A Revolution in Virtual Training

In Part 1 of this two-part series, we’ll look at the challenges that face training professionals in today’s enterprise learning climate, and how the cloud is helping to overcome them.

Can you take traditional training online and achieve the same learning outcomes?

The challenges facing training organizations continue to grow. Companies need to provide software and technical training for employees and customers, but are under increased budget pressure to reduce per-seat training costs and eliminate travel expenses. Furthermore, attendees are under pressure to continue their regular work functions and often do not have the luxury to block out entire days on their schedule to attend—and sometimes travel to—training. To address these pressures, we’ve seen many training organizations look to online and distance learning to solve cost and location challenges.

However, implementing effective distance learning and reducing costs isn’t simple. Emulating a complex software application typically requires a training environment with multiple machines pre-configured with numerous components. In addition, making a classroom environment available over the Web requires specialized virtualization software and complex IT infrastructure. Finally, administration and maintenance of remote classroom equipment requires full-time, skilled technical staff that is too costly for most organizations.

The question then becomes: Can training organizations with limited resources take a traditional classroom environment online and achieve the same learning outcomes? And simultaneously, can they reduce equipment and administration costs for both traditional and virtual training?

The missing piece in instructor-led training.

The proven approach to effective technical training has traditionally been Instructor Led Training (ILT). In this model, an instructor lectures, presents slides and demos on a projector, draws on the whiteboard to help explain concepts, and instructs students to practice using the concepts presented by completing hands-on labs using the computers in the classroom. The students, all in the same physical classroom with the instructor, each have a lab computer in front of them with pre-installed software. When students need lab assistance, the instructor is there to clarify instructions and offer technical assistance.

Taking all the various components of this rich, technical learning environment online has been an elusive but continuously pursued goal. Web conferencing and online collaboration tools like WebEx and Microsoft Lync offer the voice conferencing and presentation tools necessary to deliver the slide/lecture, discussion, and whiteboarding components remotely. And with essentially all learners now having access to high-speed Internet, the experience of using these tools has improved. Live video of the instructor can usually be included as well, improving student engagement–and Voice Over IP (VOIP) technology  for the phone conferencing component further reduces costs.

Bring back the lab.

Noticeably absent from the online version of our ideal technical training experience is the hands-on lab component. After going over concepts (through slide, lecture, demo, and discussion) the effective online course should make the learning practical by enabling students to “learn by doing.” No lesser an authority than Confucius once said, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” Technical training without the hands-on lab component too easily becomes a passive experience similar to watching television. The student is left in observation mode. No matter how good the presenter or the demo, the learner never gets hands-on practice with the software, and as a result, knowledge retention rates suffer and skills are not learned. Relegated to the role of viewer, the students tune out or ‘change the channel’ by accepting easily available distractions like email, web browsing, work colleagues, etc., of which the instructor will likely not even be aware.

Introducing a hands-on lab component helps the instructor engage the students and lets them focus on the topic at hand. To add this needed component to our virtual training, we need an enabling tool which students can use to apply the concepts learned and synthesize conceptual information into practical skills.

Many training organizations have not discovered or implemented such a tool, instead leaving the lab component out of their online course offering all together. Alternatively, some organizations try to distribute their software directly to the students to install on their local machines. Unfortunately, these approaches are not effective in achieving the desired learning outcomes.

Enter the cloud.

In the same way that a WebEx solution works for presentations and audio conferencing, cloud environments can be used to host hands-on labs and exercises online.

How? Well, cloud environments make computing resources available on demand. As a result, instructors have access to a large, shared pool of virtual machines that can be accessed whenever and wherever they are required. Using self-service classroom management applications, instructors and lab administrators can set up and tear down lab environments in minutes instead of manually configuring labs.

And with the cloud, computing resources are usually billed by the hour, which means a training organization can align classroom lab costs to student demand. Furthermore, IT administration can be dramatically reduced if the cloud service is a fully managed and hosted service.

In part 2: Leading a Revolution in Virtual Training, we’ll walk through the specific features of Skytap Cloud and how it adds to the value of training organizations. If you’d like to read ahead to learn more about our cloud solutions for classrooms, download our white paper: Reinventing the Virtual Classroom with Cloud Computing.

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