The Road to Being an Instructor | The Cybrary Podcast Ep. 33

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In this episode of the Cybrary Podcast we sit down with Alex Matheson, the Senior Program Manager for Code42, and Ken Underhill, Cybrary's Master Instructor. Alex and Ken discuss what it's like to be an online instructor and the difficulties that come along with it.

Hosted by: Ken Underhill, Alex Matheson, Thomas Horlacher
Length: 29 minutes
Released on: August 26th, 2020
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Whether you are looking to burst into the online tutoring environment from a totally different area or want to leave your in-person tutoring aid to an online environment during this pandemic, there are several things to contemplate when becoming an online instructor— including some of the definite advantages online tutoring has over in-person tutoring and the difficulties that come along with it. In this episode of The Road to Being an Instructor podcast, Cybrary's Master Instructor Ken Underhill and the Senior Program Manager for Code42 Alex Matheson are discussing the experience of being an online instructor, some important insights, and the difficulties that come along with it.


Thomas: All right, everybody. Welcome back to another episode of the cyber podcast. Today, we are focusing on instructors and I have two instructors here with us today and I'll let them introduce yourself. I'm gonna start with you, Alex. How are you doing today?

Alex: I'm doing good. Thank you. I am Alex Mathison with code 42.

Thomas: All right. And Ken, how are you doing today?

Ken: I'm doing good, thanks. And thanks for having us on Ken Underhill, master instructor at Cybrary.

Thomas: Yeah. And kind of going off of that and me talking about instructors today, Alex, I know that you've been an instructor for quite a while. I mean, how have you seen things change with, I mean, just the move to online instructing, I mean, how do you stay engaged with your students? How do you kind of keep the tempo up? I mean, how are you doing that? Kind of, yeah.

Alex: Yeah. I've kind of been able to see all the major inflection points from when it was just purely stand up instructor stuff where students either had to come to you or you had to fly out to them too. You know, where we are now, where everything's conducted over zoom or, or video, the trick has been. As you said, the, the engagement, you know, when I got involved in technical instructing, I lived for being at the front of a classroom, helping people get better at their jobs and getting that immediate feedback. And then, you know, you could like canvas the room, you see the one person who doesn't quite get it. So you go and give them a little extra help where now. I get no feedback until after the course is actually done. So it's been kind of tricky to make this as engaging when there's no feedback.

Thomas: Yeah. And Ken, I mean, I know that, I mean, you've been instructing for a while. I mean, are you kind of noticing the same things? I mean, how are, how do you deal with that as well?

Ken: Yeah, predominantly I've done on demand courses. I've done. Some lives are predominantly on demand. So that is one of the biggest challenges is how do we get that engagement with students? I've found a lot of people don't hesitate to reach out via social media. With questions about the course or questions about a certain topic. And I encourage that when I, when I create a course, I always encourage students to reach out via social. Cause a lot of times that's the easiest way. I'm sure we all get thousands of emails. So it's kind of difficult to keep track of that every single day. So social media, Slack, LinkedIn, Twitter, whatever those are the best shots. At least for me to engage with students.

Thomas: Yeah, Alex, are you kind of doing the same thing? Do you do any like social media with your students? I know particularly now it's a lot more kind of internal stuff that you're working on, but beforehand.

Alex: Yeah. Primarily in previous careers and where I am now, we've been focused on our customers and of course they have no hesitation reaching out to us directly or filing a support ticket because there's something that they didn't quite understand now that we're broadening our scope and. Providing our material to the community at large, we're definitely going to be looking at more social, getting that community stuff going on. And, similar to Ken I'm now doing a lot more on demand stuff. So my virtual instructor led, I don't can't remember the last time I did a virtual instructor led course, but like with all the on demand stuff, it's going to be a lot nicer having that feedback loop via social. To you, you can hit the like button. That's not enough. I kinda like getting the words back about what's actually worked for someone and those are, of course the most rewarding. That's a feedback that you get.

Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Getting, getting the feedback, you know, so you know what you're doing? Well, you know what, you might be able to improve upon things like that. And I'm sure Ken, you probably run into the weird thing with, you know, you have so many courses out, you're probably getting reached out to about courses that you did months ago, years ago, you know, how do you kind of, you know, try to make sure that you're giving the right advice, you know, it's like for that course or that person.

Ken: You know, I do have some people that reach out and say, Hey, I'm taking your course. And I have a question on this and I have to kind of think through like, what course is that? Right. So, I just normally most people will reach out and tell you the course, and then you just focus on what might be the issue that they're reaching out about. And so in some instances it might be that Kelly Linux is a new version in 2020, right. Or that a certain tool was updated and the command no longer works. So if it's something like that, I'll usually jump into whatever that tool or, or system is and figure out what the fix is, and then just give it to them. Sometimes I just tell people to Google it and that's not because I'm a jerk it's because I want them to learn. And I know like I've already Googled it and I find a bunch of resources. And so I'm like just Google it because I want them to learn how to do that. Because when they're on the job, they can't call Ken or Alex. They have to figure out how to do it themselves.

Thomas: Yeah. I mean, that's something yeah. That I learned at my, one of my first real tech chop was actually how to Google and how to Google correctly, was something that my manager let me do for a while. He's like, Hey, I can sit here and I can tell you exactly how to do it. He's like, or you can learn how to find the answer, which is, I mean, just a great tool that, you know, a lot of people don't know how to do yet. Which is nice with instructing at home. And you know, you're not really, you don't have that feedback loop immediately. I mean, what kind of preparation are you doing, going into your course to make sure that, you know, you're doing everything to the best of your ability? I'll start with you, Alex.

Alex: Yeah, that's definitely the, you know, when I used to be in a classroom, you could do a lot of things off the cuff. You could, you know, put something in the parking lot and visit it later. But now for. Full on, on demand, lots of homework that goes into the instructional design of, of what we create. And we try to, at least, I try to put myself as well in the role of the learner, because I'm kind of the target audience in some respect. So how would I want this thing broken up and then in particular, making certain that everything is right, because I'm sure Ken you've experienced this too. When you're talking about Linux, it's like it was valid a week ago. Today it's changed. So structuring stuff so that you can cover your basis enough without getting outdated super quickly, but then also having it flexible enough that you could easily update it if you needed to.

Thomas: Yeah. Ken.

Ken: Yeah. And echoing parts of what Alex said there, the instructional design part is certainly challenging to figure out. How can I essentially almost make this course an evergreen type of course, where two years from now, it's still majority of it's still relevant, even if a tool changes a little bit. The other thing I'll add in is that I share a lot of examples stories, like how does this actually relate to the real world? And I always try to relate something I'm teaching to. I step back a second. And I basically tried to design every course where my grandmother, that's not even online, can take it and learn something. And so when I do it like that, I find myself naturally explaining things and relating them to like, Hey, this thing's related to, when you go in the grocery store and you do this right. Cause most people have that experience and they say, Oh, that makes sense. Whereas if I started spouting off a bunch of terminology, they're going to get confuse. So I always try to figure out how can I relate what they're going to learn to the actual real world. And that may not always be specific to the real world in their job, but also the real world and like things they already are doing in their lives.

Alex: Yeah. Ken brings up a great technique. Having that, being able to associate one thing with another. Cause I mean, obviously like older stuff, style technical instruction. It's all about the what's. What does that button do? Well, that button does X. Okay. But today we have to tell you why, why do you, you want to push that button? Why do you not want to push that button? And being able as Ken, was outlining being able to relate it to something in people's everyday life allows that connection. So you've got the better longterm encoding. They'll remember it better. And you know, you don't have to get bogged down in terminology. Cause again, on demand you could say the course is. Intermediary, but novices may take it and have no idea what you're talking about and experts may be boring, but as long as you're going to relate it to something that's somewhat common again, you've got greater chances of longevity for the content.

