Real Live Learning

Wednesday Oct 25th 2000 by Anne Martinez
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Despite the flood of new products and processes competing to educate you, the oldest, least sexy medium of all is often the most expedient and effective: traditional classroom training.

Sometimes it seems as if there are almost as many ways to study as there are certifications to study for. Choosing which method to use is often a battle between your budget, your learning style and your daily schedule. Throw in a healthy dose of the boss's biases and you've got enough variables to set your head spinning faster than your computer's hard drive. But despite the flood of new books, online courses, self-paced CD-ROMs and instructional videos competing to educate you, the oldest, least sexy medium of all is often the most expedient and effective: traditional classroom training.

Pros

Classroom training has a lot going for it. For starters, it imposes a predefined external structure on your learning. Students have specific times they must be in class and material is covered at a consistent, predefined pace. This tends to place it a bit higher up on the IT professional's priority list. You can't just do it tomorrow and you're more likely to schedule other things around the training than vice versa.

In addition to serving as an ally against the procrastination beast, classroom training comes with that most valuable of assetsa living, breathing, involved instructor. A good instructor will adapt and respond to class needs. Got a question specific to your company's computing environment? Need a few real-life stories from the field to bring the material home? With a canned course, you're out of luck, but in a classroom the chances are good that you'll be able to receive these extras and others.

Although not always the case, chances are also good that your course will include hands-on access to the technology being studied. Although one can learn how to configure a Cisco router or add a new user to a Windows 2000 network through reading or hearing about it, nothing brings home the process more than doing it. Simulation software and remote labs make it possible to do some of this on your own, but they don't come with a handy instructor to guide you or bail you out if you get too adventurous and screw up the works.

Cons

Like everything else in life, classroom training has its downside. The most prominent drawbacks are the time commitment and expense. You'll have to add the time to commute to the training site into your schedule. And the very thing that's a plusthe external structuremeans that instead of fitting your studying in around your life, for a short time you'll have to fit your life in around your studying.

Plus, classroom training is a lot more expensive than self-study through books. Classes cost from several hundred to several thousand dollars eachcompare that with $50 to several hundred dollars in books or CD ROMs. A third feature of classroom training that some people find objectionable is that you will have to proceed at a pace defined by the instructor. You won't be able to zip ahead or lag behind to any significant degree. For most people this is a plus more than a minus.

Where To Find It

Finding quality classroom training is a bit more difficult than flipping open the Yellow Pages to computer training, though that's a reasonable place to start. Many certification vendors offer a customized training curriculum themselves, or have a network of affiliated trainers who offer certification specific courses. The best way to uncover these courses is to go straight to the certification vendoreither through a Web site or by telephone. Even when vendors don't have affiliated training programs, they can probably point you to someone who offers applicable education.

Instructor-led training is available from unauthorized sources as well. Plenty of independent training companies offer their own, custom constructed curriculums to help students prepare for certification exams. The best way to find quality courses of this type is through word of mouthfind out where your colleagues have obtained their training and how they rate the overall experience. You can also visit Internet forums frequented by IT professionals and ask for advice.

A third, often-overlooked option for classroom training is the community college. Although traditional education outlets have a reputation for lagging a bit far behind the cutting edge, they are increasingly attempting to remedy this problem, especially as it relates to IT education. Several major certification vendorsincluding Microsoft and Novellhave arrangements that allow community colleges to teach the same certification curriculum used by technical education centers, but in a semester format, and typically at dramatically lower cost. If you don't mind, or even prefer, the longer learning time, than these may be perfect for you.

There are several Internet sites that gather information on training courses into a searchable format, such as www.thinq.com and Yahoo!'s list of certification training companies, found online. These can be another good resource, especially if you're seeking training that's a bit less commonplace. Also, check out the sidebar of resources accompanying this article for a representative list of companies offering instructor-led training.

Check It Out First

However you uncover a preliminary list of training providers, it's important to do some homework even before registering for that first class. If you don't, you could end up pouring your time, no small amount of money and your attention into a class that doesn't live up to your expectations. To reduce the likelihood of a training disaster, take the time to research the instructor and classroom, before you sign up.

Start by finding out who will teach your specific class. Ask for the resume of the instructor, or at least a bio. It's possible the training center won't have an individual instructor assigned yet, but if so, they should still be able to provide you with information on the instructors they generally use. If you can't get the scoop on the trainer, take it as a warning that the quality level may not be up there.

What should you look for in a trainer? The best have both hands-on, real world experience with the technologies they teach, as well as significant teaching experience. Generally they should have already passed the exam you are currently studying for, although in the case of a complex certification covering multiple technologies in multiple exams, this isn't always the case.

The training facilities should come under your microscope next. Ask about computers and equipment that will be used in class. Are they up to date? Will you have to share with another student? Are relevant hookups, such as network and Internet, present?

The physical layout is important as well. Inspect it yourself, if at all possible. If not, make inquiries by phone. Is there room to spread out your materials? Is the classroom well-lit and the chairs reasonably comfortable? Ask about lunch arrangements and whether the equipment is available for practice outside of class time. Don't forget to inquire about the refund policy. Of course you're not planning to drop out the first day of class, but what if a family or work emergency arises and you have no choice? Will the training vendor refund at least part of your fees?

As about any guarantees they offer. Some vendors offer a guarantee that you'll pass the exam. While at first glance this is very appealing, if you read the fine print typically the guarantee is not that you'll get your money back, but that you can retake the same class at no charge (except, of course, your travel expenses). So take any guarantees like this with a grain of salt.

Although nosing about like this might seem tedious, it's well worth the effort. If you discover the training outlet isn't up to your standards, you'll have saved yourself a lot of wasted time and money. If you uncover one of the many superior learning centers available today, you can return to it again and again as your career progresses.

Instructor Led Training Vendors
Not sure where to find classroom training that will meet your needs? Try these resources for starters, and don't forget to check your phone book for local options.

Nationwide Training Centers:
Global Knowledge
Learning Tree International
New Horizons
ExecuTrain
Productivity Point
Wave Technologies

Training Locators:
CIW training locator
CompTIA training locator
Intel certification training locator
Microsoft's authorized training locator
Novell's authorized training locator

Preparation Pays Off

Once you've chosen a training vendor and signed up for that first class, your work has just begun. In order to get the most from the experience there are several tactics you should employ. Ask for a course outline and set of objectives in advance of the first class. Read over it to prep yourself for what will be covered. If there's a class text, obtain it in advance and scan through it and read the material related to the first lesson ahead of time.

Advance preparation like this means that when during class you will be reinforcing material and expanding on your knowledge, rather than hearing about the topic for the first time. This makes for better, more effective learning, and you'll be able to make more use out of the opportunity to ask meaningful questions.

It's also a good idea to arrive a few minutes early for each class meeting. The first few minutes of class time are when the instructor will be introducing the topic and describing the material to be covered. If you're busy opening your notebook and greeting your neighbor, you'll be a step behind. It's better to arrive early to get organized and mentally focused for the learning to come.

The Bottom Line

Many certification candidates choose to complete certification preparation through a combination of self-study and classroom training. They use self-study for the areas they are stronger in, and the classroom for the less-familiar topics. There's one more big plus you should know about instructor-led, classroom training: companies are more willing to pay for it. Prometric's 2000 Training and Certification Study found that 85 percent of IT managers preferred sending employees to classroom training over any other training format. And that alone makes it a very strong contender for your certification training needs.

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