New Normal – Making Online Synchronous Training Work

by Dave Thomas

Much has been written recently about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and the promise, and failure, of the social distancing communication technology of the time – the telephone. Despite its potential, the telephone had a fatal shortcoming – the flu preyed upon packed rooms of switchboard operators. Eventually AT&T asked customers to reduce phone usage after the loss of so many of its employees. During the current pandemic, struggles with bandwidth and internet speed, and the high-profile curtailment of video streaming services in Europe to preserve capacity, have led some to draw a parallel to the potential fate of our own social distancing communication technology – video conferencing. We would strongly disagree.

At Marquee, we have spent the last 20 years teaching in-person financial modeling and valuation courses to aspiring and established financial professionals globally. In teaching circles this is known as synchronous training; that is, when student and teacher experience the class together at the same time. For us the class is a living experience that is mutually shaped by the dynamics of student and teacher. No class is ever exactly the same but the outcomes are always known: new skills, fresh perspectives on problem solving and a foundation of knowledge that supports further exploration and curiosity. We will always favour the immediacy and intimacy of the physical classroom. But change has come and we suspect has come for good.

This article series is about challenge and adaptation, aspiration and realism. In the space of a month, our team has converted an entire business with 20 years of classroom history into an interactive webinar teaching platform. It has not been easy nor entirely natural. Throughout the process, we have done what we espouse in our classes on modeling: planned our work, focused on the key drivers and kept it simple. Online synchronous training (“OST”), the interactive webinar in other words, is a very different environment from the classroom we know so well.

Our journey with OST is just beginning and we want to talk about what we have learned, discuss what doesn’t work and share our discoveries as we continue to progress. We believe with certainty that in-class teaching will resume after the pandemic. But we also believe that people are quickly adapting to online delivery and the convenience, flexibility and, the surprising quality of well-executed OST will make webinars a permanent part of training solutions going forward.

Although we are model geeks and finance people, we are at heart educators. We believe in the power of knowledge and the incredible rewards of life-long learning. Our audience also thinks practically: Theory is very important but if I can’t connect it to my day-to-day reality I am just not as interested. In these articles, we will try to stay away from platitudes and give real examples of what is working in our sessions.

Cameras On and Wave

“My students leave their cameras off all the time. It’s like pitching to the void.” This is a common concern that our clients and many teachers often express to us. How do I read the room? How do I solicit feedback effectively? How do I spot check student progress? Subsequent postings will deal with some of these specific issues but there is one key idea that underpins these concerns: creating the community of the classroom.

The simple fact is that we cannot make everyone keep their cameras on. People are self-conscious and many want to preserve a sense of privacy. But we can, and do, get our participants to check in and say hello throughout the day. We do this at regular intervals so that people know that they are all doing it together. During a quick check-in, most participants are usually seeing what everyone else looks like and feel less self-conscious during this brief exercise. Our usual practice is to have the cameras on at the start of the day for introductions, after each break or work session, after lunch and at the end of the day.

Checking in creates a sense of togetherness and engagement as well as provides an opportunity to double check audio and video connections. We take advantage of these moments to ask people to raise their hands and wave in response to questions – no technology, just old-school hand raising. “Welcome back from the break. Everyone wave who has seen [point of interest] before?” Simple and quick but effective. Being brief and frequent, which as we will discuss in later posts, is another key to successful OST.