I founded KnowBigData.com in 2014 after working in Amazon. Teaching is my passion, and technology, specifically large-scale computing my forte, thanks to my working experience with Amazon, InMobi, D. E. Shaw and my own startup tBits Global. Therefore, I wanted to help people learn technology online. I launched KnowBigData.com, an online instructor-led training on MongoDB followed by Big Data and Machine learning. Eventually, we innovated a lot in learning and shaped KnowBigData into Cloudxlab.com which is currently a major gamified learning environment for Machine Learning, AI, and Big Data.
Teaching online has a lot of advantages. You can teach from anywhere in the world, your students can be from any corner of the globe, you save your daily travel time, and you get to talk to students across the world. By teaching, you become more compassionate to the learner and you work hard on self-learning every aspect of the subject that you are teaching. Teaching also helps you improve your ability to express.
Since Apr 2014 when I started KnowBigData (now CloudxLab), I have taught for around 2000 hours (4 years * 52 weeks * 3 classes avg. * 3 hours) and more than 3000 people. I was able to get wonderful reviews from people with an average rating of above 4.8 out of 5. You can read our public reviews here: (Quora, Quora, Quora, Quora, Facebook, Facebook)
I would love to share with you my learnings that may help you in teaching effectively online. If you are able to follow these and are interested in teaching with CloudxLab, please apply here.
1. Deep Dive into the Subject
The first and foremost thing to do is to make sure you know the subject you are about to teach. That may need new learning, re-learning, or even a certain amount of unlearning. Let go of your ego that you know everything about your subject. Pick up some of the best books, go through each topic, and know each topic in and out. Challenge yourself with questions. Be prepared with the thought that ‘the learner may ask a question on this’ and get yourself ready.
The way I stay on top of my knowledge base is by keeping a list called “To Learn.” Any topic that I need to study goes into this list. During my research, I pick topics from the top of the list and if I come across subtopics which need brushing up, I append it to the master list. In computing, we call this the ‘breadth-first’ approach but it is an incredible approach for deep diving into a topic. There are often dark spots in our learning that we tend to avoid. It is important to be strong enough, try to figure out those worrisome dark spots and study them. Nothing beats the thrill of learning something we have been avoiding for long.
2. Prepare Slides Well
While teaching, it becomes really easy to explain if you have a good set of slides. Slides guide you and keep you on track during your teaching sessions. A good set of slides should have less text, more graphics and bullet points.
If you have too much text on any slide, break it into multiple slides and work hard on what can be removed. Sacrifice grammatical completeness for brevity. Slides should also detail everything about the topic: the prerequisites, concepts and the references from where the learner can learn more.
Add images to slides. Images should be used in the following order of preference: Humans, Animals, Things, Text/Block diagrams. If you have to choose between the image of a man and the image of an animal for your slides, use the man’s photo.
Similarly, give preference to photos of things over the screenshot of text or block diagrams.
It is also advisable to share the topic deck with learners in advance.
3. Hands-on approach first
A lot of teachers may not agree with this point, but I’ve found it particularly useful. The implementation of this point is also difficult. Have your students work hands-on on something before jumping to the theory. The idea is to make the class work on practicals before you teach. Teaching concepts can be boring for learners. Let the learner figure out the concepts as much as they can instead of a teacher spoon-feeding them. For example, if I’m teaching a class how to code, I would ask my class to just follow the steps and get the first very basic code running. It is amazing to see how much a class can grasp the basics just by running the first code.
This is exactly why our Machine Learning course has the End-to-End project right at the beginning and not at the end of the course. That turned out to be the best way to teach my class.
When we were researching on developing our courses, we realized that students were hesitant to try hands-on exercises because setting up the environment was time-consuming, needed high-end hardware and permission on installation and consumed too many resources on the machine. Therefore, we decided to set up a shared online lab which was a solution to all these challenges and changed the face of online learning for good and became a product in itself. This lab is available 24/7 to all users. The hugely positive response to our lab convinced us to rebrand KnowBigData.com to CloudxLab.com.
4. Answer every question
There is no dearth of study material on the internet. Text or videos on topics are widely available for learners. What paralyzes self-study are unanswered questions. When learners face questions, they stop to look for answers but eventually get lost in the online noise. That is precisely why students join instructor-led classes – to get their questions answered. Questions don’t really delay a course. They become the purpose of a class.
The key to happy learners in a class is to answer their questions and encourage them to ask more. Here is my way of doing handling questions.
First, the following are clarified in the first few classes:
- Q&A is the purpose of the class and not an obstruction
- It is okay to delay a class but not okay to not ask questions.
