Comprehensive self-study solutions

Last month, I reviewed four computer-based training (CBT) MCSE sample-exam programs from leading vendors in the MCSE product market. But what if you need more than an exam-generation program? What if you need a program that helps you study the subjects in which your knowledge is weak—the areas that the sample-examination programs helped you identify?

If you're ready to knuckle down and concentrate on adding to your knowledge to pass Microsoft's MCSE certification exams, you're in luck. In addition to exam generators, an entire classification of electronic CBT study guides exists to help you prepare for your certification tests. These CBT materials rely on the power of a multimedia system with video presentation capabilities to help you study for your examinations. This month, I examine four popular CBT self-study programs: CBT Systems' MCSE Courseware, Mastering Computers' Precision Learning Value Packages, Microsoft Press' Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer Core Requirements Training Kit, and Wave Technologies' MCSE Career Pack.

MCSE Courseware
CBT Systems offers a self-paced, comprehensive training program that helps you prepare for the examinations you must pass to earn your MCSE. The MCSE Courseware program consists of 13 bundled courses that cover the Microsoft core requirement and elective examinations. MCSE Courseware is Microsoft-approved.

Each course in the MCSE Courseware program comprises several components. Pretest components let you test your knowledge of a subject area before reviewing the subject matter. The simulation component lets you interactively perform various tasks (e.g., changing the system Registry), just as you would on a real system. Training sessions present easily digestible chunks of information and include interactive pop quizzes to involve you further in the learning process. Finally, the post-testing component lets you gauge your mastery of the course material after you review the training session.

The time it takes to install the MCSE Courseware software depends on the number of courses you want to install. To contain my testing software, I had two CD-ROMs of course material (66 different lessons: 35 lessons on one CD-ROM, 31 lessons on the second). Installing just one of the two CD-ROMs took over an hour and copied 22,000 files in 133 directories onto my hard disk. CBT Systems' software is comprehensive, and if you intend to install it locally on your hard disk, be sure you have plenty of disk space. Alternatively, you can run the software from the CD-ROM with relatively little performance degradation (although you might notice a slight delay when moving from screen to screen), because the software does not include sound or video effects.

Installing the software onto your hard disk is effortless. The setup.exe installation program creates a list of installable courses from the CD-ROM. After you highlight the courses you want to install, you click Next, then wait as the software installs. If you opt to run the software from the CD-ROM, a small set of executable programs installs on your system.

MCSE Courseware is easy to use and makes the learning experience enjoyable. You launch each course from the Start menu (the installation program creates a series of shortcuts that let you launch courses effortlessly). After you provide a student number, which helps the software keep track of more than one user, the software's main menu appears. From this menu you can take an examination to see whether you already understand the concepts presented in the course, or you can launch the course.

Overall, I found the MCSE Courseware training sessions complete and interesting. As someone who hates reading documentation on CD-ROM, I was afraid this software would be nothing more than a book printed on screen. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the course lessons employ a combination of text and graphics to illustrate key points you need to learn to pass the Microsoft certification examinations. Screen 1 shows a typical MCSE Courseware lesson screen. The lesson screen in Screen 1 is from the Performance Tuning and Optimization lesson in the Internetworking with Microsoft TCP/IP on Windows NT 4.0 course (an MCSE elective examination).

Each lesson in an MCSE Courseware course can take many hours to work through properly. You therefore need to carefully plan your study time. The software includes a bookmark feature that, in theory, lets you stop studying at any point in a course and easily find your stopping point later. However, when I used this feature, the bookmarks I placed always put me back at the beginning of the course.

The cost for individual MCSE Courseware courses varies, depending on the number of lessons in the course and the number of courses you purchase to customize your study plan. The complete MCSE Courseware program that bundles the entire set of MCSE courses--everything you need to pass your MCSE examinations--represents a major investment. If you can afford it, the MCSE Courseware program is one of the best CBT self-study solutions available.

MCSE Courseware
Contact: CBT Systems * 650-614-5900 or 800-387-0932
Price: $2900
System Requirements: 33MHz 486 processor, 8MB of RAM, VGA display (256 colors recommended), 10MB to 20MB of hard disk space, DOS version 3.1 or later, Windows NT, Windows 95, or Windows 3.1

Precision Learning Value Packages
Mastering Computers offers a variety of Precision Learning Value Packages—MCSE certification preparation electronic study guides you use to prepare for your MCSE exams. Many of the Precision Learning study kits include a hard-copy study guide with a software component on CD-ROM. In some cases, the hard-copy component is little more than a copy of a previously published MCSE study guide sporting the Mastering Computers logo. In other cases (e.g., the Internet Information Server—IIS—3.0 study guide), the hard-copy guide is a loose-leaf binder containing study notes.

