A Comparison of Online and In-person Instructor Training Workshops

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

I have co-taught three instructor training workshops this year (one online and one in-person with Christina Koch and one online with Greg Wilson.


Too long to read? Here’s an overview in tabular form.

Feature In-person Online
networking excellent poor to very good
Etherpad use poor excellent
displayed on screen the web? slides? the instructor
webcast view of other learners
time commitment prep + class time +
travel + paperwork
prep + class time
private communication in-person Slack & email
technical difficulties medium high


In-person: I think the most amazing feature of an in-person workshop is the networking. There is something about face to face conversation during activities and over coffee, beer, and dinner that really solidifies personal relations. I became a certified instructor in January 2015 at UC Davis instructor training workshop taught by Greg Wilson, Tracy Teal, Bill Mills, and Aleksandra Pawlik; I consider all four of these people to be close colleagues now, and I’m going to be visiting a handful of other workshop participants in November when I visit California. Also, I regularly talk to SWC/DC instructors on-line, but there is something about meeting them in-person that feels like its the first time we’ve met face-to-face.

Online: As for networking in the online workshops, I would say its a mixed bag ranging from poor (for anyone in a room by themselves) to very good (for groups of learners in the same room). The first time I noticed a lack of networking for the online classes was during a debriefing session earlier this week. It wasn’t until 45 minutes into the call that I realized that two of the participants were learners in one of my workshops! I’m glad I finally made the connection, but it made me realize how hard it is to recognize people when you only see a tiny image of them on your screen when you are teaching. On the other hand, I do see that the online workshops help foster cross-disciplinary networking between individuals at the same institution but from different departments, so thats awesome.

See link to tweet from the MSU group.

What does this mean for next time? I think next time I teach online, I’ll ask each learner to walk up to the camera to introduce themselves during one of the lunch or coffee breaks so I can better associate a name and face and make a more personal connection with each learner.

Etherpad Use

The great thing about the Etherpad (in my opinion) is that is allows everyone to answer every question. You can put answers in the chat (like a quick yes/no response) or in the main body (like personal experiences or faded examples) rather than just calling on one person to answer.

In-person: During the last in-person session with Christina, we often asked students to answer questions out loud rather than using the Etherpad, and one of the comments at the end was that this form meant that a lot of people’s thoughts/opinions were never heard.

Online: During the last online session with Greg, we used the Etherpad extensively, so I felt like participation was really high. Also, the extensive note-taking allowed Greg to visualize participation during one of the exercises he had to miss.

What does this mean for next time? I think next time I teach in-person, I will use the Etherpad chat a lot more, especially for quick yes/no responses.

What is displayed on the big screen?

In-person: During the in-person class I taught, I struggled with what to display on the projector. I had to use it, right? I bounced back and forth between various webpages (the Etherpad, the lesson page, fun images, videos), but the whole time I felt like this was ineffective. It made me wish that I either had slides to use or could avoid using it all together.

See link to tweet about mistakes as pedagogy.

Online: During online workshops, the big screen projector is used for the webcast so that learners can see the instructor and the learners at other sites. I setup a whiteboard right behind my chair for drawing concept maps and other illustrations. Each student has their laptop open to the Etherpad, and they can easily open links to webpages or videos that we give them. Since the student never see anything projected except for my face and my white board, maybe this means that I can do the in-person classes without using the projector….

What does this mean for next time? Next time I teach in person, I’m going to try not using the projector at all on Day 1 and will encourage Etherpad notetaking, and then I’ll only use the projector on Day 2 only for live coding. For online workshops, I’ll highly recommend using a white board if you can write clear enough that it can be read.

Time Commitment

In-person: Even though I really enjoy traveling, saying yes to teaching a workshop in a different city is a huge time commitment. Instead of just saying yes to teaching from 9-4, I’m saying yes to being in a different city for 24 hours a day. I also have to devote a lot of additional time to planning the travel, traveling, and getting reimbursed for expenses.

Online: When I teach online, I really only have to commit time to prep for the lessons and to teach them. I can make breakfast in my own home, eat dinner with friends, and even make it to meetings and lab meetings that happen on the same day in the same building.

See link to instagram photo from one of Rayna’s teaching rooms.

What does this mean for next time? All things considered equal, this factor alone makes me much more willing to say yes to co-teaching online rather than in-person workshops.

Private Communication

In-person: When co-teaching in-person, you can easily communicate privately with your co-instructor during the lesson and during the breaks. You never have to worry about wether you are muted or not or if the learners can hear you, and making decisions about wether or not to change the lesson plan on the fly is pretty easy

Online: When co-teaching online, you have to have yet another application open on your computer for private communication. I like Slack a lot for communicating, but it was a little odd when I was screen sharing and some slack notifications came on the screen. Email also works, but then I can get distracted by other emails, so this is not ideal.

Technical Difficulties

In-person: I would rate potential for technical difficulties in the classroom as medium. There’s always a chance that the projector system isn’t optimal or that the internet connection is poor, but usually an expert in the room can come up with a solution or temporary fix on the fly.

Online: This is a real pain and can eat into your teaching time. I’ve encountered all sorts of issues including bad sound, bad video, poor Etherpad accessibility, inability to screen share, among other things. I don’t have an answer for this.

What does this mean for next time? I can’t help but wonder if we should cut 15 minutes of material from the syllabus for online workshops in anticipation of these technical difficulties


All in all, each format has its pros and cons. The data has shown slightly better success from the in-person workshops, but online workshops are successful! I like teaching both, so I’m gonna keep teaching both in-person and online courses.

Dialogue & Discussion

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