students, and can grab the keyboard to debug the issue.
But with fully remote workshops a single bug could potentially derail the entire course. This forced us to gain confidence in our workshops by backing each chapter with a set of tests. These tests walk through the labs as though they were a student, validating that the labs are correct and that no changes to the underlying cloudy resources have broken the labs behind our backs. These tests have already proven absolutely invaluable when upgrading our courses to the latest supported version of Kubernetes.
Face your fears
The changes that have been forced upon us all have caused us to step back, look around, and figure out how we might adapt our workshops into something even better than they were before. We hope this story has inspired you to do the same with your own company and projects.
If you’re interested in experiencing the best Docker and Kubernetes training in the industry, just get in touch.