Hands-on learning

Francis Saucedo is studying to become a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA). He has tried simulated courseware, but he prefers to learn on real equipment. "Just having live routers to bang on is the most important thing," says Saucedo, a systems engineer for Sprint in Chicago.

Naturally, Sprint can't afford to have him practice in a production environment and bring the network down. So to access routers, Saucedo turned to an online course at CyberState University (CSU) of Lafayette, Calif. CSU and MentorLabs of Annapolis, Md., are two of only a handful of companies that make access to live equipment a focus of distance-learning courses.

Organizations don't want to hire people who can pass a test but who have no hands-on experience. "Companies don't hire people for their knowledge but for their skills," says David James Clarke IV, a network instructor at CSU.

Greg Long, vice president and general manager of MentorLabs, agrees that simulations aren't the best way to learn. "Simulations are programmed and are limited to what the author thinks is the best way to solve a problem," he says. "What you're learning about is the author's mindset." Access to real equipment lends an unpredictability that simulations can't provide, he adds.

Chuck Diltz, a network consultant in New York, recently passed his Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert exam after taking a MentorLabs course. "The exam is all-encompassing, and it's difficult to gain experience with all the network protocols and features in your job," he says. "With MentorLabs, I was able to get hands-on practice in areas I was weakest."

MentorLabs launched its Cisco-focused site last May and now has approximately 10,000 registered users. Its vLab is available in two versions: Online and Enterprise. Online is hosted over the Internet and costs between $65 to $125 per lab. Enterprise is installed at the customer site and provides unlimited access to all the labs for an annual fee.

CSU uses proprietary technology to provide real-time access to a global enterprise network over the Internet and integrates the labs into its network courses. Full certification programs range in price from $1,795 for Cisco CCNA to $3,495 for Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.

CSU instructor Clarke sets up a hypothetical corporation for his classes, then builds live labs around the company's networks. Students spend 150 hours completing 50 different labs focused on designing, building, configuring and troubleshooting the networks.

Long and Clarke say employers are starting to see the value inherent in their brand of discovery-based learning because companies end up with better-trained and more valuable employees.

Long says one company recently placed vLab in a head-to-head competition against more traditional computer-based training. One group used vLab and a CCNA study guide, while another group with comparably skilled network engineers used the same manual and 12 off-the-shelf computer-based training lessons. After 10 days and the same amount of time dedicated to CCNA-track learning, everyone in the vLab group passed the exam, while the members of the computer-based training group all failed, Long says.

Greg Oetker, president of simulation training developer PC Technology, agrees that many computer-based training programs are "canned" products that don't offer a real value to the students. Howeverr, he claims his simulations are less expensive than online labs and offer many of the same features.

For example, his product lets students create multiple users and groups. "Because we offer a true simulator, the students can learn while receiving real error messages as if they were using the real products," he says. PC Technology's products cost $25 to $100 per simulation.

Students Diltz and Saucedo say the flexibility to practice on routers whenever it's convenient for them is one of the biggest advantages of the live lab approach. Traditional five-day courses are too difficult for Saucedo to cram into his work schedule.

Moreover, Saucedo likes the ability to check his progress with CSU's program. He repeatedly took an assessment exam that came with the course. At first, his scores were "pretty dismal," but he has since seen some encouraging improvements.

This story, "Hands-on learning" was originally published by Network World.

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