Thoughts on the Traditional Four-Day/Five-Day Class Format vs. Virtual Training vs. Blended Training vs. Cooperative Learning. Advantages and Disadvantages – Mark Tolbert, PMP, PMI-ACP

I have been teaching PMP® Prep classes almost full-time since the fall of 2007, and here are some of my thoughts on the best format for these classes. The world for education is changing dynamically – (in secondary schools, high-schools, colleges, and even in the corporate world!) It is necessary for us to adapt to our much faster paced world today, and it is necessary to take advantage of all the technological capabilities that are available today. Compared to just a couple of decades ago, our world today is a much more intense “interrupt-driven” world, people often are working in virtual environments, and a high level of multitasking seems to be the order of the day.

        I. Traditional Classroom structure – Advantages & Disadvantages

Advantages

A traditional class setting is usually thought to provide the best environment for teaching and for learning.

  • Students have the opportunity for real-time interaction with the instructor.
  • There is a lot more energy in a traditional class setting than in a virtual environment. – (For example, students get to hear the questions of other
    students, hear the answers, and learn from this interaction.)
  • The instructor gets to see the “body-language” of the students, can read when a particular topic is not being understood well enough, and can see when the students need a break. Generally, this environment is a more personal environment for learning, and there is more energy and interaction.
  • Students have to commit to the schedule of the class, and it should be easier for them to stay very focused for the timeframe of the class.

Disadvantages of the Traditional Class Format

  • Increasingly, companies are finding it difficult to allow their project
    managers to be out of the office for four straight days (or five straight days)
    to attend a class, and be away from their customers and jobs. If they allow
    for a traditional class, oftentimes they are looking for creative scheduling –
    (perhaps schedule the class over two weekends, or from Friday through
    Monday).
  • PMP® Prep classes today are very dry and intense “boot-camps.” There is a
    huge volume of information to cover in the four-day class – (the classes are
    “fire-hose classes”) – and it’s very difficult for most students to stay
    focused for the entire nine-hour day. By 2:00PM in the afternoon for most
    days of class, many students find it hard to stay focused. Again, the
    material is very dry, and it is easy for students to get distracted.
  • With smartphone technology today, and our very “interrupt-driven” culture,
    it’s very tempting for students to multitask, and try to manage work
    activities during class. However, It is almost impossible to successfully
    multitask while trying to learn the PMP® Prep materials. A PMP® Prep
    course deserves the undivided attention of the students.

        II. On Demand/Virtual Classes – Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages

With an on-demand/virtual format, the advantages and disadvantages are
flip-flopped from the Traditional class format.

  • Training can be modularized and segmented to fit the student’s
    schedule.
  • Students do not have to take four or five consecutive days away
    from the office to attend the class.
  • A modularized schedule allows for more students to be able to
    adjust to all the interrupts of our busy lives.
  • If a student does not fully understand a topic in the videos, they can
    rewind and replay the video.

Disadvantages

  • Students have to generate their own energy, and stay very focused
    to get through the large volume of virtual training.
  • Students do not have the opportunity to get “real-time” answers to
    questions.
  • Students do not get to benefit from hearing the questions other
    students are asking, and hearing the answers.
  • It is much easier and more common to be interrupted (or allow for
    interrupts) in a virtual environment.
  • The standalone virtual environment is a very impersonal
    environment.

        III. “Blended Environment” – (Combine on-demand virtual environment with webinar-based review sessions that occur once a week.) – Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages

The advantages of the blended environment are all those that apply to the
on-demand/virtual environment, plus the addition of some more personal
interaction between students and an instructor.

