How I’m updating my community course concept to make it sustainable

For the past few weeks, I’ve been running my first online course under the Opsitive banner, the “Linux Administration Master Course”. Participation is free, not only because I’m still finding my way back into the teaching game, but also because it’s important to me to contribute back to the open source community which has been the basis of my career and business.

The initial concept of this course consisted of weekly self-study by the participants, complemented by a live lecture from me, followed up by a group call on Discord a few days later.

As mentioned in my previous reflection on the course, I’ve identified a number of issues that I’ll have to address if I want to make Opsitive sustainable as a teaching platform and business.

These are the most significant issues I’ve identified:

  • The frequency of my lectures determines the pace of the course. I made myself the bottleneck in everyone’s learning process.
  • This effect is exacerbated if I can’t do a planned live lecture because I’m sick, on holidays, or due to other circumstances.
  • Some people stay up-to-date with where we are in the course, while others are lagging behind, sometimes by weeks. And that’s despite my low output of live lectures.
  • These differences in progress are perfectly okay. Everyone’s got a different amount of time available to put into learning. Learning time also varies week by week; life tends to get in the way. My course design did not take this into account, though. I was imitating a college course that has to cover a specific curriculum in a fixed amount of time regardless if students are able to match the pace or not. However, I don’t want to leave anyone by the wayside.
  • Some of the participants are already intermediate to advanced Linux admins. They might be picking up a sliver of new knowledge here and there during the early chapters, but they’re mostly waiting for a later part of the course that will cover topics with which they’re not as familiar yet.
  • At the time of our group calls, some of the participants are at work or in other places where they can’t ask questions in spoken form. Others don’t feel comfortable to ask on audio, or simply prefer to refine their questions in text chat.
  • The slow progress of the course also prevents new participants from joining the course. They’d have to wait until I start a new run many weeks in the future.
  • The amount of time the current course concept is requiring makes it virtually impossible for me to prepare, let alone run, other courses in parallel.

That last issue is especially critical because I intend to offer paid courses in addition to the community ones. One category I’m going to add will be self-study courses, for which I’ll have to create the course materials in text and video format. Another category will be multi-day intensive courses that require full-time attendance from both participants and myself.

If I want to make the community courses more effective and paid offerings viable, I’ll have to make a few changes.

The changes I’m going to make are based on the insight above as well as on the feedback I got from participants. On top of that, I had to remind myself of my mission:

Teaching teams of one to ten who have little time to level up.

That last part makes it clear: I must not hold off the progress of my participants. In practice, that means that, even though I’ll keep using published books as course materials, I can’t run my courses like a book club where everyone studies in lock-step.

Instead, I’ll focus on implementing the teaching method I had in mind all this time, the so-called “Flipped Classroom”. This method is based on self-guided study of the course materials by each participant, and on active support by the instructor in deepening everyone’s knowledge and applying it in practice.

In consequence, all participants are now free to work through the study material at their own pace. There won’t be a “too slow” or “too fast” any more.

In this new course flow without me as the pacemaker, participants will have to come up with their own motivation to keep going. One source they’ll be able to draw from will be frequent interaction with me and their fellow participants. The central place for this interaction will be the course channels on the Opsitive Discord server. In addition to a casual chat channel, every course will have a dedicated forum channel for questions, which I will answer either with a forum reply, or during Office Hours. I’m also thinking about adding a channel where participants can post when they’ve finished a chapter.

I’ll hold Office Hours on my Twitch channel at least once per week. On these streams, I will address questions from Discord, and add my own commentary on the course materials as well as topics raised by students. Participants watching the stream will be able to ask questions in live chat, too. A new feature I’m going to add is an integration with Discord that will allow participants to “call in” to the live stream via audio.

In order to minimize fragmentation, I’m going to shut down the community forum I started on Podia. When there is both enough demand and available time, I’ll consider launching a new community website based on much more powerful open-source forum software.

I will still produce lecture videos with my own commentary on the course chapters, but with lower priority. I will record them offline instead of on live streams, which will result in better quality for the participants and less pressure on me.

From here on out, the Linux Master Course, as all future community courses, will be open for new participants to join at any time. To cover at least a fraction of the cost of running the community courses, and to create an incentive for participants to take their learning seriously, sign-up will require an Opsitive community membership at a level of their own choice, with the lowest tier going at only €5 per month. As a token of appreciation of its continuous support and feedback, the initial cohort of the Linux Master Course will keep their free course access.

These changes will enable me to focus on my most important tasks as an instructor:

  • Respond to student questions thoroughly and quickly. My goal is to always deliver a high-quality answer within 48 hours.
  • Produce additional learning content, especially for the final chapters of the Linux Master Course that are not covered by the Both books.
  • Produce my own course materials that I can share as part of my courses, so students don’t have to purchase third-party books themselves any more.
  • Build an open-source teaching business that will eventually create sustainable revenue.

I’ve put a lot of thought into these improvements, but I would have missed important aspects were it not for the feedback of the participants of the current Linux Master Course. To every one of you, I’d like to extend my gratitude. Please keep the constructive criticism coming!

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