Teaching Over The Internet
Before we begin, we need to set the stage and get the lighting correct.
You're sitting at your desk, a cup of coffee or soda to the left of your keyboard, headphones hanging by one ear from the side of the desk, and a stack of notes sitting on top of the keyboard. You're watching the user list on vent stack up, most of them with "(PVP-BASIC)" in their comment, and you're wondering whether your admin is going to show up on time today. A dozen or so Agony pilots are off in a fleet channel doing the dance of death with the locals in Pure Blind, and you hope they enjoy themselves and possibly fold into the class fleet later. It's always good for the students to mingle with Agony pilots to see how things should happen. You glance at your notes and decide you might as well quick-read through them one last time before you get started, when you hear the headphones crackle to life, something about a student having problems with his microphone or vent connection. Here we go...
Teaching any subject, be it math, science, literature or how to blow someone's internet spaceship to make-believe pieces involves three very important mechanisms:
- The Material - The material must be well designed and composed, with the right amount of teaching devices and repetition. It must cover the topics at hand adequately for the level of depth intended for the class, and it must flow from topic to topic logically, since changing subjects without adequate logical segue only jars the student, and is akin to having the train of thought run heeadlong into a brick wall.
- The Teacher - As a teacher, you are responsible for transmitting the material to the student. You must be calm, composed, prepared and authoritative. Teaching online is no different from a classroom in this respect. In the course of teaching, you will be required to present the same material in a number of ways, to reach the maximum number of students and to drive that material home through repetition. Your mission, then, is to discover and employ these techniques to manage to get the knowledge out of the material and across the divide between human beings to the student.
- The Student - The most important part of the equation, the student is the final, deciding factor in how much of the knowledge you transmit manages to stick and become internalized. In order to learn, the student must be prepared, that is, they need to have the prerequisite knowledge to absorb the current topic, they need to be well-rested, and they need to be free of distractions. The student must also be willing to learn, which means they need to be actively engaged in the topic at hand.
These three pillars form the basis for all education. The loss or weakness of any one of these results in a weakened, lopsided or in the worst case nonexistent educational experience and the results can mar the reputation of an educational establishment. For that reason, we make sure that we put forward our very best in our materials and teaching and stress to our students to arrive prepared to learn. Professionalism, even in a video game, wins us respect and reputation as competent adults.
Review of PVP-U Goals and Intentions
PVP University is not a money-making venture. We are a charity first and foremost, where ISK flow is a minor, but welcome, perk. The university was started as a gift, a volunteer public works project for the EVE community, and it has grown from those humble beginnings to become one of the top training grounds for players and a model for other such schools to follow. We have a lot to offer people, and a lot of room to grow as well.
We specialize in a type of PVP that is rarely done well, though it is powerful: sustainable small-gang warfare. You will never see Agony field a 120-ship capital fleet or conduct massive sovereignty control ops, because we find such things incredibly boring. Rare also is the high-value HAC/Recon gang in Agony, because we prefer to fly what we can easily replace as it allows us to be more aggressive in our approach.
The best way to approach teaching this method of warfare is to introduce the three smallest hull classes sequentially in increasingly deep examinations of combat mechanics and tactical thinking in EVE. These core classes are BASIC, WOLFPACKS, and ADVANCED, introducing the frigate, destroyer and cruiser hulls, respectively.
From this core curriculum, multiple specialized seminars are made possible by building on these basic techniques and tactical knowledge, such as COVOPS, SKIRMISHING, FLYBYS, HSLR, and SPIDER. These seminars are built and run internally to pass on specialized knowledge and skills to our own pilots, and can be (and should be!) presented to the public as well.
In summary, the mission of PVP University is to bring the love of small-gang warfare to the wider audience of the EVE Online community through professionally presented coursework, practical demonstrations and hands-on roams.