- Listen to the questions from other classmates. Try to answer or make a hypothesis. Never turn down your classmate’s questions.
- No question is stupid. I repeat. No question is stupid.
- Often, questions asked in a class are valid interview questions. So, pay attention to the questions asked by your fellow-learners.
Second, I always acknowledge a question before answering it. I explicitly mention “It is a good question” and then I try to answer the question with real-life examples from my career. Some of you may be familiar with ‘Oss,’ the Karate greeting Karate students and teachers use while bowing to each other. It is not only an affirmation of positive spirits, but ‘Oss’ also is a mark of mutual respect and admiration. In the similar fashion, before you answer a question, you should bow and say “Good Question.
During a certain corporate training, I noticed that there were no questions in class because the class had a mix of teams including managers and reportees. The learners were either shy to ask questions or afraid of being judged. Since it was an online class, I asked everyone to use pseudo-names while joining the webinar. You must know that the strategy helped and we had a lot of questions to answer during the entire session.
5. Work on your accent
For a lot of instructors, the accent can be a problem especially if their students are scattered across the globe. I’ve grown up in a small village in India, and therefore, I needed to work on my accent to deliver my classes to students worldwide.
The best way I learned to improve my accent was by attending sales calls from all over the globe. I would talk in detail to prospective students and lab-users and figured out the areas for my improvement. This turned out to be the most effective way to improve my pronunciation. Though it was a lot of hard work considering time zone differences, the exercise turned out extremely fruitful. You may want to compare the oldest video from KnowBigData on our Youtube channel and latest video from CloudxLab.com to know the positive changes.
If there is a different method that works with you, feel free to implement it. Nevertheless,
hold 1-1 discussions with your learners, respond to sales and service calls.
Also, in conversation, be slow and clear, and ask if you were clear and the listeners understood you. Be mindful of every word that you speak. Avoid fillers such as ‘umm’ and ‘aahs’. If you are mindful of your words and how you speak them, your instruction will be crisp in class.
6. Repeat with a different selection of words
A number of times, you may not be very clear to your audience. Often, words we use may have different connotations in different countries. In a class with students from all over the world, it becomes inevitable to explain repeatedly using a different selection of words. I follow this strategy. I repeat the same sentence using a different selection of words. Keeping the meaning intact, I choose another set of words. (I just did it:))
7. Avoid monotone
The word ‘monotonous’ comes from ‘monotone’ which means sound of the same tone. And monotonous is boring and sleep-inducing.
A voice artist once advised me to find a comfort zone of my voice during long speaking hours and to stay in that comfort zone without any modulation. That advice was good for a voice artist, but not for a teacher.
My thumb rule is to keep varying my tone to prevent students from getting sleepy. Again, varying the tone doesn’t mean shouting. Keeping the acoustics conducive (good mic, small room), simply altering the cadence of my voice to avoid monotone keeps the class alive and active.
Also, I make sure to have sips of lukewarm water while teaching. That keeps my throat from getting sore after hours of speaking.
8. Don’t sit
The human mind is amazing in that it can infer the state of an unseen speaker’s mind from sound alone. Note that my camera is turned off during a class. Nevertheless, my learners can figure out from my voice if I am feeling active or lazy, or happy, or angry. To have an active and responsive class, I stand and teach. I do pace around my desk while teaching. I make sure that I wear most comfortable shoes (preferably jogging shoes) during my class even if I am delivering it from my bedroom.
To make it further easy, I have invested in a standing desk for my lectures.
9. Explain concepts by asking questions
This is probably the hardest part of teaching. In order to explain a concept, break it down into a series of questions. You need to come up with a set of questions such that the answers to this questions lead to the understanding of the concept. For example, to explain the concept of ‘refraction’ in physics, you should break it down into questions like:
- How do we see an object?
- If there is some other material between us and object can we see?
- If that “material” is a glass, can we see?
- Is there is some change in the view when we see an object through glass?
- What happens when we put a pen in a glass half full with water?
By the end of this set of questions, students naturally lead towards understanding the concept. You must know that students retain concepts longer and better by deducing them rather than by direct instruction.
In addition, while answering a question from the audience, it is always advisable to induce curiosity by giving an open-ended answer that sparks off another question leading to a chain until the concept is clear.
Let me try to give you an example. When I was with D.E.Shaw, I delivered tech talks on Secure Programming. I would show a piece of code to my audience and ask them to find out what was wrong with it. The audience would come up with many flaws and I would note all of them on a whiteboard. Next, I would ask them how they would fix these flaws. A few more suggestions for fixes would lead to more suggestions for fixing the code and eventually, the chain of flaws and fixes would clarify the entire concept. It is flattering to me that my audience still remembers my Secure Programming classes even today.
