Pros and Cons of Classroom and Online Training for Certification Prep
Date: Jan 10, 2011
Although there’s no other certification preparation tool that beats top-notch training from a competent instructor, along with hands-on access to a training lab and its facilities, you must pay for that privilegesometimes dearly. A classroom encounter with the best names in the field can easily cost more than $1,000-1,500 per day, and it may also involve travel expenses to and from the training center, along with charges for meals and accommodations while away from your home-and-office routine. Be that as it may, many people believe that the best learning occurs when cert candidates can get away from the daily grind and concentrate solely on gearing up for the exam that usually stands between candidates and their credentials.
In this article, we’ll look at two different kinds of training available for many certification credentials. On the one hand, we’ll look at the pros, cons, and costs of classroom training (or ILT, for “instructor-led training” as it’s called in the training business). On the other hand, we’ll look at the pros, cons, and costs of online training, which comes in a variety of forms that range from a near-analog to ILT to a more typical (and often less costly) self-paced, self-administered collection of training materials available through a website.
Classroom Training/ILT: Best Bang for Big Bucks?
When it comes to certification preparation, strategies that involve classroom training generally incur the highest costs. Typical costs vary from $25-30 an hour at the low end, usually from providers that include community college and technical costs; to $100+ an hour at the high end, usually from top-flight training companies or high-end, vendor-sponsored training outlets such as the Cisco Learning Network.. Given that a typical certification class can involve 40 or more hours of official classroom time, such costs can quickly mount up.
Even so, classroom training still has great value and tremendous appeal. First and foremost, a good class comes with a good or even great instructor, of whom students can ask questions, solicit advice, and obtain serious one-on-one interaction and assistance. Instructors can adjust their coverage and delivery on the fly to accommodate their students’ backgrounds, needs, and frames of reference. Nothing, but nothing, beats a good instructor when it comes to maximizing the return on a learning encounter, more so if that encounter includes plenty of face-to-face interaction.
In fact, the most common trade term for classroom training is ILT, short for “instructor-led training.” This puts the emphasis on the instructor, and underscores the notion that a well-qualified instructor’s leadership, insight, flexibility, and insight are what really make a classroom experience shine. If a particular instructor comes up short on one or more of these criteria, the value of the training experience will suffer. That’s why it’s so important when you decide to plunk down cash for ILT, that you pick and choose the very best instructor so you can maximize your return on the often sizable investment involved in attending such as class.
ILT Pros and Cons
For those willing to absorb the costs involved in attending an instructor-led class, there are some significant benefits that can accrue to such an encounternamely:
- A carefully designed learning environment and experience: Well-structured classes and labs, classroom hours, and well-equipped facilities create a quality learning environment. This really works best when students participate energetically in such classes.
- Insulation from the everyday, workaday world: A well-run learning center creates a haven from the usual press of everyday life and work. Students must turn off their cell-phones, tune out of e-mail, IM, and chat, and pay attention to a carefully-crafted learning experience. By taking control over the student’s entire surroundings and environment, ILT enables learning that self-study and online training simply can’t deliver, because they don’t remove the distractions that so often prevent successful study and learning.
- The instructor edge: Nothing beats a good instructor delivering material that’s near and dear to his or her heart. Students not only benefit from direct, face-to-face access; they also benefit from the instructor’s professional experience, technical knowledge and skill, and ability to recast and reinterpret material to best match a student’s background and abilities.
- Hands-on experience: A good class will always insist that students practice what they learn, and put concepts, skills, and knowledge to work in situations and scenarios that are real enough to provide tangible benefits and knowledge transfer when they return to the workplace. This is a great boon to certification preparation, where analytical and problem-solving skills are so often central to the material and subject matter being taught (and tested).
- Teaching to the exam, as well as to the workplace: Good instructors will point out what’s needed for the exam, and make sure students are ready to pass that exam. But they will also point out what’s really important in the workplace, and make sure students are ready to implement what they’ve learned when they return to work, certification notwithstanding.
The cons of ILT mostly have to do with the consequences of dropping everything and going to class somewhere else for a few days to a few weeks: higher costs, travel and lodging, opportunity cost for the employer, personal inconvenience of leaving home, work, and family, and so forth. But for those willing to absorb the costs and deal with the situation, the improved likelihood of earning a certification (some training vendors advertise 90% or better success rates for their students) makes it all worthwhile.