Methods of Delivery
There are many ways to present knowledge. The most common division is between visual, auditory and hands-on learning, but nearly every delivery method we utilize in practice makes use of more than one, if not all, of these types of learning. When we restrict ourselves to the medium of the internet, we also reduce the effectiveness of some methods of teaching. Obviously since the internet is a primarily visual, interactive medium, we have the advantage of being able to provide very effective practical demonstrations of material, but where we lack is in auditory presentation. Simply put, it is very difficult for a lecturer to perform to standards to which we hold classroom teachers. There is no body language in voice communications over Ventrilo or Skype, thus there can be no visual clues while lecturing, prompting for questions when you deliberately leave out a detail or posit some absurd notion meant to be knocked down. So, we have to be careful when we present material in that manner, that we present visual and interactive clues for students to use to grasp the material in a more real sense, and also that we avoid any techniques that might be confusing to the student. So lets look at (a short description of) three of the most common techniques we use in PVP-U.
Lecturing is a necessary evil when teaching a course in realtime over Ventrilo or Skype, etc. It is a one-way, authoritative form of transmitting information, and does little to engage the listener's mind except as a receiver and hopefully transcriber of your message, much like a radio or television takes an incoming signal and translates it, but cannot alter the information meaningfully. We have to be careful when we teach not to do too much of this without some form of alternate presentation of material, such as:
- Slides - We have shown recently that these can be used to great effect.
- Wiki-based reading materials - We have a lot of material here on the wiki that we can refer students to as they listen.
- In-game demonstrations - In many of our seminars we demonstrate concepts for our students visually as we lecture.
When lecturing, remember to keep your energy level high. Your voice, even more than in a classroom setting, cannot remain monotone, or even low-tone for very long without putting the student to sleep. That doesn't mean you need to be Ned Flanders discussing the effects of angular velocity, but it does mean that you should show some enthusiasm for the subject, even if you have a splitting headache.
There is another, sneakier method that we use frequently to break up a lecture without resorting to visual engagement, and that is...
Socratic Questioning is disciplined questioning that can be used to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes, including: to explore complex ideas, to get to the truth of things, to open up issues and problems, to uncover assumptions, to analyze concepts, to distinguish what we know from what we don’t know, and to follow out logical implications of thought. The key to distinguishing Socratic questioning from questioning per se is that Socratic questioning is systematic, disciplined, and deep, and usually focuses on foundational concepts, principles, theories, issues, or problems.
This kind of questioning of the students allows us to push discussion of a certain topic deeper than the written materials and provide real, foundational understanding. It also provides insight into the strengths and weaknesses of your students' understanding of the material, letting you direct the flow of the lecture to shore up weaknesses. In employing this method, you need to be careful to expose and resolve any superficial contradictions or inconsistencies before they become obstacles to further discussion on the topic. This method is sort of a "hands-on" method for students' minds that not only deepens their understanding of a topic but grows their ability to think critically as well.
There are six types of questions you can use here, listed below with examples of each:
- Knowledge - "How does angular velocity affect my damage output?"
- Comprehension - "In your own words, tell me how to spiral approach an enemy."
- Application - "Good, now, why would I want to do so?"
- Analysis - "When can we safely NOT use the spiral method to approach an enemy?"
- Synthesis - "What would happen if that battleship had sensor booster or two active, or perhaps a small-ship ally on grid, with drones out and assisted?"
- Evaluation - "Everyone speak up in fleet and give me an example of when you would and when you wouldn't use the spiral approach."
The last method that we utilize frequently focuses more on hands-on application of knowledge to drive home and encourage students to internalize information. When you've practiced a spiral approach enough times, it becomes second nature. Allowing students to practice under the close supervision of an experienced, knowledgeable instructor allows them to make mistakes and have them pointed out in a controlled, non-destructive environment, and thus learn sans the usual death and destruction that accompanies some mistakes.
