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Q & A - Selecting the right platforms to run online classes

During COVID-19, many instructors have rushed to switch their face-to-face class into online formats. We spoke to Sonia Rutherford and Sarah Johnson from data-driven marketing agency, IndigoLeap, about what’s involved when moving physical classes online.


7 min read

1. Firstly, when there’s already thousands of online classes, is there any point in individual instructors creating something new?

Absolutely! What individual instructors can deliver better than any mass market class is a genuine personal connection, and this is more important than ever. Also, they can tailor what they do to meet what their participants actually need.

For us, we’ve always preferred running workshops face-to-face but now we’re leading bespoke online sessions and it’s great to see our clients even if it is virtual!

And for the training and fitness classes we attend ourselves, we really enjoy seeing the familiar faces of instructors and classmates we already know.

2. Where’s the best place to start?

Just like any other project - we always recommend starting with WHY you want or need to do this as it makes all other decisions much easier.

Everyone will have their own reasons for wanting to move classes online e.g.:

  • Keeping relationships ticking over for just now
  • Ensuring class participants improve and don’t lose fitness or technique
  • Maintaining income

This then shapes WHAT you could do. For example, actively coaching pupils to improve, requires more effort than simply keeping in touch.

3. Should instructors provide exactly the same online as they did offline?

We’ve seen a lot of people rush to transfer all they do offline into a digital approach which is almost identical, e.g. running everything on the same days as usual, having classes the same length and with the same content.

For those with a simple offering, that may be absolutely fine.

However, we’re all in a different situation now. In terms of format, it might be hard for everyone to keep energy up for a full hour. In this case, don’t be afraid to take a different approach - perhaps it would be easier to split it into two half-hour sessions. Or make up the hour, by combining pre-recorded content on technique with a live video session.

Looking at scheduling, routines are now different. For example, children who were restricted by school hours might love a morning or lunchtime session. Alternatively, parents who now have kids at home, might prefer after-school classes.

To avoid heading in the wrong direction, we always recommend a test-and-learn approach. Whatever you do doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, trying to be perfect could really hold you back. Just get something started as quickly as possible then learn from there:

  • Sense check your proposed approach with a few customers
  • Trial a few basic sessions and see how they go
  • Regularly review your data on how and when people are using your classes, ask for feedback and be prepared to adapt formats and timings

4. What are the main things to think about when planning online classes?

The key question we would answer first is:

‘What level of feedback do you need to give to each pupil to deliver quality and/or safety?’

In other words, we assume your pupils will need to see you, but do you need to be able to see pupils or clients?

This will help you work out:

  1. Whether you need 2-way communication via video
  2. The maximum size of the group you will be able teach at one time - on video this may be smaller than you would manage face-to-face, at least initially

This is useful for helping you narrow down the best platforms to use.

Then you can move on to the details of what you’re doing. Consider:

  • How many instructors are on the team? Just you, two or three, or a big group?
  • Do you want to involve more than one instructor in each class (if applicable)?
  • Do most of your pupils just do one class with you, or do they do a number of classes in different disciplines?
  • Will class participants have assignments to complete in-between classes?
  • Does your subject involve pupils progressing through set units of content or repeatedly practising core skills in parallel with classes?

This will help you determine if you need to combine different platforms, and work through the logistics of delivering each session.

5. What are the quickest and simplest tools to use?

If you’re working 1-2-1 or with a small group of up to three pupils plus yourself, then you could simply run a video call on your phone.

We prefer WhatsApp video calls as it’s very widely used, but if everyone has an Apple phone then FaceTime is an option. For those you’re connected with on Facebook, then Facebook Messenger calling is fine. Just make sure everyone has a good WIFI connection.

At the moment, platforms are increasing user capacity - up to 8 for WhatsApp, 32 for FaceTime and 50 for Facebook Messenger. Although this might be fine for a family quiz night, if you’re giving live feedback, you’ll probably want to keep numbers low.

6. How do you collaborate with a larger group?

For larger groups, we’d recommend stepping up to video conferencing platforms. If that makes you think of large corporates and international project teams, don’t worry - the technology is now ideal for online classes. Often, even initially reluctant participants enjoy the community spirit!

At the moment, Zoom is very popular, it offers a free option, and is easy to use for up to 40 minutes and up to 100 people. However, if you need longer sessions, then monthly subscriptions for each instructor aren’t too expensive.

