Techies still like a touch of class

IT professionals don’t havethe most outgoing and sociable of images. Indeed, many assume they must love this era of reduced physical contact when an e-mail is frequently preferred to a phone call or face-to face meeting. But what does this tell us about how they like their training delivered?

While online learning programmes and support have proven successful for end-user training, for the IT professional, learning is still very much rooted in the classroom. This is for several reasons: IT is a hands-on subject, the complexity of today’s software applications makes self-study difficult, and IT professionals actually enjoy learning in a classroom with others.

It won’t surprise you to learn that’s also the view of classroom-based training providers.

“They [IT staff]are passionate people, who are inquisitive about their subject and like to learn with others,” says Robert Chapman, managing director of London-based Training Camp, which offers accelerated learning courses for a host of software applications. “Tactile learning is probably their dominant learning style although, like most people, they learn via a mix of styles.”

Embracing e-learning

Unsurprisingly, this view is not shared by e-learning apostles. SkillSoft, a major e-learning player, claims recent research it commissioned indicates that the IT community has embraced e-learning big time. It says that of 725 IT professionals who were asked how they thought they would be learning in the future, only one-quartersaid it would be in a classroom-type environment.

The research, which was carried out at the end of last year, found that more than 70% of those polled had access to IT training via their desktop computers.

“In five years’ time, I would expect to see an almost complete demise of the classroom with regard to IT training,” says SkillSoft head of research, Kay Baldwin-Evans. “This is because IT professionals, by their very nature, are the group most comfortable with technology, and all the evidence is that they actually prefer to do their training online.”

Perhaps,but others who specialise in the sector are adamant that the IT learning landscape will not change much in the near future. They also believe that e-learning is an imperfect medium.

“Look at the completion rates for e-learning – they’re atrocious,” says Chapman. He concedes that online tools work well for performance support and follow-up information, but is emphatic that immersing the IT professional in their subject is more likely to pay off for their employer.

“It’s like learning French -you learn a lot quicker if you live with a French family,” Chapman says. “We take people out of the workplace, it’s distraction-free, and they live, breathe, eat, and sleep the subject. The net effect is that their organisations see a return on their investment.”

However,there’s no doubt that e-learning is providing a major challengeto traditional-style IT training providers.

Not rich enough

Brian Sutton, director of learning development for IT training company QA-IQ, which has a network of training centres across the UK, says the learning experience offered by e-learning content simply isn’t rich enough for the IT professional.

“With e-learning, you can’t go off-piste. It’s a rather antiseptic vehicle,” he says. But he also admits that the shape of classroom training must change if it is to meet future needs. Too many people, he believes, are locked in the pedagogyof “we tell you, and then we test you”.

“More and more people come into the classroom and want to be immersed in real-life problems and be able to engage with those problems,” he says. “IT instructors must take on more of a facilitating and coaching role.”

One area where e-learning scores highly is its constant availability and its personal testing facilities. Users can test their progress easily and revisit those areas where they aren’t up to scratch.

“With online training, IT professionals can sit a mock exam online, which is then commented upon and marked by an online mentor,” says Baldwin-Evans. “This gives them the confidence to know that they have mastered the subject sufficiently to pass the real exam.”

The importance of this self-test assessment cannot be over-stressed. ITskills validation is essential for career progression in that field-think of the many Microsoft qualifications -and this gives e-learning a significant edge over classroom-based instruction. It’s part of the “show us your medals” element of the IT culture.

Knowledge and experience

So how can classroom-based deliverers compete? Through the knowledge base and experience of the teacher.

This is the view of Danny O’Mara, general manager of Shropshire-based Host Computer Services. This company specialises in hardware training, offering the IT industry a multi-vendor training facility. He says that its instructors typicallyhave at least 20 years’ experience.

“Our instructors don’t just impart knowledge, but they impart their experience,” he says. “I was previously on the other side of the fence as a training manager, and there was a lot of demand from people for online learning.

“Online isOKif you have a body of knowledge thatyou want to update, but you cannot learn the fundamentals of something through self-study -it’s very difficult.”

But it isn’t just continued demand for the classroom from the IT industry that means the face-to-face approach will remain dominant. Despite the fact that e-learning providers are finding ways to bring down the cost of producing online learning programmes for clients -especially for bespoke projects -when it comes to creating IT learning, it can even be cost-prohibitive for the developer.

“One of the problems is that the economic case for developing really good online or computer-based training modules or software is weak,” says Iain Smith, founder of Diaz Research,specialists in IT HR best practice.

“The level of change of software tools is often too high for the provider to make a profit. It’s also a fragmented market – there’s not just one C++ toolsetor one Java toolset that you’re developing training for, but several.”

Case study: Cisco

The major IT companies are demonstrating innovation in training provision for IT staff.

Cisco is offering its internal and external partner audiences games-based learning that is accessed via the internet. It currently offers 11 games, with more to follow. One of the most popular is the Cisco Binary Game, which has been played by some 30,000 people in more than 100 countries. Cisco conducts analysis of its certification audience’s needs to pinpoint which technical areas could be best addressed by games, and feedback to date has been positive.

It partners externally with developers of serious games – not only used to entertain, but to teach, sell, persuade, and improve productivity as well – and combines the talents of a learning, subject matter and game development expert.

Games available include Cisco Subnet Slingshot, where you can test your knowledge by deciphering which replacement part is necessary to make repairs to a cargo bay, and Cisco Network Defenders, where learners combine their gaming acumen and awareness of security risks.

“The games have been offered as supplemental study materials, either to familiarise students with topics or to aid in their learning and development of networking skills,” explains Jerry Bush, programme manager at Cisco. “The games are actually a form of self-assessment, in that if you score highly, you advance to higher levels. This can also be a way to motivate students to play more, which is actually a form of study.”

Microsoft believes a blend of traditional classroom and innovative online methods will form the best mix for IT pros when it comes to learning its applications.

Among the options the software giant is exploring is providing an online demo lab.

Early feedback has been good, although the company knows that it needs to offer 24/7 support around the lab for it to have maximum benefit. Its partners have also said that they would like more opportunity for skills training to be sent to mobile devices such as MP3 players, says Steve Clayton, chief technical officer, Microsoft Partner Group.

“We want to give people more choice. If they don’t want to go to a classroom, they can perhaps download a video to a mobile device,” he says, adding that Microsoft is also exploring how RSS feeds and blogs can be used for disseminating information and learning content.

“We want to put the control back into the hands of the learners,” Clayton says. “If one learning method doesn’t work for them, there should be another method.”


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