Lifted by the Audience

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

I spent Thursday and Friday recording most of the material we've been using in workshops for the past six months [1]. One thing that kept bugging me was how flat and uninspiring it was to talk to a camera: I had forgotten just how much a live audience energizes me. I also realized how much I rely on people's questions, and the expressions on their faces, to keep me on track: it took me almost 15 minutes to remember that I needed to explain that Python uses indentation to show nesting, whereas I always do that at the right time in a live class because someone either asks or looks puzzled.

This has me wondering yet again about how to do online tutorials and support more effectively. The tutorials we've run over the summer have had anywhere from half a dozen to two dozen participants, but current multi-way "talking head" videoconferencing systems can't handle that many people [2]. I'd like to do one-to-one sessions instead, but that won't scale (unless dozens of you volunteer to help, which I think is unlikely). Looking around at various online education startups, no one else seems to have solved this either—if you know of someone who has, I'd welcome a pointer.

[1] We did the shell, Python, SQL, and version control, but ran out of steam before we could do testing.

[2] We've tried WebEx, BlueJeans, and Vidyo. Setting aside technical problems (lag, jitter, audio feedback, firewall issues, etc.), their "Hollywood Squares" interfaces don't give nearly the same presence or immediacy as being there physically.

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