Same content, new format … the teacher learns a lesson

Same content, new format … the teacher learns a lesson
February 20, 2014 Beth Nyland

Some of the most rewarding work I do is teaching classes and coaching individuals to build their skills—and their confidence—in business writing. I am always thrilled when a class or coaching session occupies space on my calendar.

As I look at the calendar for March and April, I’m excited to see several blocks of time reserved for the six-week Business Writing Fundamentals course I teach through StoryStudio Chicago’s Words for Work program. For quite some time, I’ve been teaching Chicago-area writers on Tuesday evenings at StoryStudio’s amazing space in the Ravenswood neighborhood.

But this next class won’t meet at the studio. The entire program will be virtual—supported by video lessons, a class blog, and interactive video chats. I will teach from my home office, and students can join from anywhere in the world. Exciting!

The learning objectives are no different than any other time I’ve taught this course. My key messages are the same. But the audience and delivery methods …


“Wow,” I thought. “This is a whole new ballgame. I need to reinvent my tried-and-true course content.”

I got a little testy. I like my syllabus, my teaching notes, the in-class exercises, the homework assignments, and my beloved PowerPoint slides.

“This stuff is brilliant! And now I’ve got to tear it apart and put it back together? No!”

Yes. Because the existing format won’t work. What plays in the physical classroom simply won’t cut it online. For weekly class time, we’ll use a video chat platform where everyone can be seen and heard. But there’s a limit to how long a person can reasonably engage with a screen.

Changing the schedule (normally 2½ hours one evening per week at the studio) was the first step. Our weekly online meetings will last just 60 minutes—including brief presentations from me about essential concepts, but mostly whole-group discussion.

That’s more humane. But it leaves out a lot of course content. I still need to deliver that information, just in different ways and in bite-size pieces students can pick up and digest on their own, at their convenience.

At this point, my negativity wandered away, replaced by creative energy and enthusiasm for something new.

“I don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” I realized. “I just need to put it on a different vehicle.”

So now I’m elbows-deep in the messy, creative process of disassembling my beloved classroom materials and putting them back together in new formats:

  • A short, weekly video message introducing the week’s focus, delivering a bit of inspiration, and leading a quick creative writing exercise. Students can click the “pause” button to take action right in the moment.
  • A series of blog posts to dole out reading assignments, spark conversation, and draw written responses from students. Here’s a major upside to an online writing course: students will write more. Not only will they have writing homework, they’ll write about that writing homework.
  • Weekly assignments to think, read, write, edit, research, and collaborate with fellow students—all self-guided. As long as they keep pace with the weekly flow of content, students can do the work at their convenience.
  • Discussion guides for weekly video chats, where we’ll bring together the entire week’s work—talking about and learning from one another’s experiences—and then set up what’s next.

As these elements come together, I grow more excited about the coming six weeks of teaching and getting to know a new group of business writers.

I have to admit that preparing for this experience has been a challenging and valuable learning experience for the instructor. I’m re-learning and practicing some of the essential lessons we’ll cover in the class:

  • Nail your message. Express it clearly and concisely. Make your point.
  • Know who your readers are and what matters to them.
  • Understand how your readers receive messages. Do everything you can to meet them where they are. Make the message relevant to their interests and circumstances.

With that, I must get back to work. Registration has already opened for this online Business Writing Fundamentals course, and class begins with the first video/blog post on March 5.

Please consider registering yourself, and share the course description with someone you know who writes for work. Just about everyone does.


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