ATEC training made convenient and affordable

Many Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs) prepare for their certification exams through classroom training at Microsoft Authorized Technical Education Centers (ATECs). However, some administrators avoid ATEC courses because of the time and money the classes demand. In response, some ATECs have begun to offer a convenient, affordable, and apparently effective alternative to the classroom: online training.

Traditional Training
Classroom training can be expensive. Course fees must cover the high overhead associated with building and maintaining the training facility and providing access to computers, training rooms, and audiovisual equipment. Students who do not live near a classroom facility must pay for transportation, lodging, and other travel expenses. Students' time away from the office is costly in terms of lost productivity.

Traditionally, the only alternative to ATEC classes was self-study. Self-study can work well for students who have a strong background in the subject matter they're learning. (For a review of two self-study products, see Joe Rudich, "Exam Cram and MCSE Training Guide," page 128.) However, if you don't have much experience with the technology you're studying, you'll likely find self-study frustrating. Many students need help from an expert or trainer to master complex technology without becoming overwhelmed.

An Alternative
Online learning provides a cost-effective, convenient alternative to classroom training, yet gives students access to a knowledgeable instructor. Several Microsoft ATECs have offered Internet-based training for the past 2 years. Many more ATECs will begin offering online training in the coming months, as part of ATEC98 (for more information about the changes to the ATEC program, see Michael D. Reilly, "ATEC98," page 150).

These online alternatives make Microsoft certification training accessible to more people at a fraction of the cost of traditional classrooms. Online classes significantly reduce the price of training, because online training providers don't have the overhead associated with physical classrooms. Per-student savings for online classes compared with classroom-based courses range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1000 (for a 1-week class). Online education eliminates travel to an education center by bringing the classroom to students' desktops. Furthermore, many online classes don't require students to spend any time away from the office. Online classes let students decide when to study and offer considerable flexibility in classroom session times.

In 1995, when I looked into taking training classes to prepare for the Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows 95 certification exam, I dreaded the thought of driving 3 to 4 hours each day to the nearest ATEC, in addition to spending 8 hours in a classroom. I considered self-study, but as a trainer, I believe that access to a teacher helps students learn. Unhappy with my classroom and self-study options, I decided to try online training. Through my online course, I received first-rate instruction from a trained instructor, attended classes in the comfort of my home, and saved a significant amount of money, both in tuition and in the time I did not have to take off work.

Online Options
Online training providers' services vary. Most online courses use Microsoft self-study kits or other self-study materials. Students are responsible for completing reading assignments and homework in preparation for online class sessions. The classes are generally chat sessions that give the instructor a chance to review concepts and let students discuss the course material with each other. Students can email instructors with questions about assigned material, and some online training providers monitored chat rooms during designated hours so that students can get answers instantly.

Other courses use online bulletin board systems (BBSs) to answer student questions. By letting students view each other's questions and the instructor's answers, BBSs help give students a firm grasp of the subject matter. The online chats and BBSs also give students a wonderful networking opportunity. Students in online classes often talk about career issues that they do not feel comfortable discussing with a class of other professionals from their geographical area.

Online training providers offer class sessions at a variety of times. If you use time zones to your advantage, you will probably be able to find a course that does not require you to take any time off work. You might find online classes that you can attend during your lunch break, in the evening, or at another convenient time. When I signed up for online classes, I chose a training provider on the West Coast (I live in Atlanta). My instructor held chat sessions at 10:00 p.m. EST, so I attended them without disrupting my usual schedule.

Online courses are convenient and affordable, and they appear to be effective. One of the easiest methods of determining a training program's quality is to evaluate how well it prepares students for certification exams. By this measure, online classes do well. Paul Kautz of ARIS, one of the pioneers of Microsoft's online education, collected statistics on more than 100 online students who took certification exams. Kautz found that the average online student's certification exam score is more than 800 out of a possible 1000, a score well within the passing range for all the exams.

As a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) who regularly teaches in classrooms and has taken several courses online, I firmly believe that online learning is a legitimate option. Online training overcomes some of the barriers that prevent administrators from pursuing traditional technical training. Online education can also provide a flexible environment for students who learn at a pace different from the pace most classrooms follow.

Choosing a Class
Selecting an online education provider is more difficult than picking a traditional training provider. Online courses vary in quality more than classroom-based training programs. The sidebar"ATECs Online," page 154, lists all the ATECs that offered online training as of January 1998. But these online ATECs do not provide equally effective training. You must look closely at the course you are considering before you sign up.

Many of the guidelines for choosing classroom-based courses apply to looking for online training, but some questions you need to consider are unique to the online environment: What materials does the cost of the course include? Does the course come with a mandatory timeline? How often and when are the instructor-led chat sessions? What hardware and software will you need to successfully complete the class? Does the provider offer servers connected to the Internet that you can access for learning purposes? Does the training provider archive the class's chat sessions? No matter how carefully you plan your schedule, you will probably miss at least one of the live chats, and you will want access to the chat transcript to catch up before the next session. (For general guidelines on choosing a training provider, see Clayton Johnson, "How to Choose a Training Center," page 156.)

When you are looking into a specific course, ask your prospective instructor your list of questions via email. The completeness and promptness of the instructor's response will show you what kind of support you can expect when you have questions about the class materials. Also, ask for the names and email addresses of former students. Good training providers keep a list of satisfied customers as references.

Necessary Equipment
To successfully participate in an online class, you will obviously need a computer with access to the Internet. Specific hardware and software requirements depend on the class. To participate in a Windows NT Server class, you need administrative access to an NT Server operating in a lab environment--in other words, a computer you can alter, reconfigure, and shut down without disturbing other users.

Obtaining a licensed copy of necessary software used to be a major obstacle to participating in online classes. However, Microsoft eliminated the problem by including copies of NT Workstation and NT Server in Microsoft Press self-study kits, starting with NT 4.0 releases. If your class will use non-Microsoft courseware, check with the training provider about how you can access the software you'll need.

For an NT class, you'll need to set up one Primary Domain Controller (PDC), and you might want to use another machine as a Backup Domain Controller (BDC) so that you can fully understand how a domain environment works. If you have access to a third machine, you can set up an NT workstation or Windows 95 client. If you don't have the luxury of accessing a third machine, you can set up your NT servers in a dual boot configuration. All these machines can be relatively low level; 486s with 16MB to 32MB of RAM are fine.

If you don't have access to two computers you can experiment with, their cost will certainly add to the expense of your online education. But whatever type of training you choose--whether online, classroom, or self-study--you will need computers you can practice on outside your class time.

Some online training providers help reduce students' equipment costs by placing NT servers on the Internet and letting students access the servers as if they were on a large WAN. This practice saves students from purchasing hardware and software and gives them practical experience using the Internet with Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP). Some training providers even use Citrix WinFrame to overcome the Internet's slow transmission speeds.

NT's popularity has grown explosively, and so has companies' needs for qualified administrators, consultants, and support personnel. Online learning now makes the training you need to successfully meet the demand for NT professionals convenient and affordable.