Thomas: Yeah. I mean, that's a yeah, like great insight, especially because like we were talking about earlier, you don't have that immediate feedback loop of, you know, maybe if you're an instructor in front of a group of people, you can see somebody give you kind of that quizical look like I have no idea what you're talking about. So then you can kind of go into maybe a more bland explanation or kind of a. Beginner level explanation for them. So, yeah, I think, yeah, kind of doing that, you know, how to explain to your grandma's such a good way to kind of think about when you're building your courses to kind of bring that level of understanding for everybody. Cool. So is there any way that you guys tried? I mean, Ken we talked about being on a kind of going through social kind of connecting to your students or having a way to feel connected with like the actual material instead of, you know, Oh, it's recorded, it's gone, I've done it. I kind of answered questions here and there, but kind of stay engaged with it as it continues to grow.

Ken: I'll jump in on that first. So I think one of the other things I like to do is do some refreshes on content. I personally, don't like to have content that's out there and out there for years and years and years, I like to go kind of at a minimum, like every year, at least on something, make sure it's refreshed, updated, uh, two years. It's probably pushing it, but anything past that, like it's gotta be updated in my mind because it's gotta be fresh. It's gotta be new. There might be a new technique I learned, there might be a new way to edit a video or throw something, some animation in there. So I'm always looking like, how can I improve this to make it where students feel like they're in the classroom with me, even though they're not, and I'm sure we can do that with some things like quizzes and that sort of stuff. But I think you always have to be mindful of like, how can I improve this in the future? Right. Because maybe technology in a year from now is totally different and Alex and I have to go redo all our courses, but that's great because we're able to make them more engaging for students at that point.

Alex: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Always, always be innovating and. As Ken was saying, there's always new things that you can, when you do a refreshing on things that you could do better or do different. One of the key things that we try to do for the engagement part is all of our, all of our courses are written conversationally. So. If you view any of the courses that I've currently got out there, it feels like this, me talking to you, I'm trying really hard to break eye contact with the camera, even though you guys are down here on a monitor, I'm doing this looking up. So I've got that connection. And then, you know, adding in, as Ken said, you know, personal stories, being able to relate things. And then from the technology side, If you watch any of my courses, you won't see me sitting here talking about something for too long before something visually will change. So whether it's graphics that come on to break, the eye contact, because the learner doesn't necessarily want to look at me all the time, but they'll look at something else or in backgrounds, you know, that's why I've got stuff set up like this. If you get tired of looking at me, you can check out my Lego and then any other. Anything else that the YouTube generation has figured out that makes long content feel quick is something that's worthwhile looking into.

Thomas: Yeah. And I mean, that kind of goes directly in. The next thing I wanted to talk about is kind of the unsung thing that people don't talk about with online instruction, the tools that you're using. I mean, what are the, what are the things that you want to make sure? I mean, my headphones, stuff like that, but I mean, what things are you using to try to, you know, make your course as best as you can.

Alex: Ken you want to go first? Or do you want me to take this one?

Ken: You know, I'll, I'll jump in first. So, if I'm doing my screen recording, I'm a huge fan of Screencast-O-Matic. I know Thor knows that I've used Camtasia and stuff, so I'm not particular to one thing, but I've used it for a number of years. As far as editing, I use Adobe stuff, usually, and so that's, that's kind of how I make things pop right after effects, if I can just simple things like adding music in can make a big difference in the intro part of the course. Yeah. And then if I'm using slides, keeping that engaging if I'm using hands on labs and make sure that I always compliment those with some kind of a downloadable step-by-step a lot of students, maybe you're going too fast or too slow. And having that guide for them allows them to do it at their own pace. And then just really explaining things, right. If you're showing me how to do something hands on you shouldn't just be clicking around and okay. We're done like walk me through it. Cause maybe I don't know. And then if I am advanced. just give me a guide and I can do it myself. Right. So I just try to incorporate all those components. But as far as software, it's generally speaking on many courses, Screencast-O-Matic with editing with Adobe suite.

