The Software-based Classroom
Can computer-based technical training software really deliver? In the past, computer-based training suffered from a failure to interact with the student. Older delivery methods concentrated on telling a student a fact and then turning around and seeing if he or she remembered it moments later. That one-dimensional educational experience soured an entire generation of technical staff on computer-based training.
A new generation of software-based training, however, is arising that attempts to merge the older style -- the simple question and answer presentation -- with multimedia and animation. Can quality training that is available when a student has time and that is delivered wherever a student has a workstation compensate for the lack of a live teacher? It’s worth taking a look. For this survey we looked at three software-based training solutions. For each, we asked for software that provides in-depth technical training on one of the most important topics for enterprise Windows 2000 administrators: Active Directory Services. The software we chose to test came from LearnKey Inc., Transcender Corp., and Microsoft Corp.
Two tracks are clearly evident with this type of product: software training materials that are built to help a student come to terms with a particular technology and software that attempt to help a student pass an MCSE exam.
Installing LearnKey Inc.’s multimedia engine is a breeze, and it worked on all the platforms we tested. It is designed as an intranet application, but it worked in our standalone environment. There is a dilemma here for the vendors: Should a training software vendor make the course available on a range of platforms so anyone can view the lessons, or should they only support the course materials on a machine where you can also do hands-on lessons? LearnKey takes the view that supporting multiple platforms provides flexibility for students.
LearnKey’s material came on four CD-ROMs. Each disk groups together a set of related modules. Transitions from module to module were natural and accompanied by a presenter who explained the relationships between the sections. Much of the material is shipped as presentations with a synchronized voice-over stored as .AVI files. Each CD-ROM contains the AVI’s for that set of modules.
LearnKey’s software requires each student to register with a username and password. When we logged in we were immediately taken to the first lesson of the first module. That worked well when we first started our course, but the system didn’t keep track of where we were in the course after we took breaks. The ability to establish a bookmark while progressing through material is essential: We missed it in the LearnKey course.
We also noticed related problem. When e-mail came to our inbox, we naturally switched to our Outlook window. LearnKey didn’t detect when focus was removed from the class material. It kept going through the presentation while we were looking at our mail. Clearly, it would be nice to have a mechanism for the program to detect when the window focus has been moved to another program. We would have also liked to have volume controls built into the user interface and the ability to move backwards and forwards inside an individual presentation.
The videos were simply talking heads, but the animated demonstrations were excellent. In fact, even though we found a few errors, the technical material presented in LearnKey’s CD-ROM was outstanding.
LearnKey Windows 2000 Directory Services Administration
LearnKey Inc., St. George, Utah
Pricing: Courses are available as part of bundles or individually. Retail price of reviewed course on CD-ROM is $425.
+ Effective use of multimedia and animation for technical training
+ Uses both lecture and demonstration strategies
+ Can install to all Windows environments
+ Outstanding technical content
+ Can be used in both standalone and networked environments
- Insensitive to changes in user environment
- No on-screen controls for volume, pacing and navigation
- Courseware administration tools present in standalone installations
The varieties of approaches that can be used to deliver software based technical training are vast. Instead of concentrating on technology first, some organizations are concentrating on delivering training materials that help technical staff succeed at MCSE tests. A good example of this strategy is Transcender Corp.’s TranscenderCert exam simulation.
Transcender’s products are designed to help technical staff achieve Windows 2000 certification. The training software provides a series of MCSE exam simulations along with a quiz feature that works much like the flash cards of days gone by. Transcender calls the exam simulations TranscenderCert and the flash card technology TranscenderFlash. Transcender delivers four core Windows 2000 exams: We looked at the flash card technology for the MCSE Directory Services Installation and Configuration exam.
Installing TranscenderFlash worked well on a variety of platforms. When we started up the program we were presented with the option to take one of eight prepared quizzes, take a quiz built from random selections of the pre-built questions, or to take a custom quiz. Once a quiz is selected, the user can either take a timed test or simply go about answering the questions at his or her own speed. The interface gives the user the ability see the question, the cumulative score, and -- once the user clicks on the flash card -- the answer to the question.
A nice feature of the quiz decks is the ability to mark cards for later review. The program can also go back and find the cards in the quiz decks you had trouble answering.
It was nice to be able to select a set of cards from each deck to create our custom quizzes, but we would have liked more control. TranscenderFlash allows you to build a custom quiz deck using the existing database of questions, but it doesn’t allow you to add new cards of your own to the deck.
TranscenderFlash is not a substitute for good exam preparation software and wouldn’t, on its own, be of significant use to technical staff trying to get a basic grounding in a specific technology. It’s not intended for that. It is a tool to help technical staff prepare for certification exams. While we would like to see more flexibility in the product -- multimedia support in the question panels, the ability to add questions of your own, and the ability to use marked cards to create custom decks, for example -- the product is perfectly fine for the purposes intended.
Transcender DirectoryFlash/Admin 2000
Transcender Corp., Nashville, Tenn.
Pricing: TranscenderFlash decks are integrated in TranscenderCert exam simulations. Single user licenses are regularly priced at $799 for the seven-exam MCSE 2000 Select Pak and $599 for the five-exam MCSE Core Pak.
+ Familiar "flash card" style for technical material
+ Broad range of technical material
+ Self-paced format works well for technical staff
+ Coordinated with certification exam simulations
- Not effective for standalone training
- Cannot design new cards for quiz decks
- Customization of decks is limited
A time-honored approach to technical training is mentoring. Under the guidance of a knowledgeable and patient expert, a student can work through a technology in a hands-on environment. Unlike LearnKey’s presentation style, Microsoft Corp. attempts to bring this hands-on approach to technical training.
In Microsoft’s MCSE Training Kit for Windows 2000 Active Directory Services, Microsoft provides a series of hands-on procedures that allows a user to practice technical skills. What Microsoft intends is a self-paced, hands-on training experience for technical staff.
Compared with LearnKey’s training environment, Microsoft’s MCSE Training Kit is daunting in bulk and breadth. We started with a Compaq ProLiant server and began to work through the exercises in the Training Kit. We quickly found that we needed some version of Windows 2000 Server on a machine that was not connected to either our training or production networks. Unlike the approaches used by LearnKey and Transcender, Microsoft uses a live computer for the training.
We found the step-by-step lessons to be well thought out and, as expected, technically accurate and complete. Lessons are grouped together with review questions. It seems to us that even those not wishing to work toward a MCSE certificate would benefit from the extensive material in the Training Kit. Being able to choose among the variety of material makes it possible to adapt the product for a specific organization’s requirements.
MCSE Training Kit for Windows 2000 Active Directory Services
Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.
Pricing: Microsoft Training Kits all have separate pricing. Retail price for Active Directory Services Training Kit is $60.
+ Hands-on and extremely thorough
+ Easy to pick and choose among lessons
+ Emphasizes step-by-step learning
- Requires separate hardware
- Breadth of material can be overwhelming
- All step-by-step, no multimedia support
Software-based training has come a long way from the primitive question and answer software that was available only a few years ago. During these tests we were especially impressed by the technical content and animated demonstrations that LearnKey provided. We hope other vendors are quick to adopt multimedia as a tool for delivering technical training. Microsoft’s other Training Kits, like the one used in this review, are complete and thorough, but can be daunting. They also address a fundamental question: Should technical training be hands-on or should it primarily be a demonstration. If you’re looking for hands-on, step-by-step approaches to technical training, Microsoft's Training Kits are through and authoritative. If you’re looking for a more traditional approach -- multimedia demonstrations, quizzes, and synchronized presentation material -- we think LearnKey’s courseware deserves a close look.