Hands-On Labs: Touch, Play, Learn

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With the widespread adoption of performance-based tests to capture “real-world” skills during the learning and certification process, hands-on labs have become a necessary and increasingly complex practice tool. Virtually simulated or physically present, labs offer learners the chance to actively apply theory and lecture, which offers measurable benefits in ease of certification (We hope!) as well as a more attractive, confident picture of skill and capability for potential employers.

“It’s the difference between a person who knows all about something as opposed to the accomplished performer who’s actually gone out and done it,” said Laurence Myers, executive director, RWD Applied Technology Solutions. RWD is a systems integrator and developer of products and services for training and organizational performance. “Which of the following people would you rather have doing your quadruple bypass? The person who has published all about heart surgery, written many books and presents on it all the time, or would you rather have the person who’s performed a thousand quadruple bypasses successfully? I would rather have the latter because that person has demonstrated success, and the same is true for virtual labs. The person I want configuring my network switch is the person who’s actually done it many, many times in the past as opposed to just reading or learning about it.”

When it comes to a million-dollar network investment, practice beats theory flat. Education is still vital, but without an opportunity to touch and pull and in some cases play around with the real machines or their equivalent, classroom sessions aren’t as meaningful. Panduit, a leader in wiring and communication products recently introduced the Panduit Network Infrastructure Essentials (PNIE) course to give students interested in mastering the physical layer of a network hands-on experience. The PNIE course replaces Fundamentals of Voice and Data Cabling in the Cisco Networking Academy Program and covers basic cable installer knowledge, and how to build and administrate the physical layer of network infrastructure. “You can go in and actually teach some of the standards around structured cabling, and with the Cisco network academy engine there’s really good visual graphics as well as interactive exercises, but it’s definitely not the same when you’re not actually using the hand tools, terminating cabling and things of that nature. For individuals who are interested in really taking those tools and using them in a career, if you haven’t practiced with them in real life, you’d probably have some trouble using them in a job,” said Rob Lee, business development manager, Panduit. “It would be very problematic if you hired someone who didn’t have those skills and wasn’t really trained to use on-the-job type tools. You could get yourself in a lot of trouble setting up a network. I mean, most companies spend over a million dollars on networking gear. When you talk about the Cisco gear, the physical layer infrastructure to set up an enterprise, you’re putting a lot of IT investment into the equipment. If you’re not going to put the appropriate person to actually set up the physical layer aspect of the network, that million-dollar equipment really isn’t going to do much for you.”

Lee said the 70-hour PNIE course was reengineered last year to make it more meaningful and add hands-on components and new technologies such as wireless. Building automation allowed the course to address some of the best practice methods for installation of simple structure cabling as well as more advanced methods needed to install industrial Ethernet and Voice over IP. “Instructors are required to set up a lab environment,” Lee said. “That entails setting up a lab wall that students can use to practice structured cabling techniques. So you set up a wall, mimic what you might want to see in a telecom closet, and set it up for up to 16 individuals to actually terminate cabling, terminate jacks. It requires a lot of tools that are used in our trade, crimping tools, as well as some of the punch down tools that are needed, certain types of cabling.”

Panduit’s hands-on lab set up is very low maintenance, mostly setting up plywood and screwing in some punch-down type products so that students can actually punch down cabling. “If you did this on a table, it wouldn’t really put you in a real-world situation because most of our products are put on a rack,” Lee said. “Racks are expensive, so we’ve come up with a low-cost alternative because most of the schools that we deal with are on limited budgets.”

Novell uses traveling classrooms, shipping all of the necessary machines—laptops, switches, projectors, etc.—at a low cost. Novell uses imaging software to roll out or download software to equipment so when students show up to a lab, the laptop is preconfigured. Those in advanced classes should have basic installing and configuring skills down enabling them to move directly into troubleshooting, advanced implementations and product integrations. “To simplify the classroom situation we rely heavily on technology such as VMWare that allows us to create a base image and on that base image create other software platforms,” said Jeff McMurdie, manager for development and delivery, Novell Training Services. “VMWare allows you to run multiple virtual machines on one hardware platform. So when the student sits down in front of his laptop, it’s not just one machine he’s working with. He actually has an environment of virtual machines that can communicate with one another to allow the environment to be much complex and real-world-based. He may have a server, a workstation. He may have multiple servers or workstations, depending on what the software requires, all in one laptop.”

Virtual labs make it possible for a company to install a portable classroom in a physical location, but have trainees somewhere else. “You could put a virtual lab facility in a room located at your corporate headquarters if you’re a Cisco or Novell or one of the other manufacturers and very easily support trainees who are next door or in any country anywhere,” Myers said. “Another key benefit is you remove the need for physical instructors. You don’t have to have a person who is watching while these facilities are being used. You can use these labs 24×7. You can walk students through specific scenarios and provide them with immediate feedback and thereby accelerate the whole learning process. You also have the option to sell your training to any audience, whether it be a value-added reseller or a person who wants to be a licensed installer of that equipment potentially as part of some certification program.”

Both virtual and hands-on labs offer the learner an opportunity to practice and gain some experience with the actual tools and systems of the trade. The setups can be efficiently priced and conveniently assembled to make it worthwhile for a company to sponsor this type of learning. Obviously to register the benefits of the hands-on or virtual lab environment, the equipment students practice on must mirror the same equipment found in the field. Myers said that organizations that implement virtual labs should also provide some means for users to obtain help asynchronously via a virtual bulletin board for instance or synchronously through email or a phone or conference call system. Either way it goes, playing with learning toys beats figuratively looking at them on a shelf, even if when you take them down, they break.


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