Going Online

At the beginning of 2021, we completed the construction of our new online course. This was the culmination of about 8 months work in which we decided to completely revamp the way our course is offered. Historically the MRI in Practice course has been offered as a live event in over 20 countries around the world and has typically attracted between 20-100 delegates to each event (up to a maximum of 500 on one occasion). With the recent pandemic we were prompted to rethink how the course would be delivered until social distancing measures were no longer required. If you are interested (perhaps as an educator) in how we achieved this, there is a separate blog post that outlines the challenges we faced and how we overcame them.

This post is a follow up, to explain what has transpired since the online course began. We have now run numerous online courses for Europe, the UK, USA, Asia and Australia to over 500 participants and sought their feedback. It is mainly good news, with very few hiccups.

Technical Perspective

From a technical viewpoint, the choice to use professional video servers has been shown to be a good one. Videos can easily be embedded on any website, but problems may arise when a large number of participants all attempt to stream the content simultaneously. We decided to go with secure hosting on Amazon Web Servers and use an industry-standard digital-rights management solution to protect our intellectual copyright. This costs quite a lot more than using our own server because we are obliged to pay for the bandwidth used by the participants. The more hours of video streamed, the more it costs. The results, however, have been very impressive. Even with a lacklustre internet connection the lectures stream flawlessly and smoothly because the bitrate is automatically adjusted according to connection bandwidth - and with surprisingly little degradation in quality.  There are occasional local connection issues, (approximately 3% of delegates have some sort of local connection glitch) but of course this happens with any online conferencing software. Perhaps the most advantageous aspect of using streaming lectures is that this actually doesn't matter because participants can simply "reboot the router" and take over the lecture from where they left off. On a normal Zoom meeting, or a course offered solely via Zoom, any loss of connection by a participant will result in them missing potentially important teaching, and this does not occur using our model. Worse still, any loss of connection at the course-host's side of the meeting would immediately disconnect everyone attending - keeping our content server-side prevents this potential problem too. Even if my internet failed for the entire day, the course could continue and the lecture programme would be unaffected. Zoom interaction could be re-established via 4G over a tablet or smartphone. Happy-days.
A secondary advantage of this model is that we can build in extra time to watch each lecture, allowing the participants to rewind and revisit sections that they wish to revise or watch again. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive about this feature because it is something that a live delivery or normal Zoom meeting cannot offer.

As a web designer and webmaster of long standing (about 23 years now) I have been able to sort out local issues in every case except one - where the delegate lost connection and failed to reconnect.  This experience has also been an eye-opener for me when delegates report back on apparent issues they are having. In some cases it is because they have not opened the correct link, and on a few occasions because they did not realise that it is necessary to scroll a webpage! Taken as a whole, the technology has worked brilliantly and delegates are very pleased with the overall experience to date.

Using the right equipment is important

To run the course, co-presenter Cathy and I both use Mac computers. My "mission control" uses a Mac Studio connected to three or 4 monitors (see main photograph). Monitor 01 displays any questions being asked by the participants in real-time as they watch each lecture. Monitor 02 is a 4K widescreen monitor that displays the zoom meeting page and public chat area on one half of the screen and the live programme hosted at www.mri-in-practice.com on the other side. The course runs synchronously - just like a live course and the links to each lecture are displayed on a private members page accessed by the participants. This single page delivers the entire course - all of the lectures, some of the revision quizzes, allows participants to ask questions and see what others are asking and it even gathers their feedback and presents the certificates at the end of the course.
We offer the course in three time zones, and this is also programmed into the page so when participants are on the Australian course (for example) the programme automatically switches to Australian Eastern Daylight Time, for the USA, Central Standard Time and in the UK GMT or BST. The main photo above was taken during lunch-break on the Australian course at about 2am UK time! Screen 03 shows a private chat between presenters that allows us to let each other know of any potential glitches and keeps us in synch over the day's programme. This screen also displays the content management system for the course page, allowing me to adapt content on-the-fly without the need for FTP. This means I can change the programme each day without having to issue a separate link to the participants, toggle each lecture on and off as required, open a quiz or show any other content we need to include at the push of a virtual button.
For the live sessions we use HD webcams, noise-cancelling headphones and Blue THX-certificated microphones.  Quality is very important in audio visual presentations and THX certification is globally recognised as assurance of high fidelity audio. So far we have had no equipment issues with this set up. 