The software component of the Precision Learning series is SkillBuilder. SkillBuilder presents information you need to know to pass your MCSE examinations. The visual representations in SkillBuilder are similar to PowerPoint presentations, rather than being full-motion interactive videos. However, I think the SkillBuilder software delivers on its goal of making CBT study simple and pleasant. I worked with SkillBuilder for several hours at a time without losing interest in the material or the presentation.

To test the Precision Learning software, I installed the Windows NT 4.0 MCSE Certification Prep program, consisting of 11 CD-ROMs. Installing the software is simple. Running the setup program and answering some questions results in a few files copying to your hard disk. Because of the large number of files on the CD-ROMs, the software doesn't copy the study material to your hard disk. The software copies only some minor support files (a total of 200KB) and a Start menu shortcut to an executable file on the CD-ROMs to your disk. I installed the software on my workstation without any problem.

While the Precision Learning software is running, the screen is divided into several sections, as Screen 2 shows. The video displays in the upper 75 percent of the program window, and the lower 25 percent of the window is divided into two panes—the text window in the left pane, and various button controls (e.g., play, rewind) in the right pane. While the video is running, the accompanying audio portion of the program repeats the text as it appears in the text pane. Perhaps the only thing missing is a little ball bouncing over the words as the audio narrator reads them. I found this screen configuration annoying; I prefer a smaller control panel with no text box, and a larger display.

Each program component includes more than video presentations. When I began my first material review, the Precision Learning software presented me with a preliminary quiz that contained eight questions about the subject material. Some of the questions were easy to answer, and others were difficult (I answered the difficult questions incorrectly). When you complete a lesson, the program presents you with a series of mastery questions. This mastery session lets you gauge your understanding of the material. If you answer any of these questions incorrectly, you need to go back and review the lesson.

The Precision Learning software presents a series of simulations in the preliminary and mastery sections. Unfortunately, the simulations didn't work well. For example, in the preliminary component of the course I reviewed, my task was to change the size of the paging file. But no matter where I clicked on the screen, the program interpreted my click to mean I had completed the task.

The price for Precision Learning Value Packages varies, depending on the product you order. The Windows NT 4.0 MCSE Certification Prep program I tested lists for $1890. (This product is no longer available, however. Mastering Computers released an updated version before press time.) You can add options to any package for a few hundred dollars. However, preparation materials for individual MCSE examinations are priced in the thousands (e.g., the Windows 95 MCSE Certification Prep program costs $1490, and the Supporting Internet Information Server 3.0 program costs $995). I recommend that you stay away from Mastering Computers' products and look for solutions that bundle a full suite of MCSE certification products for about the cost of one Mastering Computers course.

Precision Learning Value Packages
Contact: Mastering Computers * 602-657-4000 or 800-800-9686
Price: $1890
System Requirements: 33MHz 486 processor, Windows NT or Windows 95

MCSE Core Requirements Training Kit
If you want to make a financially reasonable investment in an MCSE CBT self-study program, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer Core Requirements Training Kit from Microsoft Press might be the program you're looking for. The training kit comprises four complete MCSE study kits bundled into one package. The kit contains all the material you need to pass four Microsoft MCSE core exams: Networking Essentials, Implementing and Supporting NT Server 4.0, Implementing and Supporting NT Workstation 4.0, and Implementing and Supporting NT Server 4.0 in the Enterprise.

The training kit consists of four primary hard-copy study guides with more than 3000 pages of technical information. Each study guide presents the information necessary to fulfill the requirements of each test's curricula. Unfortunately, the product doesn't include a getting-started guide to provide users with a roadmap to using the training kit effectively. However, each study guide is organized by lesson, and each lesson has a clear objective. In addition, many lessons contain lab sections that guide you in using NT Server or NT Workstation to perform a specific function and gain a better understanding of the lesson material.

Six CD-ROMs offering a variety of programs and features accompany the print study guides. Two of the CD-ROMs are 120-day, limited-use evaluation copies of NT Workstation 4.0 and NT Server 4.0. The remaining four CD-ROMs contain supplemental programs and videos linked to the study guides: Networking Essentials, NT Network Administration Training, NT Technical Support Training, and NT Server 4.0 Enterprise Technologies Training Kit.