Making the Most of ILT
Classroom training isn’t always successful, so as a cert candidate, you must do your homework to pick the best classes, and be aggressive about obtaining the best possible learning experience once you do show up in the classroom. Be careful to select training providers who offer a money-back guarantee if training proves unsatisfactory, and take advantage of that offer if your experience isn’t what you’d like it to be. When selecting a provider, be sure to check references, and to look for reviews from former students who rate the course and the instructor. Finally, be sure to clear your calendar when you leave work to take a class; it’s no fun to be stuck out of town, in the classroom, yet still burdened with crisis management and problem-solving for your employer. Make a clean break from work while you’re in class, so you don’t have to split your focus between one thing (work) and another (class). That’s no fun at all.
Online Training: Many Options for All Budgets and Backgrounds
To some extent, online training can overlap with ILT. This represents a “Cadillac variety” of online training, where an instructor is assigned to that class, and where interaction with that instructor is scheduled to occur regularly, either in the form of an instructor-led class, lecture, or presentation online, as well as possible interaction in the form of online office hours where chat or IM provides informal time with the instructor. Such classes can sometimes cost as much as in-person ILT, and will generally be more expensive than other kinds of online training that lack live instructor access. Even so, you’ll spend 25-50% less per hour for such training because the face-to-face element is removed, and because class sizes are generally more open (neither constrained by nor limited to the number of seats in a physical classroom).
Online training that doesn’t require a live instructor (though access to an instructor may or may not be part of the deal) offers lots of appeal to students whose schedules or situations don’t permit them to show up in a real classroom on a regular schedule. In fact, most online training is both self-paced (students complete modules as quickly or slowly as they like, according to their available time and interest) and self-administered (students sign on, do their reading, complete their assignments, work their way through labs, and take quizzes and exams on their own initiative and at their own discretion). This kind of online training usually costs less than half as much as equivalent ILT, and might even cost significantly less than that. By way of comparison, Microsoft Learning partners offer online training courses for the Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA) and Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) credentials at prices between $300 and $500 per course, where most of the corresponding ILT classes run 3-5 days and cost around $600 per day to attend.
Online Training Pros and Cons
For those willing to buy into the approach and implementation used to create online classes, there are some interesting benefits that can accrue to such an encounternamely:
- Support for multiple learning styles: Educators recognize different types of learners (visual, audio, interactive, and more), and online classes can be crafted to support multiple learning styles, and often provide multiple, mutually reinforcing sets of materials designed to meet the learning needs for all kinds of learners. Online courses often combine text, animations, videos, and interactive simulations to draw learners into the course materials.
- Affordable prices for quality learning: Because instructors don’t have to be involved at every step along the way (and sometimes not at all), online classes can offer a quality learning experience at a very low cost (even as low as $5-10 an hour). Because students furnish the equipment, pay for Internet access, and manage their own schedule and activities, online training providers can really cut costs yet still deliver useful and informative materials.
- Hands-on via simulation or animation: Online classes don’t usually include real-time access to labs and computer facilities (and those that do cost more) but they can offer inexpensive access to simulated or animated environments that look and act as much like the real thing as modern technology will allow. Often, this is more than enough for students to get the hands-on experience working with tools, platforms, and environments that they need to prepare for certification.
- Flexibility and convenience: For those who can’t get away, or who can’t afford the costs of ILT, the ability to tackle and complete learning, assignments, labs, quizzes, and exams on their own time and at their own discretion can’t be beat. The same phenomenon also explains the burgeoning success and use of distance education in many college and university programs nowadays as well, where an ever-increasing segment of the student population chooses online learning over the classroom for the same reasons.
The cons of online learning relate to the lack of an instructor and a corresponding increase in dependence upon the student to show initiative, solve problems, get the work done, and do the learning on their own without strong external guidance or support to get the job done. Self-motivated individuals generally have no problems with online training; those who need more structure and more support might find online training more challenging and even less satisfactory. That’s why it’s essential to consider such support as is available to students who enroll in online classes, be it access to a mentor or instructor during schedule office hours, access to e-mail or chat-based support, participation in online forums or message boards, and the like.
What to Choose: ILT or Online Training?
It’s a truism that for training, as with so much else, “you get what you pay for.” For some, the extra costs involved in ILT are more than offset by the extra value from real-time instructor interaction, access to hands-on labs, and the structured and insulated learning environment that comes along with such offerings. For others, especially those for whom controlling costs is paramount, online training offers a better combination of cost and information. They may have to work harder to earn a certification, but they’re investment should pay off more quickly because it is smaller. Ultimately, only you can decide which form of training works best for you, or if self-study alone is enough to help you meet your goals.