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How To Tell Good Training From A Waste Of Time

February 9, 2015

He was certainly entertaining.

The two days were very enjoyable.

The course was a waste of time.

How do you tell good training from bad? Especially in computers and IT, we LOVE training. We love to put the alphabet soup designations on our resumes.

A+
PMP
CISSP
MCSE
ITIL

There are millions of them. And sometimes they are even useful. I spent a lot of years writing training documentation and the big secret is that much of it is not particularly useful.

The longest course I wrote was Microsoft Exchange 5.0 New To Product training. It was 2 weeks long. In those two weeks, we took you from knowing nothing about the Microsoft Exchange email system and you came out being able to install and configure Exchange.

The training was certainly important, but we had to cover every option. There are thousands of options. We did was was affectionately called “the property page crawl.” Open up any program and look at the menu. Now, start on the first menu heading and expand it. Then, go through each page in order.

Just thinking about sounds tedious. It was. It was tedious to write and it was tedious to teach and it was pure torture to sit through. But, we really felt like we had to cover it so that later if a support engineer got a call on that feature they could open their book (yes, we still printed out the books) and look up the answer.

The truth was that the engineers were probably never going to open those books again. And if they are relying on a snippet they heard in class to answer a question, it’s probably such common knowledge that we could safely skip it.

But, every new version we would rollout our NTP course and it would follow the same course. We didn’t set out to write bad training. And parts of the training were valuable. But, much of it could have been learned just as easily by reading the help files. In fact, that’s where many course writers started when gathering information about a feature.

So, what makes good training? Every effective training I’ve ever attended or written has had two key elements.

Labs
There are many different learning styles, but most people learn by doing. Sitting and listening to a lecture is effective for about 20 minutes. After that, we start to drift. When I wrote courseware, I always tried to set the schedule so that students were doing labs right after lunch. I’ve never seen anyone fall asleep during a lab.

And those NTP courses, had extensive labs. We designed them so that students end up creating multiple sites and domains. They walked out having both designed and then implemented a complete Exchange enterprise installation.

Application
The labs were only useful if they prepared trainees for things they would actually have to deal with in their jobs. We attempted to make the labs as true to life as possible.

This led to at least one threat of a lawsuit. We had to create an fake company that we would use during our installation. Early versions of Microsoft Exchange used a company named Volcano Coffee. In one lab we set up an SMTP Connector. Today we’d just say, we connected our email system to the Internet. We picked volcano.com as our domain name.

The problem was that someone owned volcano.com. That wouldn’t normally be a problem except that as we sent email out onto the internet, the return address was user@volcano.com. So, any replies, or non delivery receipts would all get routed to the real volcano.com location.

This also might not have been a problem if the owner hadn’t set up volcano.com to forward all in coming email to his personal email account. Every time we held a class, he would get deluged with system messages and replies.

He found out that it was Microsoft generating these messages and I’m sure he saw $$. We eventually bought our own domain and changed future courses to use contoso.com.

When you look at training, decide what you want out of it. Some training is important because people in your industry are expected to have a particular certification. Other training, is training you want to take to actually learn new content.

This week I’ll be talking about experiences around training and courseware.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss)
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

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