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      Laura Berlage

      crochet basketI’ve designed and taught more than 100 different live online classes across at least 9 distinct fiber arts mediums.  Developing the concept of running a “road test” class has been absolutely essential to launching professional offerings that are well-paced, equipped with helpful kits, and supported with just the right learning materials.  It’s helped me catch curriculum holes I couldn’t see, as well as ease my anxieties about how to make an aspect of the course “work” online.

      I truly believe that utlizing road testing in your own teaching journey will make your practice and offerings stronger amd more professional, as well as give you the breather space to try a concept to see how it goes before going full-on with it.  Occasionally, I’ve road tested curriculum and then shelved it because the content, medium, or skill level required was just not the right fit for an online class.  It’s much better to learn these things in a trial environment than with a buggy-eyed, full-paying audience questioning your worthiness!

      Here are my guiding principles for road testing a class.

      Use this when you are launching new curriculum, especially if this involves a new medium, a new skill level, or otherwise makes you feel like you are stretching yourself to be able to offer this course.  For instance, I am in the process of launching wool embroidery classes.  Running road test classes helped me realize that I needed to invest in an embroidery stand that forced my example piece to hold still while I stitched, otherwise my hoop was all over the place under the camera!  Sometimes it’s hard to anticipate these things until you are in the middle of the experience.

      Use this when you need to assess pacing, homework requirements, or course length.  That doesn’t make a road test an “anything goes” experiement.  You should have a concrete sense of what you’re teaching, how you’re teaching it, and take a stab at the pacing using your best educated guess.  Running the class as close to this original outline as possible will give you real feedback as to whether this works in real life or if you need to change your plan.  You may find that students flew through your material and got bored, or they struggled to keep up, or what you planned was just right.

      Road tests are the real class but with a twist–your students are there to help you become a better teacher.  This means you hand pick who you invite to these sessions, preferrably 2-4 people.  If at all possible, gather a mix of folks who are new to what you are teaching, have some experience, and at least one with more experience.  These should be folks who already know you as an educator and get your “vibe” so that there isn’t a learning curve for them about how you roll as an instructor.  Let them know going into the class how this road tests works and that you’re interested in real feedback as you go (don’t save all your questions to them for the end).  “How is this working for you so far?” or “Can you see what you need to under the camera?” or “How was that amount of homework this week?” and many more are great leading questions along the way.

      Make your road test accessible to your hand-picked crew.  They are helping you just as you are teaching them, so offer some compensation as compared with the later “real” class.  I don’t offer road tests for free, as I’m still dedicating my time and they are receiving valuable education–even if it’s not fully polished yet.  If I haven’t created pre-recorded tutorials or the photo essay yet, there is no fee for these.  In some cases, I state that students must purchase a materials kit, in others I make this an option so that experienced students can supply their own materials.  Typically, I offer the course at half price for tuition (fee for hours of live time), in acknowledgement of this being a growth moment.  Always, I help encourage excitement about the release of new materials and being grateful to these students for helping me be my best–enriching the experience of other students in the future.  Some of these students will become real groupies, eager to help you road test the next dream you’re chasing.

      Keep excellent notes.  When someone says, “You know, I really wish…” and they name materials or diagrams or demonstrations that would be helpful, write it down!  Don’t expect you’ll remember it hours later.  Keep notes while you’re doing your road test class.  When you log off from a session, take additional notes about what went well and what you might change next time.  These will be very valuable at the end of the course as you evaluate what to keep and what to adjust.

      I seriously want you to plan and actually do a road test course.  It doesn’t have to be anything huge.  It does mean that you have to actually teach something online to some folks that you trust–getting your feet wet and feeling out how this works.  If you already have experience teaching online, think of something that feels just a little bit out of reach, something that would help you practice new ideas and skills you’ve learned in this course.  Do it!  The road test helps you create a safe space to try it, in real time.

      Have you tried something similar to the road test concept before?  What questions do you have about this model?

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