A Chat About Online Teaching (and Learning) with Mercedes Tarasovich-Clark

Posted on Feb 15, 2013 in Business, Crafts | 2 comments

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Mercedes Tarasovich-Clark is a knitwear designer (and a friend), and she’s recently launched a Craftsy class on how to make one of her sweater designs. She’s doing a blog tour to promote it, and I jumped at the opportunity to talk with her about her experience teaching online. Be sure to check out the other stops on the tour for more about the actual class! (And I’m told the links I’m using in this post discount the class fee by 1/2, so.)

Without further ado:

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What was your experience with online teaching before this, either as a student or a teacher?

Before I got together with Craftsy to develop the Artemisia class, I had taught a couple of online classes that I had built off of the Ning.com social network site, one on sock knitting using the magic loop technique and a lace knitting class based on my Pavo shawl pattern. I had taken all the videos on my point and shoot camera, edited them, and loaded them to the sites I had built through Ning for each class. I enjoyed teaching online, but the production was probably less than optimal, since I didn’t have great filming or editing equipment. The students still seemed to enjoy the online experience!

As a student, I’d taken several online business classes with Diane Gilliland of Craftypod.com, Tara Swiger, and Stefanie Japel. I enjoyed getting to log in when I had time, and chatting with other students. Most of these classes weren’t video-heavy, since they weren’t craft technique. Funnily, Stefanie taught a Ning-based class about producing and teaching an online class, and now she’s in charge of scouting and developing knitting classes for Craftsy, so I was in good hands while we developed the Artemisia class!

What blows your mind about teaching online?

The reach! I’m amazed at how many students can access the class, all over the world, at all times of day and night. Plus, the sheer number of students I can effectively teach through online media is staggering, when I think about what it would take to arrange that many travel dates for in-person classes. With a well-formatted, easy-to-access class platform, I can show knitting techniques to far more people than I could as a traveling teacher. The students are happy, and my friends and family still get to see me on the weekends!

What’s an unforseen frustration?

Occasionally there are communication problems, either through technology glitches or language barriers. The streaming instructional videos are very clear for most students, but sometimes we follow up with additional visual support. Whenever I’m not sure what may be going on with a student project, I ask them to upload a close-up photo so that I can “diagnose” the knitting problem. That normally helps me get a better idea of what’s going on, and we get the project back on track together.

SAS_06A lot of the conversation about online learning focuses on the student’s experience, but I’m curious to know how teaching online differs, for you, from teaching in person?

I spend less time on my feet! That’s probably good and bad. Really though, I do sometimes miss the tactile part of the experience. It’s always great to be able to see and handle student projects, and some details can be lost through photos and video, even in HD. That being said, I’ve been blown away by how much my students and I DO accomplish, without ever meeting face to face. Seeing my students post photos of their finished sweaters is always a joy! Plus, now I rarely lose my voice after a long teaching day.

Now that your class has launched, how much time do you spend working with students?

I check in every day or two, depending on my workload. Answering questions is very similar in scale to a real life class, in that some are quick, easy questions that cover pretty familiar material, and some are curve balls, that require some head-scratching. For the more in depth questions, I may have to refer to the video content to check what was on camera, check the math on the PDF pattern, or find a good resource to recommend online for follow-up. As the class progresses, I find that I’m actually answering fewer questions, since all students can see previous questions about the class in the sidebar while the video streams. Often their question has previously been asked and answered, so they just check in with me to show off their work!

What does the Craftsy platform offer you, as an instructor, that you can’t achieve on your own with other tools? I’m curious mostly about how you interact with students.

For one thing, I would never have been able to produce content of this quality. There’s just no way most independent designers would be able to afford the professional camera and editing work that Craftsy prides themselves on. The shots of in-action knitting (and other crafts) often provide a better view than what a student might be able to see in a crowded classroom. Plus, they can replay the video as often as they need to, so while in a live class I might have to walk around the classroom demonstrating the same technique several times until it “clicks” with each student, with the streaming video students can just replay a 30-second snippet of a technique close-up and really get the details of how it works.

I also don’t know that I would have reached all the students who are enjoying the class. Without the backing of a larger company, with a money-back guarantee, I think many students would have to be very familiar with my work to be comfortable spending money on the class. By working with an online company that, while new, is very clearly good at what they do in offering quality content by experienced instructors, it takes the “caveat emptor” factor out of buying good and services online. I bought my first Craftsy class back in Summer of 2011, and still have access to class materials and support.

Thank you so much, Mercedes!

Have you taken or taught a crafts class online? What was your experience like?