Breaking a large concept into a series of questions is hard and it might seem as time-consuming in class but the positive impact lasts longer. As a passionate teacher, I am absolutely okay to take even five or six hours to teach a tiny concept. This is one of the reasons that my class expanded to twice the promised duration and the students were happy to cooperate because concepts were crystal clear for them.
Here is a quick test. Notice your state of mind now. And then smile. Yes, smile. Smile for no reason. Think of a beautiful moment and force yourself into a smile. How does it feel? Compare your state of mind with the previous moment? Do you notice a change? I am sure you will notice a change.
A smile is a great hack to change your state of mind. While it is true that when you are happy, you smile but it is also true that when you smile, you turn happy. And when you are happy, you would be more capable of solving problems.
I smile before my class starts. Smiling reflects the enthusiasm in my voice and peps-up my students. I keep a sticky note at my standing desk that reads “Smile”.
11. Lifestyle changes
This may be very specific to me but I find that eating fruits such as pears and apples makes me happier, more active, energetic, and less sleepy. Caffeine doesn’t work for me. The purpose is to stay energetic during a class. You may choose what works for you.
The more energetic you are the better you sound and your students will reflect your enthusiasm and positivity.
12. Avoid alcohol
You should not drink before at least 6 hours of a class. Being able to teach for a straight three hours requires extreme focus. And you can’t achieve that focus if you are under the influence of alcohol.
Also, avoid everything that can cause cold or a cough or affects your throat adversely. I avoid ice creams and smoking.
13. Have Good Setup
Here are the details of my setup that helps me deliver my classes stress-free:
- A power backup, specifically UPS for both my computer and the internet router. Extremely important.
- A backup internet connection with a good speed
- Good headphones. I prefer USB headphone because it has lower chances of loose connections. Also, since I walk around my desk while teaching, I have a headphone with a longer wire.
- During online classes, I record every session. I keep multiple recordings so if one fails, there is another.
- For teaching a class, I prefer two screens – one shared with the class, another for the questions window. An additional monitor connected to my MacBook works perfectly for this.
- I keep a cooling pad for my laptop because, during longer sessions, laptops tend to heat up.
- A remote presenter helps me change slides if I am walking around my desk while teaching.
- A drawing pad and whiteboard software. Get whiteboard software along with a drawing pad and make yourself comfortable with it. It is very much required in the class.
- I always prefer LAN cable over wifi.
- A one-to-many USB converter since I have a lot of hardware connecting to my laptop.
14. Avoid Distractions
Teaching a class needs a zero-distraction environment. It requires extreme focus and absolutely no distractions. I teach in a closed room and face a wall while teaching.
15. It is about learner not you
While we are on the topic of distractions, teachers often want to show their face on the screen all the time. I have different views on that.
I found that showing my face distracts users from looking at my screen where I might be drawing to depict a concept or showing a presentation.
I believe it is fine to show yourself during an introductory session, or an introductory hour, and no more than that. Also, showing the face could consume the bandwidth. It is safer to just focus on people’s questions.
16. Address individually in the class
Always, address everyone individually in the class. Students definitely feel connected if you address them individually in class. Also, in the first session, I let everyone introduce themselves. This helps learners connect with each other.
17. Seamless process for conducting a class
Make a good process for conducting the session. Here are some of the practices:
- Have at least one more team member in the panel during a session. This helps to solve the administrative issues faced by users.
- I really like the meeting tools. Even in offline class, I ask every attendee to join an online meeting. It makes it easy to see the screen of everyone and share the code and commands.
18. Have Online Auto Assessment with LMS
LMS or a Learning Management System is an inevitable part of our online learning exercises. There are quite a few learning management systems available for free online, for example, Moodle. Even for evaluating subjective questions, LMS plugins are hugely resourceful. We’ve created a module for auto assessment of coding exercises too! Feel free to use it.
19. Be regular and punctual
Never miss a class and be on time. This is something I learnt hard way. I realized that if I am late by even one minute, students will be late by 5 minutes in subsequent classes, and it only gets worse from there.
It is important to be available at least an hour before the class starts. This gives you ample amount of time for preparation. For an 8 pm class, I am available by 7 pm.
20. Make notes and improve every time.
During every class, I make quick notes and as the class ends, I formalize those notes. These notes direct me towards the improvements needed for further sessions, which further help me improve the quality of my course constantly from various aspects. Also, I have a system in place for feedbacks. A feedback survey is sent to all students as soon as a class gets over.