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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

Rethinking Distance Learning

Long time readers of this blog know I have been a distance learning skeptic in training in the martial arts for some time.

To summarize, I specifically objected to the claim that people can learn martial arts via video course/online just as well as they can with a live, in-person teacher and/or training partner.

This claim has been made for years, mainly to sell online video courses.

I've always held the position that video training is fine to supplement live training, but it cannot - it absolutely cannot - replace in-person training. Not only are little details missed via video, but also you cannot replicate drills with another person via video. There's issues of timing, body positioning, footwork, etc. you can't really understand until you see it with another human being.

I was pretty much a hard "no" on video/online as a primary method to learn martial arts.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Like most of you who teach, we quickly switched to holding classes online via video conference, using tools like Zoom, or Facebook Live, or Google Meet or Skype or Line... there's a lot of options out there that are cheap or free.

Once we had the platform and our students up to speed on using it, we focused on teaching solo drills as much as we could during that period.

That's how we kept our people training when there were literally no other options, and speaking for our Meetup - we lost nobody, and we actually gained a few non-local participants.

We did that for months.

I also attended several video seminars during that period, held by teachers in my country and in other places around the world.

I also got specific video content on specific topics by my teachers, and left a few for my students too.

I'm no longer a hard-no skeptic on distance learning as a tool to learn the martial arts.

I learned that video learning can work up to a certain point, and it can even work for newer students.

The key here is one-way vs. two way communication.

Traditional distance learning has been done in a one-way, "broadcast" method. A teacher makes a video, a student watches the video and follows along.

This is partly a limitation of technology and cost. It's cheaper and easier to produce a video, not only in terms of money but in terms of time. The teacher can film once, and then sell the video to as many people as they can. This can be via dvd, or via private video service.

With the "broadcast" method, there's no opportunity for a student to ask questions, and the teacher has to teach things in the most basic way to cover the greatest number of people.

If a student doesn't get it... they're kind of out of luck. Maybe they can ask the teacher a question via email or something, and maybe they'll get an answer back. But that takes time and you lose the power of learning in the moment.

Two-way video conferencing changes the game.

Video conferencing platforms have been around for a long time, but it hasn't been super common outside of the business world until relatively recently. They have traditionally been a little pricey and hard to use for most of us.

When COVID-19 hit, these tools suddenly got much cheaper (even free), and most of us had an incentive to learn how to use them.

It requires a good camera (most modern smart phones work just fine) and internet connection and space to train (and wow, we got creative with that one). You probably need or want a cloud solution to store recordings of your sessions.

But that's all you need, and you can just... go. We made the decision on a Sunday night to do this, and we were broadcasting our first class the next day.

Fast, cheap, easy.

We discovered you can run a class session similar to what you can if you were training in person. Students can ask questions, teachers can react to what they are doing or see students doing via the video conference, and the session can be tailored to the people participating.

Much less of a broadcast and more of a collaboration.

Just like it is when we train in-person.

Virtual classes are also more flexible in that you aren't usually dependent on a facility, so you can really work with student schedules to find better times/places to offer classes.

And you can have distance students, like we do now.

It's pretty amazing.

The big thing that's still missing is that understanding of timing and distance and such you can only get working with another person. Your imagination isn't enough, and it changes based on working with different people.

For example, what you can do/see vs. someone your height and weight vs. someone a lot taller and/or heavier than you vs. someone shorter and/or lighter than you absolutely makes a difference in your choices.

Of course, you often don't any any resistance at all at home, which is another thing you really have to have. I promise you, the invisible opponent you have in your head moves very differently than a real-life human being.

Two-way virtual classes require a time commitment on an instructor's part. You can't just make a video on your own schedule, put it out, and go about your business. You have to teach like you would if you were in the same room with the person.

For some, that's a downside. Me, I like it because I like spending the time with our students and replicating our live training as much as i can.

So, I'm now less hostile to the idea of video learning, strongly preferring virtual classes over one-way video learning if it has to be online. I believe you do have get in in-person training to be fully trained, but this is a good choice for people who want to train in something not local to them and they can get with their teacher from time to time in person to work on those things you can only get live.

But it takes a lot longer to get really good at it vs. training in person.

I would also argue that there's some styles that can't train virtually well, like the grappling arts.

Has your position on virtual training changed? Do you think you can do it all online? Or is in-person training the only legitimate training method? Does it depend on the style or the experience of the student? Let us know in the comments!

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