| Technology gives us all kinds of wonderful tools to enhance virtual classes for solo entrepreneurs. Teleconferences, audio and video recordings, both streaming and downloadable, interactive multimedia, online learning environments, automated learning tools -- all great options. But while the bells and whistles might abound, what is it that REALLY makes for a great virtual learning experience?
Last January, I was having lunch with my friend/advisor Sherry Essig. We were talking about a virtual course I was taking at the time that I was really enjoying. The subject matter of that course (marketing) was one I was pretty familiar with...as an MBA student, in consulting with clients, and even co-writing an e-book on the subject. So why the heck did I pay several hundred dollars to take a class on a subject I already knew a lot about? And why, when I was finished, did I feel more capable of using that knowledge to improve my business than I might have after reading another book? As we talked, Sherry started noticing the elements I was raving about: structure, accountability, and community. What I was really paying for wasn't the knowledge (although I definitely learned). I was paying for
- a schedule to do the learning (structure),
- a modest work assignment each week and a place to post my completed assignments (accountability), and
- a rich network of fellow students to share with and learn from (community).
Here is a look at these three elements -- and how you can apply them to your own course design.
I think of structure as the element that gets me to sit down and "do the learning," usually, in the form of a scheduled appointment, with myself or someone else. For a live class, this is a no-brainer. The scheduled classes provide the structure.
However, the trend toward offering recordings shortly after the live class can undermine the urgency of being on the call live. Recordings are invaluable when there is truly a conflict for the student (and can add value to the course overall)...but it also makes it easy for students to rationalize when they get busy (and when are solo entrepreneurs not busy?) and skip the class, knowing the recording is there whenever they get around to listening. (I'm guilty of this!) And then suddenly there is no structure, no timetable to listen to the recording. (Sometimes this means I never do get around to listening to the class.)
How do you solve this dilemma and provide the structure your students really want? I haven't seen anyone with a good solution to this yet, but here are some ideas to experiment with:
- Make the recordings available "on-request". Each week anyone who needs the recording has to contact you. Most students will, I think, shame themselves into not missing more than a couple, just to avoid having to ask each week! If not, you can perhaps challenge them after the second or third request (a great coaching moment!). If the recordings are a valuable part of your offering, upload them to be available to all a week after each class, or at the end of the course.
- Give some incentive for being on the calls live. Something above and beyond what they are paying for (i.e., you can't penalize them for not showing up!). Free ebooks, audios, CD, etc.
- Give an incentive for attending all the calls -- sort of a perfect attendance bonus. Maybe even a modest rebate on the cost of the course!
AKA homework. Learning and retention are enhanced when the student does something to practice what they've just learned -- even better, if they can implement it in their business right away. So how can you encourage students to complete the homework?
- Have students email their homework to you. You could even provide an incentive by offering valuable feedback to your students.
- Provide a space online to post homework. Nothing like peer pressure to get some people moving! This also offers a rich opportunity for the student to ask for help: feedback, etc. (see Community, below). You can implement this with something like Moodle, a bulletin board, etc.
- Ask students to "sign" a statement of intent to do the homework. This can help them make a promise to themselves to work hard to keep up.
- Assign buddies to trade homework. For some, knowing that someone else is waiting can be motivating. This can also backfire if neither student complies -- letting them both rationalize away the work. A threesome might work better.
- Check in with students. Send an email and ask them how the homework is going. Sometimes they are just stuck and a few words of wisdom from you could quickly get them back on track.
Just as it's easier to stick with an exercise program with a buddy or a regular workout group, interacting with fellow students can provide the "I'm not in this alone" feeling that they sometimes need. Community can also be an excellent side benefit of taking the class; it can provide a richer learning experience as additional wisdom is shared, and students may even make connections that last long after the final class. You can create community environments for your students:
- Create a bulletin board. Students can post homework, ask for feedback, ask questions, and share their own knowledge. Password protection is recommended, to provide a "safe" environment without fear of a silly question getting aired via search engine later.
- Set up mastermind calls. These are calls, facilitated by you (or your teaching assistant), that are open to whatever the student(s) need to talk about, ask questions, etc. Depending on class size, you might need to break students into groups, each with their own call time, to ensure everyone gets the air time they need.
- Set up mastermind groups. These can be very effective especially in long-running programs. You create the groups, or let students form their own. They will probably need either live help or some instructions on how to set up a powerful mastermind group.
- Establish buddy pairs or triplets. Trading homework, weekly check-ins, giving feedback, are all possibilities to explore. For a long program, mixing up the groups' midway can liven things up and give a second chance to students who just didn't mesh with their first buddy.
We can't make our students learn and use what we teach them. But we can provide a supportive learning environment.
Terri Zwierzynski may be contacted at http://www.Solo-E.com/blog
Terri Z is The Solo-CEO: a self-employed internet marketing consultant to solo entrepreneurs, freelance writer, and grassroots promoter of the solo entrepreneur lifestyle. She runs www.Solo-E.com, the resource website for solo entrepreneurs which attracts thousands of visitors monthly from over 100 countries on six continents
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