Google Meet and Microsoft Teams are other options, especially if your participants are in a business setting where they may use these anyway.

Watch that your class sizes don’t get too big - keeping track of 10 people in an online gymnastics class will be much harder than it is in a studio!

7. When do social media platforms work best?

Social media platforms are perfect when your training is delivered by video, but you can still provide a high quality and safe experience without needing to see your participants. And the good news is, you won’t be restricted by group size.

Facebook Live and Instagram Live enable you to stream your live class to your followers or a closed group. Live events help you keep a real connection with your class, and you can receive and respond to messages and comments during the session. The video will then save to your Facebook timeline or you can share the replay to your Instagram Stories for 24 hours.

YouTube is also an option, if you are going to be running a number of filmed sessions that you want participants to access at any time and are happy to be viewed by non-class members too. (Remember that if any of your videos are to be accessed outwith your closed groups, then add any appropriate guidance and disclaimers around safety).

8. What if you have many different classes and instructors?

You might need a ‘pick-and-mix’ approach, combining different tools and platforms to deliver everything you need.

For example, you could use Google Classroom as a base to structure all your content for private groups organised by specific class, instructor, or ability level.

You can then post access details for live Zoom classes, or links to permanent content on YouTube. You can set specific assignments for participants to submit privately and then provide feedback and scores on that. If participants use the chat to ask for additional feedback on an assignment, you could then arrange individual WhatsApp calls.

Facebook also has Facebook Units for ‘social learning groups’. These let you run your classes like an online course - you can organise your content into ‘units’ and change the order in which they appear. Group members can then let you know when they’ve completed each unit by clicking ‘I'm done’.

Remember, whatever you go for, customers will need clear instructions for how to sign up, log-in and navigate your chosen platforms. You can provide links to the general help content provided by your chosen platform, but be prepared to provide extra support to those who need it.

9. What are the best ways to manage charging for online classes?

With the tools we’ve mentioned, you’ll need a separate process for charging just like your physical classes where you simply don’t allow access until you’ve received payment.

There’s three main ways to manage this:

  • You control who you call: The simplest way if you’re using WhatsApp, FaceTime or Facebook Messenger video calls is you are fully in charge of who you call to join each video session
  • Password access: This is where you generate a password for the likes of Zoom calls or Google classroom that you only share to individuals who have paid
  • Setting up closed groups: On Facebook and Instagram, you set up closed groups and only accept members who have paid. When people do submit payment, ask them to confirm their Facebook or Instagram username so you know who to accept. (People’s online profiles may not match the name you know them by)

For those who don’t feel ready to charge a fixed fee for classes, another option is using a commercial donation or tip platform, such as Buy Me a Coffee, or Patreon where you invite participants who valued your class to, in effect, buy you a coffee or donate to the value they felt the class was worth. Something to consider!

10. What about data protection?

Most people are used to complying with data protection regulation by keeping participants’ details confidential, e.g. blind copying everyone in emails. When you move to online platforms, participants’ details become more visible, e.g. in WhatsApp groups, participants’ phone numbers will be visible.

People may forget that on likes of Google Classroom and video conferencing, their names and potentially email addresses will be visible to others. It’s worth flagging this just so everyone is aware. In some instances, if participants don’t want their details to be shared, they can use different usernames and set up a new email address or Google Account specifically for accessing the classes.

It’s also worth having a written code of conduct on any platforms, especially closed groups on social media. You might want to set a condition of membership that what is shared in the group via video or messaging should stay in the group.

11. Are there any security risks?

In a physical space, if the door’s open, anyone can walk in. So, on social media, you create closed groups with controlled access. On video conferences, you require passwords for access, and lock the call once everyone has joined.

Again, in the physical world, there’s no point in locking something if you give everyone the key. So online, you only accept closed group members who you can identify, and only share passwords securely by personal text or email - i.e. NOT posting them on your general open social media pages!

Of course, you can’t guarantee that others won’t lose or give away the keys, so changing the locks (i.e. the passwords) on a regular basis, will help keep things secure. And on the likes of Zoom, you can use ‘Waiting Room’ functionality where you screen participants before admitting them to the call.

12. Could this open future opportunities?

Although many of us are going through the hardest time we’ve ever faced, we’re sure that many will discover opportunities to deliver an even better service for their clients. In future, some may be able to expand from small private groups to offering courses to the wider public on platforms such as Teachable or Udemy, making more professional use of YouTube, or creating bespoke websites with password protected content.

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