Alex: Okay, cool. Yeah. For myself on the tool side for, since we're talking about a screencasting and recording, I use ScreenFlow, uh, but I usually roundtrip it through after effects. So. Big time, Adobe fan use all the tools, on the hardware side, shooting in 4k even though I publish in 1080, gives me that ability to, you know, and you still have that high resolution and I don't need two cameras. Yep. You know, if I was, if I was doing like live streaming broadcast, I'd have, you know, two other cameras here, I'd be switching between them. But in the editing Bay, it's not so much fun to try and pull together three sources. So a single camera 4k gives me the flexibility that I can go into a nice tight shot and then pull out and I can put graphics here and then flip, maybe flip over to some slides, and then other hardware wise, you know, put your money into your camera and your microphone lights, you can build. But if you spend the money, you can do some really awesome things with some cool lighting.

Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. And so, I mean, I mean, if you, what would you guys recommend to somebody or advice, I guess for somebody who is maybe a practitioner that wants to get into instructing? I mean, one just from an instructor standpoint, but to, you know, what kind of equipment or something at beginner level stuff that they might want to get, just to start kind of seeing what they're able to do.

Alex: My recommendation, it would be if you're already in the DSLR space, making certain that you've got a camera capable of doing that and then putting some good money into the right glass, there's probably a billion different, you know, youtubers that have put out. Here's how I built my studio and they always list out their equipment. And if anyone's going to be able to put together a budget set up, it's probably going to be those who are just getting into the YouTube life. I mean, My studio has equipment that would be overkill for YouTube simple stuff, but it helps with my workflow.

Thomas: Yeah.

Alex: So yeah, I would definitely go that route.

Thomas: Ken.

Ken: Yeah. So, so for me, I'm with Alex on that, I think keeping it as simple as you can at first. Get your feet wet. Number one, make sure the course is going to even sell. If you're trying to sell courses before you spend thousands on cameras and lighting and everything else, and then you find out as I did with one of my very first courses ever, that nobody wants it. So just keep it simple. At first, YouTube is a great resource to go figure out some very simple home setups. You can do a lot of stuff with your iPhone or Android device these days, I film, a lot of videos on my iPhone. And so. You can do a lot of things for very little money. And then once you kind of get your feet wet, then expand into spending a little more money, investing a little more money into the proper professional setup.

Alex: Yeah. And Ken hits the nail right on the head as far as like the content it's like if no one wants it, who cares?

Thomas: Yep.

Alex: And of course we're in this age that it can be hard to rise above the noise. So it probably should be something that you're either incredibly passionate about or knowledgeable about. Hopefully both.

Thomas: Yeah. And I mean, what, what advice do you, you guys have for maybe a first time instructor just doing a virtual course? Like, I mean, if they've maybe instructed in front of people before, but I mean, I, I would assume that doing it virtually is just an entirely different animal. I mean, what kind of advice do you have for those people who are just maybe thinking of getting it? Maybe it's somebody on cyber that's trying to, you know, it's their first course or something like that.

Alex: My recommendation would be start consuming similar content as much as possible. See what the market has, and either try to achieve similar levels or see how you can differentiate.

Ken: Yeah, I think Alex hit the nail on the head there with doing that market research, seeing what's out there on that topic right now, look at the reviews or the engagement on those courses. See what people are saying about it. What do they like? What don't they like? And then you could say, okay, well, I can make my course different this way and I can cover these things that they didn't. And so I should have a very high quality course. The other thing is learn at a minimum kind of learn like the basics of instructional design, like how, you know, as Alex talked about earlier, you're normally your target audience. And so thinking about, okay, what do I like about courses? Like courses I've taken in the past? Do I like looking at slides? Do I just like seeing the instructor hands-on how do I learn best? And then incorporate those into your course, and you should have a pretty successful course.

Thomas: Yeah. I mean, that's a, that's a great point, Ken. And I mean, you know, working here that, you know, we try to go through and make sure that we have everything in each course for the different types of learners, you know, visual, auditory, stuff like that. I mean, Alex, are you, do you guys kind of find the same thing that you try to include something that might work for a particular type of learner.

