My Virtual Class Room Setup and an Awesome Whiteboarding Solution

So for the last 2 days, I delivered two Azure Fundamentals AZ-900 Trainings online. Due to the current COVID-19 situation, Trivadis was forced to cancel all the classroom training. Luckily we were prepared. The virtual classroom was about to be introduced for a selection of our training offerings.

Looking at the current crisis the move of all the trainings to the virtual classroom was expedited and completed in only a few day’s time.

I was always really skeptical about delivering training online. Mostly because I think personal interaction in the classroom is essential. In addition, I am a heavy flip chart user. I am convinced that pictures and drawings are a way to transport information that is superior to text or spoken language. Of course, the full power can be unleashed if you cleverly combine all of those techniques. Drawing on a flip chart in the virtual classroom gave me headaches.

Well, it turns out that I could deliver my two training days with full whiteboarding using a super simple but perfect solution. But first, let me show you my setup:

The setup that I used today consists of 4 parts (from left to right):

Whiteboard Drawing Simulator (This is awesome, check out the details below)

Large External Monitor
I use this monitor to show the Trainer View of the virtual classroom. We use the Adobe Connect software. This screen gives me the following features:

  • Chat window to interact with the students
  • Chat window to interact with the Trivadis training staff
  • List of attendees where I can see presence, mic status, and notifications
  • Settings to manage everything related to the virtual classroom
  • In addition, I use this screen for private browsing. For example, when I have to open a new web site, I load it on that screen before I move it onto the shared screen so that the students can see it.

The notebook is an ASUS ZenBook and this is the main screen where I deliver my training. The screen is shared with the students and I use it to show presentations, the Azure portal and other stuff in the browser. Furthermore, the webcam on the notebook is on to record my face.

Additional External Screen
The screen on the right side is an external USB powered monitor. Most people don’t even know that these exist but I really like it. It is attached via USB and does not need an external power source. I think mine is the ASUS MB169B+. You should get one, they are amazing!

In my training setup, it servers as a real “monitor”. That means I run a second instance of Adobe Connect on it where I register as a participant. This allows me to see what the students are seeing. In my opinion, this is a great help to always know what is going in the classroom.

Whiteboarding Simulator

Now, let’s talk about the Whiteboarding simulator. Since I draw about 5 to 10 full flip chart pages in a single training day, I was worried. What are the options in a virtual classroom? Let’s see:

  • Virtual Whiteboard and a mouse. This is the obvious solution. But can you imagine drawing with a mouse? I for sure can’t.
  • Tablet: A good idea would be to connect a tablet with a stylus or a touch screen to the computer and add it to the virtual classroom. Technically, that is a working solution. My only problem was that first, I don’t have such a device and second, all the tablets I know have a really small screen compared to a flip chart. A typical drawing of mine is large and contains a lot of information:

I felt really uncomfortable drawing such a graphic on a small tablet. So this is what I did. I used a second webcam and built a DIY stand for it out of a cardboard box, a beer crate and a stick. I then use A3 size papers that are recorded via the webcam. Students can watch me draw live:

At first, I thought that I would have to add the webcam as a second video feed to the virtual classroom but it turns out that I could just start the Windows 10 camera app and put it on the screen that is already shared. This took all the configuration of the classroom away and gave me the possibility to switch between whiteboard and presentation by just switching between windows.

I had no idea if this was going to work, but it turns out it worked like a charm and the students really loved it. The image was clear, colorful, live and I could always go back to earlier drawings if I needed to. I use to explain a lot of concepts by speaking about a drawing and like this, I can just use my 2 hands and 10 fingers to explain stuff. Showing stuff electronically is always more difficult. Here is an image of what it looked like for the students perspective:

I am positively surprised how I could deliver my classroom training in the virtual classroom. The experience was a bit different but there was really nothing I missed. The solution with the whiteboarding simulator worked perfectly and everybody loved it.

A couple of virtual training tips:

  • Make yourself familiar with the tool that you are using, but at the same time…
  • …Do NOT exaggerate. Sometimes it is a good idea to keep it simple.
  • Use all the channels to interact with the audience (voice, chat, notifications). Ask them for their opinion or presence regularly and use the classroom tools (“show hands”, “send smiley”, …)
  • Use a quality headset and camera
  • Define and communicate an agenda with timings and stick to it. These days, you need to assume that everybody is working from home and needs to juggle work and life. Knowing when the breaks will be is helpful.
  • As you progress through the course, take notes and compile and email. After the course, take pictures of your drawings, add them to the email and send them to the participants.

That is it. Stay safe, stay strong and stay healthy!

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