Debra Howell, Cornell University associate director of information technology, has a very straightforward training policy for her staff. Within 18 months of hire, all systems administrators must get their Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification and all desktop support personnel must get their Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) certification.
Being a highly regarded educational institution, it is not surprising Cornell would value employee training, but having staff in training when your job is to keep the entire technology infrastructure up and running is not easy.
Making it even harder is the fact that certification training can take a long time to complete. For instance, through traditional instructor-led classroom training, it takes 28 days to complete MCSE training, or five and a half weeks if classes are taken back to back.
When staff members are in training, most IT departments simply suffer through it by limiting new projects. This isn’t always possible when an emergency situation arises, requiring all hands on deck, such as a virus attack or the network going down.
In that case, staff members are usually pulled out of training to deal with the emergency. After the problem has been resolved, they usually try to pick up where they left off in the training.
But what if the class they couldn’t complete isn’t back on the training schedule for weeks or even months? Not only does this delay the ability to take the certification exam, it also makes it harder to retain the knowledge gained before the interruption.
Fortunately for Howell, there’s a method that allows her to plan learning around work schedules. The Mentored Learning Classroom combines traditional instructor-led learning and modern e-learning. Basically, the environment provides the learner with one-on-one instructor guidance, access to multisensory learning tools, the ability to practice with live hardware and software, customized learning paths and the flexibility to determine when and for how long they attend training.
“With Mentored Learning, we can attend training when we want to, and we can schedule it around other co-workers’ schedules to minimize work disruptions,” said Mike Baker, a systems administrator who did his MSCE training through Mentored Learning. Baker was able to obtain his certification more quickly using this learning method because he didn’t have to wait for the course to be scheduled — he took one class per month to work around the IT department’s schedule.
Additionally, a mentor is present in the Mentored Learning Classroom at all times to answer questions, provide demonstrations and lead role-play exercises. Assessments also are given before students start training so the mentor will know where to reinforce areas of existing knowledge and where to focus on topics with which learners are unfamiliar. The mentor can then create a customized plan to fill the learner’s individual skills gap. A post-assessment ensures the necessary skills are gained and, therefore, the learning goals have been met.
Baker said he found the mentor to be especially helpful.
“When I ran into parts of the training I didn’t fully understand, I could always ask the mentor questions,” he said. “In a traditional classroom environment, people may not feel as comfortable asking the instructor questions for fear of interrupting the class.”
Further, all learners are assigned their own workstation when they come into a Mentored Learning Classroom. Each workstation contains two computer monitors. On one, learners can access the course content delivered via video, text and audio. On the other monitor, learners have access to the production environment to practice skills.
Learners control the pace of the course and the content covered because they can fast-forward through areas or stop the content and practice a concept hands-on as many times as they need.
“The pacing of a class is sometimes an issue for my people,” Howell said. “They are very bright and come on the job with quite a bit of experience. Traditional classrooms contain people with differing skills and knowledge, so those with more experience tend to get held up by those with less experience. That learning environment can be a little frustrating for my employees.”
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