Practical experience a top element of effective certification training
Posted on
February 9, 2016

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

Practical experience is a vital element of IT certification training.

Fourteen years ago, and then again last summer, Marvel Comics used its long-running X-Men library to declare that "E is for Extinction." Novelist Sue Grafton assigned her own particular meaning to the fifth letter of the English alphabet back in 1988 with "E" Is for Evidence, the fifth Kinsey Millhone mystery.

Certification training isn't as glamorous as superheroes or private investigators, and a lot of IT pros might tend to think of E as being the drive letter typically assigned to the first USB port on a Windows PC. E also has a ready association with "electronic," however, as in e-mail, e-media, or, for the purposes of this article, eLearning.

As computing technology advances, more and more people are quickly and inexpensively gaining vital skills and training via the anytime, anyplace online convenience of eLearning. Recently, however, I've started to think differently about the significance of E in that specific shorthand usage. For me, E is for experience — the kind that you typically get at your first IT job.

The most rewarding certification training doesn't just attempt to cram knowledge into your head, filling your brain with lists of memorized facts. Truly effective eLearning also uses real-world scenarios that incorporate facts into actual workplace tasks, helping students to both see and — key point — experience the practical application of what they're being asked to learn.

The motivation to learn

Some people who seek higher education are driven primarily by a desire to understand the world, or to pursue an intellectual interest in a particular subject. For many, if not most, modern students, however, higher education is often largely a means to an end. The desired outcome of investing time, money and mental energy is to gain meaningful (and lucrative) employment. We learn to earn.

In that sense, there's only so much to gain from reading, or taking notes in a lecture hall. Especially when it comes to the realm of information technology (IT), concepts and methods really click into place only after you put them into practice. The most effective learning is to learn by doing.

That's one important explanation for the recent surge in interest in virtual"hands on" learning, in which students complete real-word tasks using high-fidelity simulations. Instead of memorizing the steps required to configure a network, for example, you actually configure a network — walking through the process from start to finish, and only advancing from one required step to the next as you successfully meet each requirement.

That level of experience and functional understanding of how things work is crucial to gaining a real-world IT job. A certification is one indication to prospective employers that you're ready to step in and contribute with actual job-ready skills. The most valuable eLearning, however, doesn't just help you memorize facts. Effective eLearning provides practical experience by testing your ability to apply what you've learned.

Doomed to repeat it: The NetWare phenomenon

History provides some valuable perspective on the importance of experience. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Novell's NetWare network operating system was everywhere. As computer usage exploded, networking was essential to running businesses both large and small. Everyone needed a NetWare expert, but the supply of NetWare-proficient professionals was painfully limited.

With the emergence of Novell's Certified NetWare Engineer (CNE) credential, certification became an important identifier of mission-critical IT skills. Any IT professional with a CNE could essentially write his or her own job description. A CNE quickly became a virtual guarantee of a high-paying job. Hiring managers would jump at anyone who showed up to an interview with a CNE.

Where there's gold, however, you will often find fools. The market quickly filled with people who could rightfully claim the credential, but didn't have the actual skills to get anything done. These IT opportunists would rush through a NetWare crash course of one variety or another, but emerge without any meaningful skills. So called "Paper CNEs" would quickly be fired from actual jobs.

Spurred by this tide of real-world washouts, Novell created the CNE Practicum, a more rigorous exam designed to measure actual workplace skills, and not just test-taking skills. CNE Practicum stemmed the flood of Paper CNEs, but didn't solve one of the fundamental Catch-22s of certification training. It takes experience to truly do most IT jobs well ... but you can't get that experience unless you have a job.

Performance-based certification

In 2016, there is a better solution to the problem. It's not that reading about theory and concepts, or watching training videos, or sitting in on an IT lecture is unhelpful. Learning has to start somewhere. Unless these teaching methods are reinforced by practical experience, however, knowledge quickly fades. Knowledge is vital, but experience is equally important. And now you can get both.

That's the beauty of both the certifications and the certification training provided by TestOut. It prepares learners to successfully pass certification exams, but also helps them gain valuable practical experience by applying concepts and theory in a virtual workplace environment. Certification candidates gain the relevant knowledge. Then they lock it in through unique, performance-based simulations.

TestOut uses a simple formula for its Pro certifications — PC Pro, Security Pro, Office Pro, Server Pro and more. We identify job-relevant skills, and then build performance-based training and exams that incorporate those skills. Our training also aligns with popular industry credentials, so that earning a TestOut certification prepares students to take and pass other exams as well, often with pass rates of better than 90 percent.

Instructor Charles Lecke at Hallmark University in San Antonio, Texas, used Security Pro last year to conduct a high-intensity summer program for gifted high school students preparing for CompTIA's Security+. "Six students were allowed to take the CompTIA cert after they scored 95 percent or higher on practice exams," Lecke said. "All six passed. I can't wait to start using (Security Pro) for our university students."

Education + experience = win

Practical experience is a vital element of IT certification training.

In the best of all worlds, students preparing for IT careers would combine highly effective training like TestOut's with immediate application of skills learned in an actual (not just virtual) hands-on lab. One such model that's increasingly popular at high schools in the United States is for students to repair and service computers belonging to faculty, staff, or other students at their school.

When there's not a lab available, however, the best way to get solid experience with IT skills is performance-based certifications and certification training. Rod Kelley of Northland Career Center in Platte City, Mo., said after using TestOut products in the classroom, that he would take a second look at any résumé that listed TestOut training.

"A résumé that coupled a TestOut credential with any of the older certifications would describe an excellent candidate for almost any position requiring a good general knowledge of computer technology," Kelley said.

There's a reason that TestOut uses, "The lessons only experience can teach," as its corporate motto. More than ever, it's important for IT job candidates to have certifications that are backed by practical workplace skills. That's why I believe that, when it comes to the most effective eLearning products on the market, E is for experience.

About the Author

Ladd Timpson is vice president of marketing for TestOut Corporation. He is an accomplished and industry-recognized marketing and channel executive with a rich career history of leading teams to support revenue growth. Prior to joining TestOut, he worked in numerous product management, product marketing and channel executive positions at Novell, Net IQ and The Attachmate Group.

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