The advantages of online courses are obvious: money (and world resources) saved on travel, and flexibility to fit your timetable. Any kind of information that is needed “just in time” is perfect for this: how to create a table in Word, how create a chart in Excel, and so on. What has traditionally presented more of a challenge is information that needs a lot of interaction – perhaps because the concepts are technically difficult, or because it is hard to apply to your own specific (and complex) requirements.
Server technologies throw up interesting examples. Our area of expertise is with identity and access technologies – and no two solutions involving Active Directory, Exchange, SQL Server, AD FS and FIM or MIM look the same. Does that mean that the implementer of such a solution simply has to get into a room and discuss it (with a consultant, or in a facilitated group)?
General learning of the principles is still required of course, for example by practitioners who may not yet be involved with a specific case. Is the subject matter so technical that only a traditional classroom will do?
At Oxford Computer Group, we now run our MIM courses in both online/on demand format, and in traditional classroom format – and the demand for the former has overtaken the latter (and that is not to say that the classroom demand has dropped significantly – demand is growing but skewed towards online/on-demand). How does this work? And can you get the same experience?
First you need a well-structured course which clearly identifies the important principles, which are applied to various scenarios, through lecture and through labs. This means that even though everyone has their own particular issues with their own particular environment, people can take the same journey and get 90% of the way to where they want to get to – the rest happens in other ways (traditionally through interaction with a teacher and other students).
“The lectures must be every bit as engaging and educational as the classroom”
Once a course is proven in the classroom, we can put it online, but with some subtle differences that make it more suitable for the online/on-demand format. The lectures must be every bit as engaging and educational as the classroom – using demonstration, and bringing in information gleaned from consultant experience, but also from actual classroom discussions. Additional material is needed to fill the “space” that is normally filled by Q&A and anecdotes – for example quizzes (which are also a break from the more didactic sessions).
A tutor must be available within a reasonable timeframe, to answer questions, enhance understanding and generally help – often this is an email exchange, but Skype is vital too. However, the interaction will never be the same as in a classroom – and nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to doing labs. Hyper-V has made it possible to offer complex technical labs online, and so we provide an environment for each student – but the flow of a lab will not work if you keep having to wait for support that is not actually in the room with you. So what can be done? Well, the labs have to be tight: a task must have a clearly understood aim and measure of success – and it simply has to work (sounds obvious, but sadly this is not always the case). Also, you can offer a video demonstration of the entire lab, which can either be used as a whole learning piece, or dipped into when you get stuck.
And it’s working! Not only is demand growing for online, self-paced course, but the number of “help me” interactions is way less than we anticipated (typically in the single figures for what would traditionally be a 4 day course). Without actually doing a course, it is hard to get the whole experience, but it does seem to be working.