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The Students HATED The Topic, But By The End Something Changed

February 13, 2015

How many of you have to deal with network traces in your job?

Every hand raised in way that said, “Please don’t say this is a class about network traces.”

How many of you enjoy it?

The students could lower their hands quick enough.

Here’s my promise to you. If you stick it out for the next three days, when you leave this class you will love reading network traces.

The Microsoft instructor faced a sea of blank faces. But, it was clear that no one believed her. And Karen didn’t blame them. When she went to the Train-the-trainer course for “Exchange Advanced Topics” and head it was a class almost wholly devoted to reading network traces she thought, “How am I going to keep my class awake let alone engaged in this material?”

How do you make something distasteful, or boring turn out to be interesting? I tried it by abandoning the property page crawl. Instead, I designed the entire course around labs.

In Instructional Design school they tell you that your course should be 70% labs and 30% lecture. Most course in IT or computers reverse that ratio.

I figured that even if the topic was boring, I could keep them awake if they were in a lab. My course was three days and my PowerPoint slide deck was about 12 slides. I used them for the first hour and then abandoned them.

But, clever course scheduling will only get you so far. How to make the content understandable and more importantly enjoyable. Some people told me it was too much to ask for.

Again, I broke with tradition, at least Microsoft tradition. I didn’t gloss over or attempt to “dumb down” the concepts. From the very beginning we jumped into actual traces.

A network trace is all of the data between two computers. It reads like gibberish, and that’s how most of our students felt about it too. Network traces were useful when a user reported problems between two computers, specifically Microsoft Exchange Server and the Outlook client.

That was another change to the classroom; everyone was teamed up. One person owned the client running Outlook, the other had the server running Microsoft Exchange.

From the very beginning I wanted to build bonds between the students. When they went back to support, my instructors and I weren’t going to be there.

And then there were the labs themselves. We successfully logged into Exchange with Outlook and we made a trace of that. Then we’d go through what was happening. But, no one ever calls support and says,

Everything is working great. Just thought you’d like to know.

No. They call with problems, so the third lab, in the early afternoon of the 1st day we start breaking things. ‘

It’s no surprise that there are many different ways to break a computer, and I tried to push as many as could into the course. And a funny thing happened, the class responded. We started teaching it and the students loved it.

So, what made it so unique? Why was it the most popular class Microsoft ever wrote? I think it comes down to three important points:

1. First the training was designed to meet a immediate need. Only engineers who had been in support for more than 6 months were allowed to take the course, In six months you see a lot of traces.

2. It was all about doing stuff. There was no sit passively and consume PowerPoint slides. The students really taught themselves with some instructor guidance.

3. The class fostered a sense of community. The students really learned to depend on one another. The shared learning allowed them to feel dependent on one another.

The course was so successful that the firs time I taught it we got to the afternoon of the second day and the class got really quite. I thought maybe they didn’t understand, so I asked,

Is there a quest. . .

Wait! Don’t distract me. . . I get it.

The lightbulbs when on. It was an amazing experience.

Karen, the instructor I talked about at the beginning really did challenge her class that they would not just like, but LOVE network traces when she was done. She said one day a student waited after the final class was over,

Did you have a question?

When I came to the class and saw it was about network traces, I almost walked out.

Why didn’t you?

You gave us that promise that we would love network traces. I knew you were wrong. I decided it was worth three days to me to prove you wrong.


It didn’t work. I was prepared to keep hating traces and I don’t. They are actually pretty cool. . .when you understand them.

I know a lot of people like that.

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.

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