Best Possible Virtual Learning Experience

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Although the term “virtual learning” encompasses enough possibilities and differences that it needs a bit of defining before we can really understand what we’re talking about here, there’s no arguing that e-learning students in general and certification candidates in particular have lots of options for virtual learning as they prepare to tackle specific subjects. In fact, because virtual learning can be stretched to encompass any form of teaching, drill or study that takes place through a computer, it truly covers a multitude of sins.

Defining Virtual Learning
That’s why I think it’s important to distinguish what virtual learning can mean from what virtual learning should mean. While what it can mean is truly represented by my previous statement—namely, any form of teaching, drill, study or what-have-you that takes place through a computer—what it should mean is somewhat more limited. Given the kinds of prices that one may be asked to pay for virtual learning tools, what virtual learning should be is a combination of interactive materials presented to accommodate multiple learning styles, with sufficiently deep and broad information that students at varying levels of knowledge, expertise and skill can benefit from working with such materials.

In practice, virtual learning tools span a range from plain-text materials, often leavened with the kinds of slides or illustrations that might accompany an instructor’s lecture in a classroom, to complex, multimedia, highly interactive materials designed to make the most of a computer’s capabilities and to exercise a student’s ability to learn at the highest possible level. As a category, virtual learning includes what is often called computer-based training (CBT) and online or Web-based classes, which can range from on-demand textual or pre-recorded materials to regularly scheduled video-based lectures in real time with varying ways to interact with instructors, to various forms of local or online simulations, virtual labs or other interactive drills and activities, to practice exams that may be more or less structured (and also, more or less integrated with supporting text, interactive or online materials themselves).

Making the Most of Virtual Learning
This covers a huge amount of territory, so what I propose to do in this column is to suggest some strategies to ensure the most positive virtual learning experiences possible, no matter what kind of materials you might select to help you prepare for a certification or learn technical topics of any kind. Simply put, the guiding principle for selection might be stated as follows: “As the costs of virtual learning materials approach those for instructor-led training, so should the virtual learning experience approach the classroom experience.” Strange though it may sound, it’s possible to spend nearly or exactly as much for virtual certification training as one must pay for classroom training on the same topics. For example, the SANS Institute now offers online versions of its highly regarded classes for about the same cost as its live classroom versions. Other certification programs, particularly those that include official training channels as part of their offerings, do likewise.

Another way to restate my maxim when selecting virtual learning materials might be: “The more you pay, the more you should get.” In practice, this means that when you pay top dollar for virtual learning materials, you should get a top-quality product with an appropriate collection of bells and whistles. To my way of thinking, this means that the best virtual learning materials should include elements that make the most of what’s unique to computer-based learning environments, at the same time that they also provide a “near-classroom” learning experience.

Making the most of computer-based learning environments basically means taking the best possible advantage of what computers can do to aid learning. In practice, this means well-constructed hypertext or hyperlearning, where additional levels of detail and information on topics covered are never more than a click or two away. It also means links to external references and resources so that you can easily investigate multiple sources of coverage or points of view and explore additional technical resources, exercises or drills as needed. It usually includes interactive simulations or so-called “virtual labs” that permit you to experience what it’s like to operate or interact with various types of hardware and software, to investigate and solve problems and to develop skills and abilities that should translate into effective workplace use at some point or another.

Also, since individual learners typically have individual learning styles—some people learn best by reading new material, others by hearing that material, others by interacting with such material and so forth—the best virtual learning materials combine text, video, animation, illustrations and hands-on exercises in many ways. Ideally, the best results occur when the same information is delivered in a variety of mutually reinforcing ways and students can choose to explore one or more of those ways to learn to maximize their learning experience. Properly designed and executed computer-based learning environments should therefore deliver the best possible learning experiences, but personal and reported experiences with such materials indicate that results do vary from instance to instance. This reinforces several key notions when selecting such materials—including money-back guarantees as well as pre-purchase research.

A real “near-classroom” experience, on the other hand, draws on the elements that make classroom learning so effective for so many students and certification candidates. This means some kind of interaction with a competent, engaged mentor or instructor, in addition to whatever computer-based learning materials may be included. Many students also report that some ability to interact with their peers (other students) also adds to the experience, since it lets them learn from others’ questions and concerns as well as their own.

In fact, the closer to real-time such interactions get, the more a virtual learning experience tends to resemble a classroom learning experience. Thus, virtual learning where instructor interaction occurs through e-mail and student interactions occur through mailing lists is least like the real thing; virtual learning with interactive, real-time chats with instructors and/or students is better; and virtual learning with real-time, two-way video interaction is better still. Here again, be aware that the closer to real-time such interaction gets, the more such training tends to cost. Some of the best buys in this category are available from education institutions—like the University of Phoenix Online or Capella University—where virtual learning is often less expensive than through commercial training outlets or providers.

Getting the Best Bang for Your Buck
When it comes to choosing virtual learning materials, one of the best points of reference is to research the cost of classroom training on the same topic. The ratio of the cost of the virtual to the classroom materials should help you set your expectations for what’s included in the virtual offering. As costs approach unity with classroom training, what you get for that money should be pretty impressive and should include text materials, practice test banks, interactive computer-based learning materials, virtual labs or other simulations to help teach hands-on skills and some kind of access to an instructor or mentor to provide personalized service, be it to answer questions, to translate concepts into more familiar terms or to recommend additional drills, study and further materials to help you prepare for your exams. As costs decline from this high-water mark, expectations should decline as well. What usually disap

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