Keeping up with technology is often one of the toughest parts about being in IT. Technology is constantly changing and evolving, and you need to stay on top of the latest developments to keep your skill levels current. Although a number of different training venues are available, one of the least well-known, but also one of the most easily accessible, is Microsoft Virtual Academy (MVA), an online portal for IT pros to learn about Microsoft's cloud-based technologies. In this column you'll get answers to the top 10 FAQs about MVA.

1. What does MVA cost?

Believe it or not, Microsoft Virtual Academy is completely free. Training is one of those areas where Microsoft really provides extra value to IT professionals. Naturally, the courses focus on Microsoft products, but that's what you'd expect from Microsoft training. The only requirement is that you have a Windows Live ID.

2. If the courses are free, are they valuable and up-to-date?

MVA covers topics in a wide range of Microsoft technologies, and there are different levels of courses. Some examples of the current courses include "Windows Server 2012: First Look," "System Center 2012: Orchestrator & Service Manager," "Microsoft Licensing Fundamentals," and "System Center 2012: Virtual Machine Manager." Although I noticed the material for the "Windows Server 2012: First Look" course was based on the beta and didn't reflect the latest updates, it still provides a good overview of the new features.

3. How many people have taken courses from MVA?

For such a little-known offering, MVA has a surprising number of participants. Although these numbers are always changing, to date MVA states that 768,500 students have registered for Microsoft courses and that 826,200 self-assessment exams have been passed.

4. How are the courses organized?

The courses are typically organized into multiple modules with a self-assessment exam at the end of each module. For instance, the "Windows Server 2012: First Look" course has the following modules: "Windows Server 2012 Overview," "Beyond Virtualization," "The Power of Many Servers," "Modern Workstyle Enabled," and "Every App, Any Cloud." Successful completion of each module accumulates a certain number of track completion points.

5. Do the results count toward certifications?

No. However, the training can certainly help with taking other certifications. The MVA program tracks accumulated points for successfully completing different modules. You see a dashboard when you sign in that tracks your point progress for Bronze (0-99), Silver (100-499), Gold (500-2,999), and Platinum (3,000+) levels.

6. Are you limited in how many courses you can take at any given time?

No. You can take any number of courses at any time. You can also retake each of the self-assessment exams as many times as you want.

7. What are the courses like?

The courses consist of multiple modules. Each module typically contains a collection of different resources. Some MVA modules are video presentations that you can stream over the web, and others are Word or PDF documents that you can read online or download and review offline. In case you're wondering, the MVA modules don't let you skip right to the self-assessment exam—you must review some of the study materials first.

8. How many tracks and courses are available?

Microsoft is continually adding and updating the content of the MVA courses. At the time of this writing, there are 15 major tracks: Business Intelligence, Licensing, Office 365, Private Cloud, Public Cloud, Security, SQL Azure, SQL Server, System Center 2012, VDI, Virtualization, Windows Azure, Windows Client, Windows Server 2008 R2, and Windows Server 2012. Each track has at least two courses, and many have more. There are 39 total courses.

9. Where do you register for MVA training?

You can find Microsoft Virtual Academy online.

10. How do you get started taking MVA courses?

You get started by signing in to MVA with your Windows Live ID and then filling out the registration page. At that point, a confirmation email is sent to the email account that you supplied during registration. Clicking on the confirmation link in the email opens your new MVA account page. From there you can begin selecting courses.