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An Online Winter Wonderland

The National Convergence Technology Center (CTC) has been hosting three-day Winter Working Connections since 2012.  These events (like their “big brother,” five-day Summer Working Connections events) are designed to offer IT faculty in-depth professional development in a specific IT topic so they can better teach that topic at their home school in a subsequent semester.

But the Winter Working Connections held last month was unique.  It was the first one the National CTC held that was all on-line.*  The reason was simple: accessing training remotely from the participant’s home location reduces expenses.  By not reimbursing travel costs to come to Collin College classrooms in North Texas, the National CTC was able to better stretch its budget dollars.  As an added bonus, no one had to suffer through holiday air travel.

* We previously hosted two hybrid tracks – some attendees in the classroom, some attendees participating on-line from home.

Winter Working Connections 2015 offered just two tracks: Software Defined Networking (taught from Florida) and EnCase Forensics (taught from Wisconsin).  Both used WebEx as the webinar/screen-sharing platform.  We weren’t sure what to expect.  Would the online environment hurt the program’s ability to deliver high-quality instruction?

The answer is no.

Every Working Connections post-event survey asks attendees whether they agree with the statements “Working Connections provided me with high quality IT training” and “Working Connections showcased best practices.”  Winter Working Connections 2015 attendees overwhelmingly agreed with both statements.  And this is despite 29% experiencing a technical issue that briefly interrupted their learning.

More interestingly, Winter Working Connections 2015 attendees agreed with the “high quality IT training” and “showcase best practices” statements in the survey at a rate comparable to recent past in-person Working Connections.

We attribute this high level of satisfaction to the instructors’ topic know-how, to the WebEx platform reliability (we conducted several pre-event system tests to minimize any unnecessary problems), and to the cutting-edge appeal of the two track topics.  SDN and security are popular, fast-growing areas in IT.  Faculty members are highly interested in both.

Even so, there is room for improvement.  We asked attendees who have attended in-person Working Connections events which format they now prefer.  While 18% prefer the on-line format because of the convenience and elimination of travel, 48% do still prefer the in-person format because of the lack of classroom interaction and classmate networking (but even some of these respondents acknowledged the economic appeal of on-line programs).  21% had no preference.  This 48% response wasn’t a surprise since faculty networking and interaction is often cited as one of the most important elements of Working Connections events; in addition to the classroom learning, attendees find huge benefit from interacting with faculty peers from across the country.

It seems that on-line tracks are here to stay.  The National CTC could run Winter Working Connections 2016 again all on-line or offer one or two on-line tracks at Summer Working Connections 2016.  Either way, the National CTC will be looking at ways to energize the on-line format to foster more interaction among the participants.  There may also be ways to help the instructors adjust their teaching to better utilize the on-line format and connect better with the attendees.  Just as this was the first all on-line event for the National CTC, it was also the first all on-line, synchronous experience for the two instructors.

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