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Most likely, you're managing a diverse set of software. To keep up with new software, you need new approaches. Like most IT pros, you need training, but taking time away from the office for live training is tough and expensive. Your boss might be demanding certifications to keep your job, or maybe you're seeking a performance bonus. Perhaps you just need additional training for a new project. Whatever the reason, getting certified and continually learning new technologies is hard work but can lead to improved performance and greater professional glory. This buyer's guide provides some tips on how to evaluate computer-based training (CBT) products for popular enterprise IT applications from vendors such as Microsoft, Citrix Systems, VMware, and Cisco Systems.

As shown in the buyer's guide table, many training products go beyond the boring text-based tutorials you remember from high school. Video training has revolutionized the training industry. It's now a major force in preparing for certification, obtaining crucial job skills, and keeping up with the frequent releases of new products. The formats are diverse: online learning, downloadable content, intranet, and even application appliances preloaded with multiple courses.

I'll show you how to make the best decision on how to spend your precious money and training time. After all, if you plan to spend 20, 30, or even 50 hours watching videos, you'll want to ensure you're getting the maximum value from your investment.

Important Considerations

When choosing a CBT product, numerous criteria are important. You should first scan the primary objectives and review the lesson plans to determine whether they are compatible with your certification or general learning goals. It's helpful to note the subtopics and time devoted to each segment to ensure it focuses on your weaknesses or specific topic requirements. If there are any prerequisites, review those courses as well. It can really add to both the time and financial commitment if you need to take two or more classes instead of the one you targeted.

To ensure mastery of the subject, most videos are taught by instructors with product-specific certifications, but some are taught by experts with the highest levels of certifications. One subjective item is the instructor's content-delivery and teaching style. The objectives might be rock solid, but if you feel the instructor is boring or doesn't adequately explain the concepts to your liking, you're less likely to watch the videos or receive value from them. Unlike a traditional training class, you can review the videos many times, so it's important to find some enjoyment in watching the content. To check the instructor's style, watch a few sample videos of the instructor (most sites allow this). If no samples exist, ask the company if you can receive a sample.

Some vendors offer additional course delivery options (e.g., online, CD-ROM, downloadable file, intranet, appliance). If you are pursuing multiple certifications or have multiple learning goals, consider an annual or time-based subscription. If multiple users are obtaining training, using online or intranet training might be less expensive and offer you additional options for reviewing more course content. Purchasing an appliance or a full online training library could be thought of as a companywide IT learning portal. If this is desired, check the licensing agreement carefully to ensure how many people can concurrently access the content and if named users are required. One caveat is to ensure you monitor the subscription end dates, or you could run out of time before everyone has completed the training. Additional extensions can be purchased, but that would increase the costs.

If you're frequently watching the content in areas where internet access is poor or nonexistent, such as on trains or planes, consider electronic downloads. DVDs and CD-ROMs are convenient methods used by most vendors.

In the past, many vendors had very simple interfaces, in which starting, pausing, and stopping videos were the major features. Now vendors are adding additional features, including the ability to print. For example, AppDev bundles built-in printable books and TrainSignal includes printable instructor notes. Indexing works especially well for exam reviews, on-the-job skill reviews, and fast access to concepts. The ability to create notes is helpful to save key thoughts or information. Bookmarks are crucial for noting areas for quick reference in the future, such as difficult concepts or key findings. A feature that lets you play videos faster is a key way to scan through familiar content in significantly reduced time frames.

Hands-on labs can be approached in different ways. A popular approach is to base the lab on a fictitious company scenario, which lends itself well to working through examples on a test system during the instructor's video. However, if examples build on each other, it might be more difficult to set up sample scenarios if you choose to scan the material.

When making your selection, note how often course updates are provided. Frequent course updates are necessary to ensure the content is accurate and available for the latest versions of the product. Check the fine print to understand if product upgrades and new versions are included with the purchase price, or if there is a low or no cost option for obtaining new content.

Costs vary, so it's crucial to prioritize the features you would like. The cost per hour of training isn't a good judge, and neither is cost per package. Cost should be considered in the context of the quality and suitability of the training material. To save money in a corporate environment, be sure to ask about multiuser discounts.

An Excellent Way to Build Your IT Skills

For IT pros, students, or those looking to break into the IT industry, CBT is an excellent way to build your IT skills at a pace you prefer. You're only limited by your time and desire to learn.