The Paradox of Teaching Practical Skills Online: Finding Ways Forward

Can practical skills be effectively learned through online classes? This is a valid question as some would reflect on their cooking outcomes, compare these to what they had seen in the show and start wondering what went wrong: “If I followed the recipe, methods, and the timing of each step exactly, what caused the difference in the outcome? Could it be the model of the oven that I am using? Or the grade and flavour of the ingredients?” Given that students taking practical subjects would have similar concerns, how then can practical skills be effectively taught online?

The key factor for success in teaching practical skills online is first to recognize and acknowledge the difference between a controlled and an uncontrolled environment. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, teaching and learning for practical subjects, whether in the field of hospitality, arts, medical or life sciences, were mainly host-centric; that is, they were focused on equipping faculty members with the necessary tools and enhancing campus infrastructure - classroom, learning centres, and laboratories. This made teaching and learning more controllable via standardized and uniformed environments.

For obvious reasons, the Movement Control Orders due to the pandemic have caused many to reflect on the uncontrollable environment i.e.: - students’ self-learning environment. The issue now is no longer about the “reaching-out” mechanism, thanks to massive efforts in advancing the Remote Infrastructure (IT applications, online teaching and learning platforms). What remains a great challenge for programmes like culinary arts, hotel management and events management which heavily focuses on practical skills is the readiness and feasibility of a guest-centric environment - students’ home learning spaces, equipment, workstation, utensils, and materials.

To determine the extent to which practical skills can be taught online, academics and institutional management must carefully evaluate the subjects/programmes based on the degree of their dependency on the following 3 Cs:
1) Control - close monitoring of the performance of skills due to the high risks involved, as practical results are greatly dependent on precise specifications of materials used;
2) Capacity - unique and specialized utensils, equipment, workstation, and space that are required in facilitating the practice;
3) Coaching - close evaluation and correction of students performing complex tasks, processes and mastery of a particular skill.

The above criteria should be mapped against the student’s learning environment in deciding the suitable mode of teaching and learning for practical subjects. Hence, the following (Table 1) as the model for online consideration for practical subjects is proposed.

Table 1: Online Practical Model

Note: FTF – face-to-face learning; Online – distance learning over the internet; Hybrid - a mix of FTF & Online learning.

Source: Daniel Chong (2021)

The significant takeaway from this model is a reminder that in considering the adoption of online teaching and learning for practical skills, careful assessment of the spectrum of the practical setting is required. Enabling online teaching of practical skills is insufficient on its own; much emphasis should be placed on enabling learning and creating reasonable “practice ground” away from campus. If online teaching can be designed in ways that enable learning, utilizing such practice grounds away from the campus, then there are further implications that need to be considered:

#1: Learner readiness – the effectiveness of online practical sessions could also be affected by (though not subjected to) students’ maturity (both cognitive and psychomotor) towards a subject matter.

#2: Internal resources development – these include the following: development of course guide, specifically, “self-learning manual”; demo clips used to hone skills needed as part of the curriculum; feedback mechanism to facilitate “remote coaching”; assessment models/ mechanisms that consider both the processes and the outcomes.

#3: Resource fees – A flexible approach to charging resource fees may need to be considered based on the nature of delivery (FTF, HYBRID, ONLINE). It is perhaps possible to charge reduced resource fees for practical subjects offered online. This is especially since students may be required to obtain more materials, utensils or equipment on their own. This does not necessarily mean that it will be cheaper for students for the very same reason. Hence, setting up a “practical resource centre” could be necessary to support such needs. The practical resource centre could provide consultation, coordinate purchases or make available materials and smaller equipment/utensils for students to purchase for their practical sessions. Since students do not come to campus and share the use of such equipment or materials, it is logical that they should have similar resources at their premises.

#4: Compliance to ODL (Open Distance Learning) programme standard – the programme needs to consider the threshold (minimum percentage of face-to-face delivery of practical lessons) allowed for practical and/or laboratory-based courses stipulated in the respective programme standards.

#5: Online value proposition – there is a need to break the market stereotyping towards online practical lessons. It is important therefore to set the expectations for online experiences and communicate the requirements from the outset. Students should also be informed about the support provided for online practical classes.

If, on the other hand, the nature of a practical setting is dependent on a high degree of control, availability of capacity and the need for coaching, then, the online option is strongly not advisable. As with any tool, trend, or other change in education, it requires a deft hand to create authentic interdependence with other pieces. One can consult a doctor via phone call, be diagnosed remotely to a certain extent, but surely cannot be operated on without going to the operation room!


Associate Professor Dr Daniel Chong Ka Leong
School of Hospitality and Service Management