The system requirements to use the training kits depend on the component you want to install. For example, if you opt to install the 120-day trial version of NT Server 4.0, you need a system capable of running NT Server (i.e., 32MB of RAM, 200MB of hard disk space). For the four CD-ROMs that are linked to the study guide lessons, system requirements are minimal. The only problem I encountered during installation and use of the software was that the setup procedure varied for each CD-ROM.

Because the core requirements training kit contains material for four of the MCSE certification core exams, the contents of the companion CD-ROMs vary. The NT Network Administration Training CD-ROM contains video presentations, simulations, and sample-examination software. The Networking Essentials CD-ROM contains only demonstration videos and lab simulations, without assessment software.

The video presentations in the CD-ROMs are similar to cue cards, as Screen 3, page 94 shows, with interactive displays and a voice sound-over to keep them interesting. In many instances the video material is a rehash of the lessons in the study guides. The simulation components of the CD-ROMs improve upon the video presentations. The NT Network Administration Training CD-ROM, for example, contains a backup simulation. During the simulation, you need to properly complete the necessary steps to meet the lesson objective. If you do not perform the steps in their proper sequence, messages appear on the screen to help guide you through the process.

The sample-examination component of the companion CD-ROMs tests your knowledge of a subject area the MCSE exams cover, which helps you determine whether you are ready to take the certification exam. Although the exam-assessment component has many useful features, it's not as thorough as some sample-exam products.

Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer Core Requirements Training Kit is reasonably priced and available at many bookstores that carry training materials. You can also order the kit directly from Microsoft Press or via the Internet from electronic bookstores.

Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer Core Requirements Training Kit
Contact: Microsoft Press * 800-677-7377
Web: prod /books/1602.htm
Price: $299.99
System Requirements: Varies

MCSE Career Pack Wave Technologies' MCSE Career Pack is a comprehensive multimedia program that supplements hard-copy study manuals with electronic video displays, interactive activities, and simulation exercises. MCSE Career Pack's eight self-paced study manuals present the key knowledge you need to pass the MCSE certification core and elective examinations.

Each chapter in the study guides contains pretest and post-test questions to help you assess your understanding of the subject material during various stages of your study. Hands-on exercises appear throughout the text. Included in MCSE Career Pack is Getting Started, a booklet that guides you through the program and explains the MCSE certification process and how to use the program to study for each Microsoft certification exam. MCSE Career Pack's real value, however, is in the program's multimedia features. Special icons appear at strategic points in each study guide to refer you to the multimedia presentations.

It took me only 5 minutes to insert the Career Pack installation CD-ROM in my workstation's CD-ROM drive, run the installation program, and tell the software where to install the files. MCSE Career Pack files consumed 16MB of hard disk space.

MCSE Career Pack includes more than 3.5 hours of digital video presentations keyed to your review of the study guides. The video presentations are generally cue-card presentations with some degree of interactivity and a voice narration. This approach lets MCSE Career Pack include a significant amount of video in a relatively small space on your hard disk. Screen 4 shows a typical video presentation.

In addition to its video presentations, MCSE Career Pack includes an advanced technical simulation program called NEXTSim. NEXTSim presentations are also keyed to the program's study manuals. An example of a NEXTSim simulation exercise is mirroring two disks using Disk Administrator. After you launch the simulation, NEXTSim presents you with an NT Server desktop. You must click and type your way through the simulation until you complete the exercise. In many instances, the software did not let me perform a task in the way I usually do. For example, during a simulation to quick-format a drive and assign it a name, the simulator insisted I tab after entering the new volume name to move down to the quick-format button. My usual procedure is to use the mouse. If you make a mistake during a simulation, the software does not let you proceed with the task until you correct your error.

MCSE Career Pack contains an exam simulator called Challenge! Interactive that you use to gauge how well you might perform on the Microsoft certification examinations. With sample exams for each of the MCSE core and elective tests and large question pools to prevent rote memorization of answers, Challenge! Interactive is one of the most effective test exam simulators available.

MCSE Career Pack is priced significantly lower than comparable products. Its cost, in combination with a comprehensive and excellent feature set, makes Career Pack among the best CBT self-study solutions you can purchase.

MCSE Career Pack
Contact: Wave Technologies * 800-994-5767
Price: $1995
System Requirements: Windows NT or Windows 95, 20MB of hard disk space, 16MB of RAM, Sound card