The course participants only need a PC or laptop to watch the lectures. We also recommend that they use a smartphone or tablet to simultaneously access Zoom if required. This is because Zoom appears to use a fair amount of system resources and on a decrepit old PC having limited memory (RAM) these resources can be freed up by accessing Zoom from a separate device when watching the lectures. If their PC can manage both simultaneously (most can), all the better.

Participants' views

We have been collecting anonymous feedback from every course over the last 30 years. Prior to the inception of the online course our global rating (averaged across every course from every country) indicated a 95% excellence score. I was, perhaps, anticipating a lower score for the online course, but in fact it turns out that delegates prefer online learning to live courses. I was fairly surprised at this, the benefits of a live course include the fact that they allow networking and a certain social element that an online course may not facilitate (not to mention being able to all go for a few beers at the end of the day).
We therefore decided to ask the question:

"COVID aside  - would you have preferred a live-venue course, or do you prefer online delivery?"

From a research perspective there is some bias here because we are asking people who are attending an online course (!), but around 8/10 delegates state that they prefer the online option. It would be interesting to drill down a bit further and ask why, but there are certainly massive cost-savings to be made for the delegates attending online. There is no requirement for travel or accommodation expenses and depending on the choice of hotel, this can amount to a saving of £500 or more. Some of the general comments made in the feedback have mentioned the luxury of having your own comfy seat, a front-row view of the lectures and a choice of your own drinks and snacks. 

As a result our feedback score has jumped up by one percent giving an average excellence rating of 96% for the 6 online courses to date. This corroborates the answer to our question above because it is a higher rating than our score average for the last 12 months of live courses before the lockdowns began. We are (obviously) really delighted with this outcome.

2020 Hindsight

So should we have offered an online course much earlier than we did? That is a difficult question. The pandemic has made online meetings "the new normal" domestic travel is discouraged and international travel is banned between some countries. Would participants have warmed to an online course when there was still a viable alternative? Will the enthusiasm for online courses wane as (if) life returns to normal. Perhaps it will, but I suspect not.

I have been reading a book recently called "How Music Works" by David Byrne. The book deals, in part, with the chronological progression from live performance to recorded performance and on to the current digital democratisation of music. This is where digital technology, home recording software, online file uploads, online banking and social networking make it possible for anyone to get their music recorded, published, marketed, distributed and sold without the need for a record company.
As an ex-musician myself I have recognised many parallels between touring and presenting our live courses. Formerly we were beholden to course organisers, AV crews, caterers, conference teams, travel agents, hotel costs, venue hire and all manner of other incidentals. Like a band who blow their advance on partying, an unwitting course presenter may discover that the 30 people in the room just about cover the cost of the curly sandwiches and are left firmly in the red - even before they have thrown a TV into the swimming pool. Catering and AV-hire are the worst rip-offs, sometimes executing a double-whammy, I remember pointing out to one organiser that he had "spent more money on the coffee than the projector". On another occasion the projector looked like some kind of Victorian magic lantern feebly emitting one photon of light per hour. We could have run a double-slit experiment but not an MRI course. This did not deter the AV company from charging $1000 dollars per day, undoubtedly more than the projector was worth. In some venues it would have been cheaper to buy two projectors and throw them in the swimming pool at the end of the course than to hire them - I'm not even joking. Why didn't we do that? Well ultimately we did - but lugging an entire PA system, mixing desk and three data projectors from London to Sydney is quite a hassle. Sometimes, however, we were contractually-obliged to use the hotel equipment, the costs of which were not included in the conference deal. So it was not uncommon for an AV company or caterer to take home more than we did at the end of a course, on one occasion leaving us $2000 out-of-pocket at the end of an event in the USA many years ago. The show must go on, as they say.
(Some) organisers would also take far more than the lion's share. The best thing about online courses from our point of view, therefore, is that we can now run them with no need for outside "help". It still costs a lot - particularly in video hosting and technology, but it makes us completely independent and no longer reliant on anyone else. So it seems a win-win situation, the participants love it, they save a substantial amount of money, and we no longer risk losing money on international events when the registration fees fail to exceed the venue hire, catering costs, PA hire and long-haul flights. The hours can be slightly weird, but no jet lag!

In summary, distance learning doesn't need to be the poor relation of face-to-face learning. If it is done properly it can be better-accepted and more engaging than the old classroom approach and with almost zero financial risk.