Alex: Oh yeah, absolutely. We follow a very modular approach. So we make certain things are broken up in such a way that, you know, if you're just someone that wants the high level. Jump to this one, if you want. So if your preferred to dive into the weeds, go here for our more robust courses that we offer, you know, there's, you can sign up, jump onto a virtual machine and go through lab exercises. If you'd rather not watch one of us do it and then of course the beauty of the format is if you don't care about watching, you just want to listen. All you gotta do is turn the speakers up.

Thomas: Yeah. I mean, that's, that's a great thing. I mean, have either of you guys seen, or have ever gotten feedback that somebody who just listens to your course and might not watch it, just kind of listening, kind of taking it in. Maybe he's done it a couple of times or something like that. Just to kind of gather all the information.

Alex: Yeah. Well, I know my courses are very engaging, so everyone watches them, but I have been known to just put a course on and listen.

Ken: Yeah, I've had a well pre COVID of course. Right. But I've had many students say that on their commute, they'll listen to the courses on the train or driving or whatever. That's how most people were actually consuming them.

Thomas: Oh, interesting. Is that something you guys kind of keep in mind when creating it is like maybe somebody might just be listening to this or might not kind of be watching it at the same time? Alex, I know yours are kind of more in depth than you have the visuals and stuff come up, but do you guys kind of keep that in mind?

Alex: We try to be very descriptive with what's being said. And then also we also use like auditory cues. So if it's a screen recording again, if you're just listening to an audio, you're not going to be able to know which button I'm talking about, but you'll hear the instructor say, okay, so we're going to go over to this button here. So even if someone's trying to visualize it, they can kind of piece it together themselves. So there's a lot of, there's a lot of little tricks that you can do both in the visual and the audio to at least give a sense of flow. When you're working with something. Now, if it's a purely conceptual thing, then you don't have to worry about breaking down. I got three buttons here. It's the middle button that you want to press.

Thomas: Yeah cool. Yeah. I mean, I don't have too much more for you guys. I mean, what would you say is probably your. As an instructor, I guess the number one thing that you try to impart to each course, or each student, you know, that you're talking to, even though it's virtual, you know, I Ken, I've seen your courses and Alex I've seen yours. I mean, you guys do make that kind of connection. It does feel like you're teaching me. Even though the, you know, thousands of people watching these, I mean, what do you guys try to keep in mind is kind of the most important thing that you're trying to impart when doing a video or a lesson.

Ken: Well, I mean, for me, you, I think you just said it, Thor. Yeah. I look at it as I'm talking to one person. In the course. And I designed it for that one person, which is normally my grandma, but I designed it for that one person. And if I can do that effectively, then it will, for the most part, right. You can always go too fast, too slow for some people or whatever. But for the most part, you should have the majority of people that would benefit from your course with your content. So if you focus on one person and you do that very well, it should be no trouble to have people learning from you.

Alex: I'm kind of wondering what type of feedback Ken gets from his Nana on those courses.

Ken: Like I said, she's not online, so,

Alex: Oh, there you go.

Ken: I have yet to ever get that. There's been no bad reviews. Five star reviews from her.

Alex: So to answer the question about what I try to impart is yeah. I, I start and begin with the relationship. It's my job to help you the learner either understand something better or do your job better. And per Ken's comments, you kind of. You thread that needle so that it's not too basic, that advanced people are lost and it's not too high up that beginners are lost you just right at that sweet spot so that you hit as many people as possible. Cause the experts they'll go and consume more. And the people who are new will probably appreciate the refresher.

Thomas: Yeah. How so, how long did it take, take either of you to kind of figure out how to kind of walk that line or thread that needle, you know, to where you're explaining enough for kind of everybody, for kind of any audience, like, I mean, that can't be something that you just first video was perfect and everybody understood it.I assume it probably took a little while. Ken I'll start with you.

Ken: Yeah. I mean, of course every video that Alex and I have ever done is absolutely perfect. So there's no issue there.

