An alternative method of studying for the MCP exams

If you're interested in becoming a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) but don't have the time to attend regularly scheduled classes or can't afford the price of a Certified Technical Education Center (CTEC), online education might be for you. In this article, I show you how online education sites function and how to evaluate them.

Online education offers several advantages over other methods (e.g., a seminar at a CTEC, traditional training software, a book on the test subject). Unlike tutorials, in which you work on a dedicated PC without human interaction, online education doesn't require you to load huge amounts of software onto your computer, and you don't need to carry software with you. Also unlike tutorials, online-training coursework and class resources are available 24 X 7, provided you have a computer and an Internet connection. You can move through the material at your own pace, on your own schedule. In addition, increased instructor availability and lower cost give online instruction an advantage over traditional classroom instruction.

Table 1 lists Web sites that offer online training courses. Most sites provide information about their courses' hardware and software requirements. Make sure your system meets these requirements. You don't want to spend money on a course that you can't access or that loads so slowly on your system that you become frustrated and don't enjoy the online experience. You'll need an enhanced browser, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) or Netscape Navigator, to take the online courses.

Three Types of Courses
Online education sites offer three course types: instructor-led, self-paced, and self-paced with an assigned instructor.

Instructor-led courses. Instructor-led classes are helpful to students who need a scheduled plan. Instructors usually post lessons weekly. A quiz to check your progress might accompany your lesson. Instructors might suggest additional coursework such as class trips to Internet sites, or might reference a magazine article for further information. You don't usually need to attend class at a specific time; you can study the week's lesson at your convenience. Some sites let you engage in realtime chats with your instructor, and a few sites offer live or recorded online lectures.

Self-paced courses. Self-paced instruction usually presents information in a graphical format and in short lessons that give an overview of the required material. You might need to supplement the lessons with textbook study to adequately prepare yourself for the Microsoft exams. Sites offering self-paced courses generally offer no extras. You won't have the luxury of interacting with an instructor, and you won't always take quizzes to test your knowledge of the material. The advantage of these sites is their low cost.

Self-paced courses with an assigned instructor. These courses resemble traditional tutorials. But the ability to contact an instructor with questions (e.g., via email) provides human interaction throughout the course. Some providers of these courses offer quizzes, in either text or Java applet form, to test your comprehension of the subject matter. At the end of each lesson, you might take an automated quiz or submit material to your instructor for grading and additional comments. Sometimes, students must complete the course within a certain time, so be sure to read the fine print closely.

No matter which course type you choose, the coursework for each Microsoft certification exam is usually divided into two or more sections. You need to register for each section to receive the complete coursework for a given exam. Of course, if you can determine which section you need help with for your exam, you can register for only that section. Each section usually has a separate price, depending on the site.

Methods of Feedback
Most online education providers offer instructor-student interaction through online chats, email, or message boards. Such interaction is invaluable for students who need progress feedback and help. You might have to download software to use the chat rooms. Depending on your connection speed and time of day, expect the software download to take at least 30 minutes for most sites. Downloaded file sizes range from a few hundred kilobytes to 5000KB or more. After you install the software, verify that you can enter the chat area. Don't wait until the night before an exam to hop into a chat area for a quick question or two; you might not be able to access it.

I've found that emailing the instructor or posting to the message board are the most reliable ways to answer questions. Most sites promise to answer course-related questions in less than 24 hours. Other places where you can gather helpful information are Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and newsgroups.

CEUs and Course History
Some vendors offer Continuing Education Units (CEUs). The number of hours a course requires determines how many CEUs you earn. Some colleges and universities now let CEUs count toward a degree program. You need to refer to the class description or contact the instructor to find out how many CEUs a particular class confers. You might need to declare your interest in CEUs when you register for the course. The site outlines the qualifications you must meet to obtain CEUs. You might have to pay a processing fee for CEUs. The site might also offer course completion certificates.

You might be able to download course materials so that you can view them from your computer without logging on. This capability is helpful for students who have slow Internet connections. If you choose to take an online course this way, however, and the site stores information about your course history, some of your student history won't be stored in the database at the online education site. If the vendor you choose offers CEUs, your incomplete student history might disqualify you from receiving CEUs.

Choices for Employers
If you want to train your employees through online education, look for an online site that lets you track enrolled students' progress. Some online providers will give your company progress reports so that you can determine whether students are on track for course completion. You can set aside a block of time each week, during which employees working on the same certifications can compare notes about the learning process. Some sites offer price breaks if you enroll several employees at the same time.

Custom course services are sometimes an option when your employees have special educational needs. For example, you might have employees who require focused NT training with your company goals in mind, proprietary software training, specific-purpose education such as using the editing functions in Word, or job training within your organization. Several sites can provide courses built to your company's specifications. Many companies use this option as a cost-saving device for employee education.

Homework Before Your Homework Begins
You have a choice between Microsoft online CTECs (which cost significantly less than instruction at a physical CTEC site) and online education that Microsoft doesn't officially endorse. Although Microsoft created its CTEC program to provide minimum training standards, you don't necessarily need to study at a CTEC-designated site to prepare effectively for the MCP exams.

You also need to gather important information about a site's instructors. Does Microsoft certify the instructors to teach about a particular product? Do the instructors have real-world experience with the products they're teaching you about? You want to ensure that you are working with an expert so that you can gather the most up-to-date and definitive information about the course material. What is the response time to your questions, and what is the quality of the response? Receiving quality information quickly is important so that you don't fall behind in your studies. For a list of questions to keep in mind when you search for an appropriate site, see the sidebar "How to Choose an Online Education Provider."

