The big impact of Big Data on effective training and certification
Posted on
June 2, 2016

This feature first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Big Data analysis can improve  the effectiveness of certification training.

Most readers have likely grown fatigued of the buzzword "Big Data" in the past few years. Depending on context, Big Data can be a part of many different scenarios and serve a variety of purposes. For my particular goal of delivering the best possible training courses and certifications for TestOut Corporation, Big Data represents a commitment to using data responsibly for the benefit of our customers.

Big Data means devoting an intense focus to stellar performance criteria, remediating the shortcomings in resources and assessments, and eliminating the inefficient and ineffective exercises in our products. In other words, Big Data means a caring and qualified approach to building the next generation of efficient, accurate, and effective training and assessment products in the IT industry.

TestOut's learning and assessment courseware covering PCs, networks, security, clients, servers, routers, switches, and so forth, is offered to an array of different learners, people with varying skill levels who are at different stages of personal and professional development.

As students interact in the learning or assessment environment, LabSim — our comprehensive, experience-based teaching tool — captures their performance, provides individual feedback, and ultimately helps each learner gain the skills that are necessary for today's IT technicians.

With customers across the globe using TestOut's learning and assessment products around the clock, TestOut is in a unique position to learn from the daily data points that are created every time a student, professional, teacher, or administrator interacts with LabSim. On a slow day, interaction between these users and LabSim will create more than 225,000 data points. This daily tally builds up to more than 6 million data points in a single month.

Building and telling the important stories from these large data sets is critically important to making the right decisions about improving our training and assessment products. Generally speaking, however, it is crucial to ask the right questions before any real work is done. Often at TestOut, the first and right question is: What is best for the student?

The next question, a close second, is: How can we make a difference in a student's life through education using breakthrough technology? These two questions serve as the guideposts for everything that we do to build and tell the important stories, and then ultimately make the right decisions. After distilling the most important information, and building the right stories from the data, here are some of the critical actions TestOut is already taking to build the next generation of training and assessment products:

  • Evaluate and illustrate which learning objectives are still in need of mastery before a student is ready to attempt a TestOut Pro, CompTIA, Microsoft, or Cisco certification exam.
  • Illustrate learning gaps in a whole class, campus, or organization, thereby enabling teachers and administrators to increase the effectiveness of their programs.
  • Identify which course resources are least effective in the learning of a topic/concept, and then implement a remediation strategy.

Let's look at each of these actions individually:

Evaluate and Illustrate Gaps in Mastery

IT professionals know that certifications can literally change the trajectory of a person's life. To that end, TestOut's assessments in the form of our Pro Certifications, focus on specific skills and learning objectives that are essential to success in the IT industry. Each assessed learning objective in each TestOut Pro Certification typically includes an array of specific competencies that prove job skills.

When viewed from the student's perspective, the Pro Certification and each of the associated learning objectives may appear daunting, causing the student to self-evaluate and question whether they are prepared and confident to take the assessment. At TestOut, we want to provide confidence to the student to prove to future employers and educators that they can do the job. The greatest value of a certification is its ability to prove job skills.

As we analyze millions of past and current student data points, we can evaluate and illustrate trends in training performance and the learners' proficiency and mastery of the performance tasks and exercises required in each Pro Certification exam.

In essence, by using this type of data analysis, we look to identify a student's mastery of specific performance outcomes and identify where to focus additional training before they take the Pro Certification exam. This benefit of Big Data not only provides confidence to the student, but also to the instructors who need to help their student achieve specific performance thresholds and outcomes.

Identify and Remediate Less Effective Course Resources

The majority of TestOut training courses have over 500 unique learning resources that are categorized into the following resource types:

  • Lab Simulations provide real-life, hands-on experience performing critical tasks such as configuring software applications, connecting hardware components, or troubleshooting common errors.
  • Video Instructions contain lecture and whiteboard discussion to explain foundational concepts.
  • Video Demonstrations with experts demonstrate the proper way to complete each task.
  • Fact Sheets with comprehensive text provide the details and notes that make an accompanying textbook unnecessary.
  • Section Questions reinforce student learning for each section.
  • Certification Practice Exams give students a realistic exam preparation experience.

The combination of all of these learning resources forms the basis of the training methodology that suits every learning style and allows maximum engagement and retention. As a whole, these resources prepare students to successfully pass TestOut's Pro Certification exams — tests that measure what you can do, not just what you've memorized — as well as vendor and association fact-based exams.

The TestOut training course resources are extremely effective at helping students master specific performance outcomes. As unique learning resources, however, when taken as isolated items, they may not be as effective in achieving the same level of mastery.

In essence, each individual item should contribute, positively, to the desired outcome — but often it is hard to isolate how much benefit they provide. Two specific resource types lend themselves as indicators to ineffective training however: Lab Simulations and Section Quizzes.

The aggregate data points on these two resource types articulate the areas where students are spending too much time and also not learning the concepts or content as they should. These resource types could be viewed as indicators, pointing to specific, preceding learning resources that are ineffective. Once accurately identified, the focused remediation efforts improve the effectiveness of the training resources and students subsequently master the performance outcomes.

Illustrate Learning Gaps that Affect and Entire Class, Campus, or Organization

Big Data analysis can improve  the effectiveness of certification training.

With many years as an IT training course developer and formal training in education, one of my main interests in sharing information about learning gaps with teachers and administrators is to help the student have a positive experience while learning new, yet technical content.

One way to do this is to tease out the trends on specific lab simulation exercises where many students are performing well — such as how they correctly perform hardware configuration of routers, switches, and servers in a networking closet.

On the other hand, in some cases many students as a whole do not perform well on specific tasks. Determining the exact reasons (with direct causality) is often difficult. Aggregating performance data for an entire class, campus, or organization and then sharing the results with teachers and administrators, however, empowers them to start at the outcome level and work backwards.

When teachers and administrators take action based on information, the likely result is that the students will learn concepts and gain skills in less time, with less frustration and less confusion. The student will have a positive experience and be better prepared both for assessment and to complete real-life IT tasks.

By viewing education and assessment through the prism of Big Data, TestOut is improving the learning experience of the student, improving the quality of learning and assessment products, and enabling teachers and administrators in ways that are different from other IT training and assessment in the marketplace.

About the Author

Greg Shaffer is a product manager and former senior instructional designer at TestOut Corporation. He holds several CompTIA and Cisco certifications, and earned his master’s degree in Instructional Technology from Utah State University.

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