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How One Boot Camp Instructor Personalizes the Online Classroom

Written by Stephen Eichinger on May 6, 2020

Related content: Technology, Digital Education

To the uninitiated, teaching online can seem strange or impersonal. But to Sarah Brich, a current instructor for the University of Wisconsin Extended Campus Coding Boot Camp and former instructor for the Georgia Tech Coding Boot Camp, online education offers her unrivaled freedom and excellent command of the classroom.

A long-time yoga instructor and freelance programmer, Sarah appreciates the balance that online classes strike between personal and technology-powered instruction. “Teaching my students from home lets me show my personality and make things fun,” she said. “You’re not physically there, but you can really think on your feet and be engaging.”

Recognizing that distance doesn’t equate to isolation, Sarah strives to make the learning experience personal and human. “I saw the online classroom as an opportunity to let my ego down and make mistakes. And to show students that it’s OK to not always be right,” she said. “Whether I solve a problem wrong or encounter a Zoom error, I turn mistakes into learning opportunities.”

Here’s how Sarah maximizes her personal touch and injects fun into the online classroom.

Giving every student a voice

One of Sarah’s nonnegotiable online teaching strategies? Calling on every student in class.

“Online, there’s no sitting in the back of the class,” she said. “Students are nervous at first, but they are more comfortable at home and more willing to speak up.”

As an instructor, Sarah knows there’s a natural tendency for teachers to focus on the more outspoken, clearly engaged students. But she believes it’s important to level the playing field and encourage all students to share their voices.

In Sarah’s boot camp, honesty is the best policy. She doesn’t expect every student to know the right answers, but she does expect them to speak up when they don’t. “I ask that my students tell me, ‘I don’t know,’” she said. “Then, I’ll pick someone else. If I can see that someone is nervous, I’ll ask them an easy question to help them become more comfortable in class.” She even lets her personality shine through by using puppets and props to demonstrate complex problems—taking the pressure off of learning and making concepts easy to understand.

Sarah works right alongside her teaching assistants, Katheryn Satterlee and Rebecca Cunningham, to support students as they tackle fast-paced material. This well-rounded team helps students get up to speed swiftly. Sarah has been grateful to work with and get to know the same TAs across multiple cohorts.

Finding novel ways to use technology

Sarah remembers when online learning was first introduced—technology didn’t allow for synchronous and high-quality connections that are important to mimic the classroom. Today, tech-based learning platforms encourage real-time feedback from her students. Inspired by these instantly available inputs, Sarah devises strategies to elicit even more engagement.

“I can create polls, whip up quizzes, and send funny pictures,” Sarah said. Beginning a class by sending a meme in the Slack channel is Sarah’s preferred way to break the ice and get the class conversation rolling. She likes to have students participate in a running commentary on Slack, as it’s a great indicator that they’re engaged and paying attention.

Sarah also has creative methods for gauging if students understand the material. “With Zoom, I don’t have to break up the class into groups. I can have them share their screens and see how they’re working through problems in real time.” If she sees multiple blank screens, Sarah knows her students need additional guidance.

The Trilogy team provided as much support as Sarah needed to get her set up and running. An instructional designer gave Sarah a walk-through of all the teaching methods and tools the boot camp uses, including when and how to break up students into small groups, individual work, and project groups; how to assign reading assignments and research; and how to deliver effective lectures.

He then quickly took off the reins. “He gave me a guide with a lot of creative control and freedom to tweak it,” she said.

Part of the freedoms and creativity Sarah enjoys is the ability to work from anywhere. She took a cross-country road trip with her husband from Savannah to Boulder—and she was able to teach along the way, giving students a glimpse into her travels and strengthening her connections with her class.

A classroom that reflects the remote workplace

After her years as a corporate and freelance developer, Sarah loves how online teaching mirrors today’s remote work environment. Her students are not only learning to work remotely but also getting comfortable with the actual software they’ll use later at their tech jobs.

“I live in Savannah and teach in Wisconsin,” she said. “Students are exposed to diverse people from all over the country. The whole experience allows them to get comfortable working with groups of people. They are learning how to be flexible. In addition, they’re using Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams—valuable tools that are used by most of the companies out there.”

Sarah’s experience has taught her that in work and in life you have to step outside your comfort zone. Online learning lets you do just that while regaining balance.

“You can do this job and you can live your life,” she said. “The beauty of it is that you can be in your element while teaching students everything they need to know.”

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