Thomas: Okay

Ken: No, it actually took me. It took me some time. First course I ever did, it was nothing cyber related and it was absolutely terrible. But I got the feedback and I improved. So I, it took me maybe. I'd say maybe a year, maybe, maybe the first couple of years of creating online courses to kind of work out all the kinks and become to the, to the level that I'm at now, where I can communicate the information effectively to a broader audience. So it took some time, and full disclaimer. I was kind of doing the online course stuff part time. So if I had been like all in. It probably would have been just a matter of months, but it still took some time to learn that. So, yeah. right out of the gate, your first bit of content, if you're not getting coached by someone is probably going to be bad and that's okay. Because you can get that feedback and improve over time.

Alex: Yeah. And I found my first on, on demand courses because, you know, I worked for a particular company. I was in the product all the time. I had incredibly deep knowledge that my learner more often than not, that wasn't their only job. They had other parts of the data center that were under their purview. And my company's solution was just one tool in the kit. So they didn't have the need for ridiculous, deep knowledge. Cause if something broke they'd contact support, but they did need to know how to use it as quickly, as possible to get what they wanted done. And that's when it finally clicked for me that when you hit that sweet middle ground, you can hit, you know, it's the 80 20 rule. Right. I was able to cover 80% of what was needed. Done by simply covering 20% of the product.

Thomas: Yeah. I mean, was there anything that was kind of was hardest for you? I guess, to overcome? Like, I always think of like speaking cadence and like how quickly or something, you know, you're talking over something. I mean, was there anything that just kind of stuck with you when you were first started working that like, this is the one, this is the Hill. I have to climb to make sure that all my contents good. That kind of stuck out in your mind at least.

Alex: Speaking for myself, that was the, well I've been doing, doing like public speaking and stuff for years prior. So I had a lot of training on the best way to address an audience and convey information from purely instructional design. The hardest parts. The thing that I have to get over is the balancing of perfection and completion. That I want it to be perfect. But then it'll never be done, but if I publish it right now and it looks like junk, who's that helping? So the hardest part that I have is making certain I've got that balance between getting it done and doing it right.

Thomas: Yeah. It seems you must be reading me and Ken Slack messages back and forth to each other. Always trying to make everything as best as we can.

Ken: Yeah. And for me, speaking, pace has been the predominant thing over the years. A lot of times I talk too fast because I get excited about the material. And so that's something I've worked on over the years. Also, voice inflection that's I've worked on that as well. So, you know, there's there's for anyone out there listening, that's thinking maybe I should teach my knowledge to someone just understand, it's a process.You're not going to be perfect. And even Alex and I continue learning, you're not going to be perfect. Just understand that you should take that feedback. That's constructive and improve and you become better over time.

Alex: Yeah. And the best part is you don't have to do it in a vacuum because at least there's, you know, there's a thousand and one others that you can look at to see how they're doing it, and then take it apart a bit and see how you can do it. And it's a community, right? Throw it our way.

Thomas: Yeah

Alex: Tell you honestly, what we think that could be changed or what you should continue doing.

Thomas: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that's a fantastic, yeah. Fantastic advice. Yeah. And once you start doing it, I mean, there's a giant community of people doing the exact same thing. Um, you know, most people are pretty open and honest it's would be a great way to get feedback and just see, you know, what you could do better. Just maybe have somebody look at your content and give you some tips or pointers on what you could do better. Yeah, well, thank you guys, both for being here today. Do you have any parting knowledge or anything you want to say to the listeners before we go?

Ken: Sure. The only thing I want to say is you can do it. So if it, if you want to create a course or if you're interested in just learning something new, you can do it no matter what it is, but you stick with it. Because a lot of times we face challenges and many people quit, just push through it and eventually you'll get whatever that goal is.

Alex: And my passing, final advice would be look to other samples, see how it was done and figure out how you might be able to replicate it. You're not trying to steal someone else's stuff, but they figured something out. Maybe it'll work for you.

Thomas: Awesome. Great advice guys. Thank you very much. I appreciate both of you being here today and, we'll talk to you soon. See ya.

Alex: Awesome. Thanks.

Ken: Thanks.