Dear CertMag: Will online training labs help me get certified?
Posted on
January 23, 2015

Dear CertMag is a regular feature that addresses common questions about certification and related IT issues. Have a question? Send an e-mail to editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

Online learning can be a powerful tool in your certification toolkit.

Dear CertMag: What do you make of the buzz about online training labs? CompTIA is pushing CertMaster here, there and everywhere, and I think Certiport is trying something similar with MeasureUp. I have my A+ and Network+ and I’m getting ready to start Linux+. (After that, Server+, and then the world!) I usually rely on some combination of books and practice tests. Are practice labs a money thing, or will I get better training this way? Very curious.

— Rachel, Tucson, Ariz.

CertMag responds:

The challenge with many candidates is that the certification process is often aspirational for them. That is, they are working on developing or certifying a skill set that they want to use in a career. Or they may want to demonstrate the capability to do a certain kind of work that appeals to them. As a result, they may have gotten a lot of information from a book, may have looked at some images, may have memorized relationships and objects and theory on how to go through a process. Getting the necessary hands-on experience required for some types of credentials, however, can be hideously expensive.

Think about it: How many of us have server-class hardware sitting around to play with Hyper-V and over-subscribing virtual machines, and moving them around? Or just happen to have a few Cisco routers sitting in the guest room to set up some network topologies, simulate failures, and work through corrective troubleshooting? And even if we did have that kind of hardware, how many candidates trying to develop a skill set would also have enough skills in the area “out of the gate” to be able to do pre-population in an effective way to set up a test lab?

The training lab offerings you mention provide a pre-set/pre-provisioned environment that has enough simulation capability to assist in building hands-on experience for candidates who might not otherwise not have that opportunity.

Where these lab training offerings tend to differ is in the approach by which the lab environment is made available to you, the candidate. Some of these lab experiences are essentially product gateways to pre-configured applications, or real provisioned environments that are shared and essentially “leased” to a student. You are working with actual product (albeit usually deployed with relatively lean resources, to keep things economical), and clicking around in an actual environment that has been provisioned for you. Many products, on the other hand, use simulation software that replicates the visual look and feel of the subject being tested, for the purpose of working through finite scenarios that have been generated by subject matter experts.

Both approaches have merit, based on how the overall teaching approach of the training vendor integrates the “lab” program into a larger educational approach. As a result, it comes down to the experience and needs of the candidate: Do you have day-to-day exposure to the product or application or skill set that will be tested in your certification? If the answer is yes, then you may not feel the value is worth the money charged for these types of services. If, however, you are working towards a certification in a technology that you would like to get into, but don’t presently have any level of access to, you may want to find the service that fits your learning needs.

Have you already bought into an existing vendor’s training program as part of your preparation? It may make sense, then, if you have this need, to use the lab offering that complements the material you are already working with. Otherwise, look for the vendor that can offer you the learning style that you need: walkthrough, simulation, or actual software/environment/product access.

About the Author

Wayne Anderson (@NoCo_Architect) is a Service Management Architect with Avanade, a company that helps customers realize results in a digital world through business technology solutions and managed services that combine insight, innovation and expertise focused on Microsoft® technologies. He holds the Certified IT Architect – Professional credential from IASA and has completed more than 30 Microsoft certifications in his career alongside credentials from CompTIA and other industry vendors.

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