Lessons Learned from Mentoring Online Bootcamp, Part 1 : Challenges & Missions

For almost a year, I’ve been contracted as full stack development mentor in Binar Academy. In short, my job is mentoring students / fresh graduates in a bootcamp. It is a pleasant experience, overall. I met eager and dedicated students, guided them through full stack development curriculum, laughed and swept tears, and most importantly, learned from them. As a mentor, I helped students to gain knowledge, experience, and confidence. It was done in various methods: teaching in class, sharing outside class, providing written materials, and setting up project. In my opinion, Binar Academy crafted more than just programming bootcamp. It created environment for anyone to grow as better programmer, as well as better person.

Most of the time, the bootcamp was done in face-to-face setting. Learning and feedback process happened in classroom, or at least in same space. However, Covid-19 pandemic forced us to shift. Classroom is no longer. Face-to-face communication becomes limited. Education sector is crippled everywhere. Yet, students must continue to learn. It is their rights. Schools and institutions moved to online meeting or classroom solution. So did Binar Academy. The usual bootcamp became full online bootcamp.

In this post, I’m going to share my experience navigating my bootcamp classes. I faced several challenges in mentoring due to shifts in learning environment. Then, with help of Binar Academy and fellow mentors, I crafted methods to increase engagement and effectiveness of online teaching. Some works, some need improvements. Finally, I extracted insights from those experience, which I hope can be useful for my dear readers.

Challenges

I can sum up challenges in online bootcamp as “keeping students and instructor engaged and motivated throughout bootcamp sessions.” Well, I think it is quite universal. However, there are some constraints I have to address. Identifying them is crucial process to determine which teaching method will be effective.

  1. Students are used to one-way teaching. “When you attend school (or bootcamp in my case), you come to classroom, listen to the teacher, ask questions, then go home.” This has been the norm for decades. Teacher is perceived to hold absolute knowledge and truth. Straying off of the intended learning path (due to boredom or pure curiosity), and student will be labelled as rebellious or disobedient. So, why take risks? That is what students think. Ironically, this norm severely blocks learning process rather than encourage it. Students earn knowledge, but they won’t actually learn and develop themselves.
  2. Infrastructures are somewhat limited from both sides. Since schools and offices are closed due to pandemic, students and teachers must provide their own infrastructure e.g stable internet connection, dedicated room without distractions, and decent PC/laptop. Some people can’t afford them. Some are not easily available in Indonesia, like stable internet connection. Moreover, online meeting apps consume data horrendously. A 3-hour session in Zoom, with occasional recording, screen sharing, and active video/audio consumes 2.0–2.5 GB of data. Mobile data plan is not an option anymore. I switched to FO-based ISP immediately.
  3. Law of Class Interactions. In my experience as student from elementary school to master degree in Indonesia, I’ve found relation between class size and student engagement. This pattern is also consistent when I was the one lecturing. In general, student engagement level is inversely proportional to class size. The bigger the class, the less likely students will pay attention.
  4. Inherent limits of online communications. Basic communication theory states there exist two primary forms of communication: verbal and non-verbal. Verbal communication relates to written/oral message. Non-verbal communication relates to the way message is presented. Thanks to technological advancement, we can deliver audio and video in real time, enabling us to perform direct communication. Non-verbal communication can be relayed through intonation, tempo, or facial expression. However, there’s more to non-verbal communication. Ambience, aura, presence, or even smell contribute to overall class experience. However, they cannot be transmitted easily using current technology. That’s why it’s called inherent limits.
  5. Administrative requirements. Education entities need to keep track of students. What’s the attendance rate? How many students actually pay attention? Is there anyone showing significant progress in test grades? Who are struggling to keep up? To track all of it, some mechanisms are defined: attendance, assignment submission, grading, etc. In offline class setting, tracking is simple. Teacher/instructor can actually see who skip classes, who’s struggling, and who’s just plain lazy. Assignment submission and grading are also straightforward. In online settings, things get complicated. Tracking attendance can be cumbersome when using virtual meeting apps (Zoom, Meet, Skype) or messenger group (WhatsApp, Telegram,etc). Grading can be long process, even with platform like Google Classroom. Personally, I find dealing with these kinds of tasks exhausting.

Missions

To craft wholesome online learning experience, the academic team from Binar Academy created a set of tools and rules. They combined various platforms to enable simplified online bootcamp flow. I also incorporated my own style and methods in class. The details will be omitted, but here are important features needed:

  1. Class structuring
  2. Attendance tracking
  3. Online class rules
  4. Online class engagement
  5. Material delivery
  6. Supplementary platforms and materials
  7. Keeping morale
  8. Off-class engagement
  9. Assignment tracking

First thing first, we need to make the class small enough. In Binar Academy, each mentor ideally teaches up to ten students. In my case, I occasionally teach 12 students in a session. Obeying the law of class interaction, this structuring allows me to handle students better. It also makes students easier to ask, reducing barrier of one-way teaching norm.

Moreover, the class could be designed as fixed class for bootcamp setting. In Binar Academy, each student picks up his/her own schedule. There are slots available from morning class until evening class. In practice, once a student picks up a schedule, about 90% chance he/she will stick around it. Consequently, the students in my classes are 90% same every day. This results in better engagement and progress in bootcamp setting.

Next, handling the attendance administration. Let me describe simple case of an online class. As a mentor, I can create a meeting session via Zoom or Google Meet. Then, I send the invitation email to all students in that particular session. Or, I can even send the link to a messenger group so students can click on it directly. Then, before the class begins, I jolt down names of participant in my screen. Well, that’s the boring way, right?

One good thing about online platform is unlimited potential for automation. What if I can automate attendance process? Turns out that I actually could. The simple way is to put login page before the invitation. That way, students must login (via email or social media) before getting the actual meeting invitation link. We can track the login records and treat them as attendance record. Simple. How can it be done? Well, we are web development mentors. It wasn’t that hard :).

Still, the process can be improved. Instead of Zoom/Meet session manually created by mentor, we can create an automatic session using API, then put it behind login page, and renew the session every day. That will be very convenient.

There’s still more to tell. I will share my way to keep class entertained while delivering web development courses. I also will show my platform stack to demonstrate coding, write class notes, extra material, and assignment handling. Stay tuned for Part 2!

This article is the first part of Lessons Learned from Mentoring Online Bootcamp. You can find the other part when the series is done.

Software developer with MBA degree, mentor, somewhat fatherly figure, data and business synergy enthusiast