Terry Cox is a 20-year veteran of the IT industry. He created many of Linux Academy’s first training courses, and now serves as SVP of content at Linux Academy and A Cloud Guru.
We caught up with Terry as part of our #LearnFromAnywhere series to share his experiences with online learning and his recommendations for students.
Terry, you’ve been in the IT industry a long time, and have gone through lots of different kinds of IT training. How is online learning different from traditional classroom training?
One word: velocity. Technology moves very quickly. The speed of change necessitates the constant update of whatever content you are teaching. Old-school, in-person training — whether at a university or some type of instructor-led professional education — is slow to adapt to that speed of change. There’s just more logistics: you have to print workbooks and go through procurement cycles and set lecture dates.
All those barriers are removed in online training. The only thing we concentrate on is keeping our course content up-to-date. And it’s available to our learners as soon as it’s done.
Linux Academy was founded by engineers, so you had to figure out how to teach as you went along. Did you make any early mistakes that others could learn from?
Most people, when they get started teaching online, start by creating videos that “talk at” people. It’s harder to modulate your delivery online: you don’t have the advantage of seeing the audience’s eyes glaze over.
We learned pretty quickly that we had to be conversational, develop relationships, insert our personalities into our teaching. I used to put science fiction references into my courses at various points. I used superheroes as example data. And I would ask students to hit me up in the course forums when they spotted my movie references. Typically those were the first things students would talk about after taking the course! So we had to learn that while the technical information is obviously important, you have to expend a lot of effort on the human connection.
There’s got to be more to it than just making relatable course videos, though.
Yeah. So here was the second thing. Once we got some good feedback mechanisms in place, like course forums and video ratings, we got a clear signal that students want to do the things they see us do in the lessons. They want to spin up the servers and run the commands themselves.
Now, what are the obstacles to that in a work environment? Security policies, things that prevent you from downloading or accessing VMs. So we had to encapsulate that hands-on methodology through the browser. That helps protect you from yourself while you’re learning. Companies can’t afford for employees to be learning in production, it’s risky and expensive. Hands-on labs and Cloud Playground were our solution to that.
And we’re still learning from our students. You can’t submit a negative course rating in Linux Academy without providing a comment explaining what you didn’t like. We really do read those, and they help us keep learning and providing a better experience.
Listening to students is great, but how do you prevent the “faster horse problem”, where what students think they want isn’t really the best thing? For example, if someone thinks they just want the bare minimum of facts needed to get a certification, how do you help them put their learning in a better context?
We recognize that different students have different goals. You might just care about getting a certification right now if you’re making a career change, or if your job is requiring you to get certified. So for students trying to get certs, we have content focused on those certs just for you. And then we have deep dives when you’re ready. We try to put the student in charge of their learning experience.
With that said, how do you recommend students approach online training to get the most out of it?
Get hands-on as soon as you can. You’ll learn and retain more of what you do than what you just see.
Then, establish accountability for yourself. Whether through a study group, someone you work with, or a scheduling tool. You can do this with online check-ins, it doesn’t have to be in person. Just so it helps you focus and stay consistent with what you’re learning.
Today, Linux Academy and A Cloud Guru work with many large enterprises as well as individual students. What have you learned about scaling online training across teams?
It can be a little bit slower to get started with online training inside a bigger organization, but it picks up velocity quicker. Because in a network of that size, the learning starts to feed off of itself. Eventually you get a group of people sharing their experiences, creating that accountability I talked about.
Now, for larger orgs, you do need buy-in at the very top. The decision-makers need the commitment to learning for everyone. But we find that relationships and mandates are both important at different stages of the process. Most of Linux Academy’s business was brought to us by a person or small team who found us and advocated for us across their company. And that’s when good things start to happen.