A behind-the-scenes look at creating (or revising) a certification course

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This feature first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

What is the process behind creating a certification course? Let's find out.During Cisco Live, in June 2019, I was totally expecting an update to the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) exam. I figured they would add some new content and enhance some current content. Having been a teacher, part of me was hoping for not a lot of change. For teachers, changes to the exam means changes to the syllabus, as well as rearranging labs and assignments.

I’ve been a course developer for the past few years, however, so mostly I was wondering what topics would be removed and what new topics would be added. In the end, I was mostly just expecting some minor tweaks, much like what happened the last time that the core CCNA exam was updated, in 2016.

What happened instead was that Cisco dropped a bombshell on everyone. They didn’t just change things, they drastically changed things. After years spent spreading out its associate tier of certifications across multiple different specializations, Cisco reversed course and collapsed everything back down to just a single CCNA. Instead of the previous nine CCNA credentials, we’re back to having just one.

Mostly: CCNA CyberOps was spared from the purge but has been relabeled Cisco Certified CyberOps Associate (CCCA).

At any rate, in the aftermath of Cisco’s big disclosure, most of us were left with a lot of questions. Unfortunately, there were not very many answers. And as information trickled in, over the next several weeks and months, many of us were left with even more questions.

For example, many schools and training programs plan to take up an entire year preparing students for the CCNA exam (most often meaning, under the old regime, the Routing and Switching variant). When Cisco announced that the changeover would happen in February 2020, well, most classes were slated to start in August 2019 and finish around May 2020.

So where would that leave students? Would they be prepared to take the new CCNA exam? After all, they would be studying the topics for the old exam, but would no longer be able to take that exam. Cisco did release some training materials to bridge the gap, but fitting in new curriculum in the middle of the school year can be a challenge for instructors.

While schools were trying to figure out how to get through the 2019-2020 academic year and also cover the new material, it was announced that, in the future, the Cisco Network Academy will go from four courses down to three. Now schools will need to revamp their syllabi and degree programs all over again going forward.

Creating new course content

What is the process behind creating a certification course? Let's find out.For those of us who create educational content, we are now having to go through the process of comparing the old topics to the new topics. We need to figure out what subject matter has been dropped and what subject matter is new. It’s an interesting process and may provide some valuable insight into what goes into a typical certification training course.

The first thing I do with any new course or updated course is gather information. Specifically, my goal is to pin down which objectives, topics, or skills students will need to master in order to pass the exam and get certified. Each certification program has a different term to describe the core mastery items in their exams; CompTIA calls them objectives, Microsoft refers to them as skills, and Cisco uses the term “topics”.

Oftentimes the topics for exams are mostly the same as the previous exam, with some degree of outdated material removed and new material added. Sometimes material is shifted between the different credentials offered by a particular certification program, so then we might be looking at updating multiple courses at once.

Verbs matter

Another challenge is trying to figure out how much training material we need to create. And we also try to decide what it is that the exam is going to cover. For that, I look closely at the verbs used in the topics. After looking at the topics, I’ll refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy, specifically the verbs used in the topics for the exam.

Bloom’s Taxonomy has six levels of cognitive skills that can help us design lessons. The six levels are knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. There are a few different versions and revisions of the Bloom’s Taxonomy framework, so keep that in mind. Almost always, the objective, skill, or topic will contain a verb that falls under one of these six levels.

Let’s take a deeper dive into some of the topics from the new Cisco CCNA and see how this works:

Under the CCNA heading “Routing Technologies” we have the following topic: 3.1 – Describe the routing concepts. The key word here is the verb “describe.” If you look up the definition for the word “describe” you’ll find that it says, “to represent or give an account of in words,” or “to represent by a figure, model, or picture.”

So as we develop the training we stay keyed in on the word “describe.” The lesson for this topic would include some text, and maybe a video lecture with a diagram, but probably not a demonstration or any lab assignments. That would all be part of the knowledge and comprehension levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Making IT stick

What is the process behind creating a certification course? Let's find out.A later CCNA topic, on the other hand, is, “3.8 – Configure, verify, and troubleshoot IPv4 and IPv6 static routing.” For this topic, there are three key verbs: configure, verify, and troubleshoot. The definition for the word configure is “to set up for operation especially in a particular way.” What might a lesson look like for this topic?

First we will want to explain what IPv4 and IPv6 static routing is, why it’s needed, and how it works. This would involve text and a video lecture. To configure IPv4 and IPv6 routing, we would want to provide a demonstration on the exact steps on how to do this. This would be a great lesson to include a hands-on lab where the student would configure an IP router with IPv4 and IPv6. When we configure something, we are now in the synthesis level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

The next word is “verify.” Verify is defined as follows: “to establish the truth, accuracy, or reality of,” or “to confirm or substantiate.” By this time, we know what IPv4 and IPv6 routing are. We have read about them, seen a lecture, watched a demonstration, and have configured both. Now, we need to confirm that they work.

This is where another demonstration and hands-on lab would serve the student best. This section of the lesson would fall under the evaluation level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Now let’s look at “troubleshoot.” Troubleshoot is defined as follows: “to locate problems and make repairs.”

In our lesson design we have a firm understanding of IPv4 and IPv6 static routing. We have configured both and verified that they are working. Next we need to troubleshoot our configuration when things quit working.

This would probably be best done with another demonstration, walking through the different troubleshooting commands available on Cisco devices. It also would make for a great handson lab that allows a student to diagnose issues with the configuration. Troubleshooting generally falls under the analysis level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

On to the next one

No matter whether we’re asked to revise existing training materials, or create brand new materials, we look closely at the topics and decide the level of understanding that is expected for the exam. As you can imagine, this takes a great deal of time for the instructional designers, content developers, and subject matter experts.

The degree of challenge is magnified when the changes in exam coverage that have to be addressed are global. Whenever a certification program pulls a new credential out of its hat, even if it’s only just a wholesale reconfiguration of something that was fairly familiar already, there is plenty of work to be done. TestOut’s current plan is to complete our new CCNA training in time for instructors to get their hands on it well before the start of the next new school year. (Fingers crossed.)

I’d like to tell you that then we can sit back, put our feet up, and relax for a while. Certifications are constantly being overhauled or refreshed, however, and the next project is always queued up to begin as soon as the current one is finished. There are breaks in the actions, but an instructional designer’s work is never really done.

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Dana Fellows

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dana Fellows is an instructional designer at TestOut Corporation.

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