Maximizing the Value of Self-paced Hands-on Learning with Interactive Lab Guides

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Benjamin Franklin spoke these words many years ago, but the value and benefit of learning-by-doing is still quite relevant today. Hands-on training increases engagement levels and enables students to interact directly with the subject matter that they’re learning. 

The Value of Hands-on Learning

Studies have shown that learners retain as little as 5% of the material presented through lecture, but many retain up to 75% when taught via hands-on participation. Interactive learning combines theory with practice—thereby promoting critical thinking and problem solving over memorization.

These widely-held beliefs are still evident in the delivery of modern-day technical training. Most technical training that’s offered today, for example, is complemented with a hands-on lab component to promote practical reinforcement, technical efficiency, and knowledge retention.

Self-paced Learning Trends

This interactive form of learning may be even more critical for self-paced learning scenarios where instructors or proctors may not be available to guide and assist students.

Self-paced, on-demand learning has been gaining in popularity over the past decade, long before the more recent effects of COVID-19 and its subsequent impact on the practicality of in-person learning. Self-paced training modalities offer ISVs and technology companies more flexibility to train their employees, partners, and customers by meeting them where they are and allowing them to learn on their own schedules at their own pace.

Historical Self-paced Learning Lab Challenges

Instructor-led training, whether taught in-person or virtually, lets students engage with subject matter experts in real time. Likewise, instructors and proctors can interactively verify whether students are keeping up with the material, completing lab exercises correctly, as well as whether they’re attempting them at all. This is not a luxury that’s afforded to self-paced models of hands-on learning.

Over two decades ago, self-paced training curriculum incorporating hands-on technical labs was nearly impossible. Available technology just did not exist to support the life cycle required to make on-demand technical lab environments feasible. Modern day virtual labs solutions now provide both the flexibility and workflows to deliver virtual lab environments asynchronously.

Course Manager by Skytap addresses all of these historical self-paced hands-on lab challenges and even provides built-in workflows and policies targeting a variety of nuances around self-paced lab entitlement and expiry. Out-of-the-box integrations to popular commercial learning management systems (LMS) further provide an opportunity to deliver a one-stop solution for students to access both training content and labs within a common interface.

More Recent Self-Paced Learning Lab Challenges

Despite the recent evolution in virtual labs capabilities, lingering challenges with self-paced, hands-on learning still exist. Without the benefit of an instructor or proctor, self-directed learners are not often required to show their work. As a matter of fact, unless the ultimate goal of the learning exercise is some form of certification or exam, most hands-on lab exercises go unchecked and unverified.

LMS systems have traditionally fulfilled the role of verification with respect to a student’s progression through training content. LMS systems have always provided tracking capabilities and gating mechanisms such as quizzes to both guide and restrict progress until certain conditions have been met. Sadly, even when integrated with the virtual labs workflows, LMS systems are just not up to the task of tracking a student’s progress through a hands-on lab. This makes it difficult for providers of self-paced, hands-on learning to verify whether or not students are actually doing the lab work.

Are Your Students Actually Completing Hands-on Lab Exercises? Do You Even Know?

My recent conversations with training managers and coordinators confirms that this gap in tracking self-paced students’ lab activity not only exists, but has also been problematic for them to solve. Despite their best intentions, providing timely on-demand lab access is often not enough to ensure that the lab work is being done. 

Some virtual labs platforms can provide reports as to whether students have even attempted to open a self-paced lab, and some may even be able to show how much time has been spent within a specific lab environment, but surprisingly many training organizations even lack this level of visibility. Many people I’ve spoken to have admitted that their current self-paced lab verification strategy is based on little more than trusting that the student will actually do the work. And while trust is great, most organizations, when given the ability, prefer real metrics and tracking to verify that the work is completed.

Why Lab Guides Alone Aren’t Enough

Training organizations have been leveraging lab guides for both instructor-led and self-paced training for decades. Conceptually, lab guides assist a student’s progression through a lab by either/both describing a set of exercises and goals to reinforce what they’ve learned and/or by providing step-by-step instructions and commands that demonstrate how to successfully complete a given exercise.

Many modern day virtual labs platforms like Skytap Course Manager now provide convenience features that enable lab guides to be viewed alongside the lab console itself, or to be “torn off” and displayed on a secondary device. While handy, these features do nothing to address the verification gap surrounding self-paced labs.

An Emerging Solution: Interactive Hands-on Lab Guides

So how do we close the self-paced lab’s verification gap? Some have admitted to manually inspecting student lab environments after-the-fact to verify whether certain activities have been performed, but this is an arduous and impractical solution.

Some of the more recent features introduced by Skyap’s Course Manager attempt to address the gap with capabilities that enable lab developers to provide more intelligent, interactive lab guides capable of verifying and tracking student activities.

Course Manager’s Manuals feature has always provided an alternative for lab developers to create and maintain content within Course Manager. A manual can be used in place of or in addition to an existing lab guide (e.g. PDF or other document) that Course Manager’s learning console can display alongside the lab itself.

Leveraging Skytap Course Manager Manuals to Create Interactive Lab Guides

Skytap Course Manager manuals provide a mechanism for embedding rich content into custom lab guides and have always supported modest levels of student interaction 

Used in conjunction with some of the newer capabilities in Skytap Course Manager manuals, lab developers can now leverage a more complete set of tools to both track and verify a student’s progress through both self-paced and instructor-led labs.

Lab guides created with Skytap Course Manager manuals can be interactive in two dimensions: 

1) The student interacts with the lab guide

2) The lab guide interacts with the lab infrastructure, providing a mechanism to automate and verify tasks performed within the lab environment itself

Skytap Course Manager has recently enhanced the Commands feature and introduced the Questions feature, providing a more robust interactive experience for the student. Furthermore, student progress through the manual can be gated by interactions with the manual, outcomes of commands sent to one or more VMs within the lab, and responses to questions posed within the manual. Skytap Course Manager also summarizes all of this activity automatically for easy tracking of student interaction with the manual, and indirectly with the lab itself.

Closing the Gap

Hands-on labs have been—and will continue to be—a valuable component for all modalities of technical training delivery. Student interaction with hands-on labs is imperative to unleashing that value. With the emergence of self-study and on-demand delivery, instructors cannot always be relied upon to ensure that students are maximizing their lab experiences. Leveraging interactive lab guides for self-guided classes may be something worth exploring if you question whether your on-demand labs are being leveraged to their full potential.

Learn More

Look for part two of this article (coming soon) for a deeper dive into specific Skytap Course Manager features and functions, providing examples for creating more interactive lab guides. 

For a brief demonstration of some of these new features, check out the Virtual Labs Power Hour Skytap Live 2022 recording and navigate to the second session (starting at the ~30 min mark within the recording).

More Skytap Live 2022 sessions >

Join our email list for news, product updates, and more.