  • Training can be modularized and segmented to fit the student’s
    schedule. Students do not have to take four or five consecutive days
    away from the office to attend the class.
  • A modularized schedule allows for more students to be able to
    adjust to all the interrupts of our busy lives.
  • If a student does not fully understand a topic in the videos, they can
    rewind and replay the video.
  • Students can get answers to questions. This won’t be “real-time” like a classroom situation would provide, but nonetheless, students can get timely responses to questions. Responses to questions would be normally occur within a few hours, but no more than one-day. A blog of all questions could be maintained, so that students could see questions other students have asked.
  • 90-minute review sessions would occur once a week using GoToMeeting or Zoom, and students would have the opportunity for real-time responses to questions in the review meetings.

Disadvantages

  • Students have to generate their own energy, and stay very focused to get through the large volume of virtual training.
  • It is much easier and more common to be interrupted (or allow for interrupts) in a virtual environment.

        IV. “Cooperative Learning” environment using “Kagan structures” to promote student interaction. Students are largely teaching themselves!

Many secondary schools, high-schools and even colleges today are using a new approach to learning: “Cooperative Learning.” This excerpt from Kagan Cooperative Learning – page 6-1 – pinpoints the key reason:

The best example I have of why “the design and delivery of good lesson” is an inadequate definition of good teaching occurred years ago when I was a university professor: I was returning to my office after my lecture when I saw a professor from my department walking back from his own lecture. He was beaming, obviously feeling very good about something. When I asked him, he proudly said, “I think I just delivered the best lecture of my life.” He then paused. After a few more steps, he added, “It’s too bad. I think there were only two or three students who understood it.”

When we use a “directed learning” model where the instructor is lecturing to the class, students will retain only a small percentage (5%) of what is being taught! According to this “Cooperative Learning” model, there is an inverse relationship between the amount of time the instructor is lecturing, and what the students are learning and retaining! The more the instructor talks, the less the students learn! The chart below highlights the amount of information students retain in different teaching models.

The point of the Cooperative Learning model is to get students engaged in activities, and actually teach each other. “Kagan structures” – (exercises, quizzes, and other) – are used to help students get more engaged. In our adaptation of the Cooperative model for a corporate PMP® Prep class, we would have the students use the virtual training videos on their own to listen to the materials for a Knowledge Area (e.g. Scope Management) or a section – (EVM), and also go through the quizzes on their own, but then meet every couple of days in small groups to teach each other the materials, and review quizzes. Our instructor would be a “lifeline” to help students with quiz questions where they were stuck, or to get help with certain concepts. Just like in the “Blended Model,” we would have weekly review meetings too.

For a corporate class where the students are co-located, or where tools like GoToMeeting or Zoom can be used to meet several times a week, suppose we divide a class of 10-12 students into groups of 3-4 people, and incorporate “Kagan structures” for the students to interact, quiz each other, and teach each other the PMP® Prep materials? I think this would be much more effective, much more rewarding, and much more fun for the students!

We could also incorporate Agile techniques for the group meetings, and interactions too. Progress for each group could be tracked with a Burndown Chart and a Kanban board. Each group would meet daily using the “Daily Standup” meeting format. The instructor serves as both a “Product Owner” and the “Scrum Master.” The instructor is available in a “near real-time way” – (perhaps providing responses to questions within one hour) – to the teams to answer questions on the materials, and answer questions on methodology: how to best use the Kagan structures, and the Agile Information Radiator.

Again, these approaches are being successfully used today in high-schools, colleges and elsewhere. Jeff Sutherland, in Scrum – The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time describes an example of this in a high-school chemistry class being taught In the Netherlands. See pages – 204-210.

Advantages

  • This cooperative learning model has all the advantages of the blended environment previously described, but adds on other huge advantages by using the Kagan structures, and making the class interactive.

Disadvantages

  • The students have to take charge of their own training! They must be committed to this model, must follow-through on all the activities, and must stay totally engaged. The PMP® Prep class schedule must be compressed, and should be completed within a month to six weeks. (Because of the huge volume of information that is covered, this is, “Use it or lose it!”) This will take a high-level of commitment from each of the students. If they do this, this will be a very successful approach, students will learn much more, and will have a lot more enjoyment in the whole process too.