Before choosing an online education provider, research each provider's training history and obtain information about the quality of its product from independent sources. Online education products can differ significantly. Two sites that illustrate different types of online training are DigitalThink and Ziff-Davis University (ZDU). DigitalThink is a high-end Java-based online CTEC. In contrast, Microsoft does not endorse all of ZDU's MCP courses, although you'll find the CTEC logo on the ZDU Web site. ZDU is an online education center that emphasizes quality courses at low prices.

Differences in Price
Coursework presentation and level of human interaction account for significant price differences between online education sites. Some sites offer money-back guarantees within a specified time. Course prices range from less than $100 to about $500.

The DigitalThink site, for example, offers an assigned instructor, and the coursework is in Java applet format. For students who need hands-on interaction with the coursework, Java applets are a good fit. DigitalThink structures its courses in individual lessons with specific objectives, offering information in a concise, no-nonsense format. A click on the syllabus feature lists the course breakdown with a link to each course. Java-based delivery systems keep track of where you are in the coursework. This feature gives continuity to the learning process and lets you begin studying on your office workstation and later pick up where you left off on your home computer. The courses contain lessons within modules, which include quizzes and exercises. When a lesson displays a screen, you simply move your cursor over a highlighted field to access helpful hints about the type of input the software expects. Simulations throughout the course lead you through specific tasks. In the course's exercises, you must resolve problems within specific scenarios; you email your essay-length answers to the instructor for correction and comments. The Java-format quizzes give you immediate feedback. You can easily review specific sections, retake any quizzes, or redo exercises. At any time, you can check your total course score and your ranking among other students who have taken the course. DigitalThink charges from $99 to $450 for each of its courses for individual students but offers a 40 percent volume discount to corporations. The company calculates special pricing for custom course services, when available.

In comparison, the ZDU site offers a combination of instructor-led and self-paced tutorial courses. Expect no bells and whistles at this site. ZDU is a good choice for students who would rather read a textbook than learn interactively with Java applets. In the instructor-led courses, you need to purchase a textbook and load the associated software onto your computer. The instructor posts a class syllabus in text format, so you know the lesson plan for the duration of the course. The instructor places a weekly notice on the classroom message board, assigning pages to read in the textbook. Some instructors also post a list of questions that you can answer and submit for grading and comments. You receive no immediate feedback for the instructor's quizzes because the site waits a few days to post answers. The instructor might set up office hours via a chat medium, but not all instructors make themselves available in this manner. For the most part, you will need to post messages to the message boards if you have any questions. Check the message board often, because the instructor might post something important, or other students might have questions that apply to your own studies. To take ZDU's self-paced tutorials, you must load ZDU's LearnFlow browser plug-in. LearnFlow leads you graphically through the course information. The course comprises several lessons. The course doesn't offer a placemark to take you automatically to the point at which you left off, but it displays the page number so that you can find your place. An absence of practical exams is a limitation of these self-paced tutorials. At ZDU, an annual charge of $69 gives you full access to all courses offered on the site, including instructor-led and self-paced courses.

You can test whether online education is a good fit for you by taking advantage of free trial offers. Many sites sell additional course materials in the form of textbooks and software. Shop around for the best price before making your purchase. Online education sites don't necessarily offer the best prices around.

Exam-Simulation Software
No matter which type of online-training site you use to study for your exams, you might want to supplement your studies with exam-simulation software, which you install directly onto your PC. Table 2 lists a variety of currently available products, most of which provide realistic simulations of the Microsoft certification exams. Most simulations are timed like the real exams. The software usually breaks down the scores into categories so that you can focus on your weak areas. To help you comprehend the material, the software often explains correct answers when you answer incorrectly. Some products include an examination study outline to give you an idea of the test's subject matter. For an extensive overview of exam-simulation products, see Michael Deignan's five-part review of MCSE test-preparation products in the August 1998 through December 1998 issues.

The best-known exam-simulation software is Transcender's TranscenderCert. The company recently added TranscenderFlash, an add-on to TranscenderCert. TranscenderFlash is quiz software in a flashcard format that lets you customize quizzes. You can construct quizzes to include specific topics at different difficulty levels to target your problem areas. To customize quizzes, you choose the topic, levels of difficulty, number of questions, and whether you want the quiz timed. The software explains answers in detail, thus reinforcing the exam material.

Transcender also offers the ability to update files for all its products, but to do so you need the company's new testing engine. The updates won't work on Transcender's old 16-bit testing engine. You can download the updates directly from Transcender's Web site, and the changes install automatically. This adaptability is a valuable feature because it lets you simulate the Microsoft exams as closely as possible. For example, if Microsoft converts an exam from a standard to an adaptive one, Transcender will provide the update to simulate the change.

It's Up to You
Online education provides an alternative study option for students who would rather steer clear of a classroom. But you need to educate yourself about the online training process before you choose your provider. For more information about online education, see Robert McIntosh, "The Online Alternative," March 1998.

No matter what method you use to study for the Microsoft exams, you must be dedicated enough to set aside time for study. In the end, it's up to you to pass the exams for your certifications and join the ranks of MCPs. Good luck in your endeavors.

Corrections to this Article:
  • "Online Education" didn't include a reference to QuickStart Technologies' eTraining Web site. For information about eTraining, go to http://www.etrainingnow.com.