When we allow students to practice certain techniques or concepts, we must make sure to do so in a carefully controlled manner. The prescribed approach is to first explain the experiment, list the steps for the student, summarize, then begin the practical demonstration. We do this for multiple-step practicals like bookmarking or spiraling. Sometimes however we want to have the student perform some task, then explain to them the results, such as when we have students orbit the instructor in BASIC. Use your common sense when designing and presenting these hands-on tasks, and present them in a logical manner for the subject being covered.
Dealing With Adversity
(Such a pretentious, cliche subject title. I'll change it when someone suggests a better one.)
Occasionally in one of our classes, obstacles will arise. Smartbombing battleships may wait aligned along our route to try and pop ships emerging from warp, bugs galore may make jumping from system to system an arduous ordeal, and we may encounter belligerent students for one reason or another. These things DO happen, folks.
So how do we deal with them?
Well, the first thing to do is stay calm. Becoming agitated on vent will simply destroy whatever control you had over the situation and encourage natural leaders in your class to step up and try to take control. This is an instinctual response and should not be slapped down, simply avoid the question by remaining in control of yourself.
Secondly, use adversity as a teaching tool. If a smartie battleship catches a few people coming out of warp, he's aggressed on the gate's grid and has the attention of the gate guns. Direct an Agony member out to tackle at range or TAM the group onto the wiseguy and teach him why smartbombing Agony classes is generally a bad idea. All the while, lecture the students calmly on what's going on, why you've chosen what you have and how they are to behave when we get into combat (cycle up, stay >6km, keep drones in, etc). Nearly any problem that arises can be turned into a teachable moment, even an irate student.
Say a student deploys drones at a safespot to repair damage on his buddies, and the FC initiates fleet warp without warning, leaving the drones behind. The student gets upset, yelling over vent, "why didn't you let me get my drones, you -------!" Instead of responding angrily (though such a response in the heat of battle wouldn't be undeserved), calmly tell the student that you had to move the fleet to reengage, that he was not instructed to deploy drones, and that in all likelihood you'll be going back to that spot once you've taken down this target, etc. What you've done here is given not just that student but the whole class a greater appreciation for the tactical situation as a whole and diffused whatever anger there was.
If you think these things can't happen to you, think again. They have happened before, in recent past, and will again. You need to be prepared to face adverse conditions when you teach.
Because EVE Online and Agony are global communities, we have cultural differences that must be bridged in order to effectively communicate with each other. Several things can completely destroy this communication, such as ethnocentrism, stereotyping, discrimination and cultural imposition. In order to maintain our professional image, you need to be aware of and sensitive to the cultural differences represented by our students. Avoid using idiomatic phrases like "killing time" or "going overboard" or other slang phrases from your native culture since these can easily confuse students and cause the flow of the lesson to be completely disrupted when students have to ask for explanations of these turns of phrase.
Never. EVER. Make fun of or discriminate against someone based on their race, culture, ethnicity, heritage, sexual preference or any other reason you can think of. Even done jokingly, this can destroy in a second the work of countless people who came before you building the reputation of the University. If this happens, expect to be removed as an instructor swiftly, and if you don't want to also be removed as an Agony member, I would suggest a swift, public apology. There will be ZERO tolerance on this.
Teaching is all about effective communications, regardless of the medium. Proper preparation, knowledge of the subject and a calm, well-reasoned approach will allow you to transmit not just your love and knowledge of a subject, but true wisdom in relation to it. Students from all archetypal backgrounds in EVE have attended and praised our courses. We set the standard for professionalism in teaching any subject in EVE Online, but not only that; we also bring a fresh, enthusiastic point of view to a subject that simply is not done justice anywhere else in the community.
In closing, Agony and the greater EVE community expect much of our instructors and staff, because of the standard we have set. To continue providing world-class training to that community we must grow and maintain that standard by constantly examining our practices and reforming what needs to be altered, growing what needs to be grown. Developing new methods of presenting the material to students allows us to move into the future of PVP University with a more diverse tool set, and this can only be a good thing.