Online Technical Symposiums
One of the great joys of writing a column is that my input on topics is genuinely sought after; sometimes, it’s even heeded. This particular column represents my attempt to capture the spirit and capabilities of the many active and vibrant communities online, particularly those related to IT certification.
To begin, here’s a faithful listing of the three definitions of the term “symposium,” lifted with thanks (and credit) to www.dictionary.com:
- A meeting or conference for discussion of a topic, especially one in which the participants form an audience and make presentations.
- A collection of writings on a particular topic, as in a magazine.
- A convivial meeting for drinking, music and intellectual discussion among the ancient Greeks.
Although there’s no requirement—and indeed no possibility—that one be an “ancient Greek” to participate in an online community, the third definition captures what’s best about this phenomenon. That is, although most online communities cluster around some specific topic or concern—such as a particular IT certification or perhaps a whole IT certification program like those from Cisco, Microsoft or Novell, for example—they invariably spill out from their narrower focus to address all kinds of topics and interests, and much else in life.
As I stated in last month’s Learning Tools column, “Part of a well-structured and -conducted preparation process when studying for certification exams is to make sure you use all of the legitimate sources of information you can find.”
I’d like to describe the characteristics of a good online certification symposium, recount the forms they can take and then go on to explain how one might go about locating the best symposiums for any specific certification credential or certification program.
What Makes a Good Certification Symposium?
The two-word answer to the foregoing question is “good information.” A longer list of characteristics that contribute to a good online community or technical symposium must include some or all of the following items:
- Relevance: For those interested in specific certifications or programs, direct, focused coverage is absolutely essential. Though a certain amount of wandering, blathering or dithering is inevitable, what mailing-list aficionados call a good “signal to noise ratio” (that is, an acceptable proportion of useful to useless traffic or postings) is essential.
- Ratings or reliability: A community phenomenon involves all members, but some members know more than others. To help readers understand the relative value of traffic or postings, some online communities use point systems to rate posters’ credibility, post biographies of posters or rate responses in terms of accuracy, readability, relevance and so forth. Some kind of rating system for unmoderated postings or traffic is essential. Likewise, access to recognized experts, mentors or certified individuals for answers to key questions is also important.
- Coverage: Some online communities are broad rather than deep, others vice versa, and still others attempt to bulk out in both dimensions. A good online symposium has sufficient breadth to cover most common questions and concerns, and enough depth to answer such questions and address most concerns fairly thoroughly.
- Pointers: Because no single information venue can address all questions, handle all concerns or anticipate every need, a good online community also includes pointers to other good sources of information. Often, they include pointers to reference materials, training resources, white papers, tutorials, practice tests and a broad range of other nonpareil resources designed to supplement and augment what’s available locally.
- Accessibility: Perforce, any good online community or technical symposium will include a sizable body of data, text and other information. Good organization and navigation tools are absolutely essential to help readers browse for information. Likewise, a good search engine is critical to help run down specific concepts, terms, tools, technologies and so forth.
- Timeliness: Certification candidates care only about the topics, concepts and so forth that they’re likely to encounter when they take their next exam. A good online community or technical symposium will be up-to-date on current topics, news, information and technical matters.
There are lots of other desiderata that experienced online infonauts will no doubt want to add, but these items provide a solid foundation from which certification candidates can assume they’ll find timely, accurate information of value to their exam preparation.
What Forms Can Online Symposiums Take?
A truly all-embracing answer to this question might be something like “whatever form it wants to.” But overlooking some of the less-frequently-occurring examples, the following represent typical forms and forums in which online communities interact and in which symposiums often occur. (Note that in many of the best sites, multiple forms help to reinforce one another.)
- Chat rooms: Whether scheduled or impromptu, short- or long-lived, moderated or not, interaction with peers, colleagues and sometimes even experts is a great way to exchange free-form information on a broad range of certification topics quickly and easily. Chats often follow online seminars to permit presentations or lectures to lead into Q&A sessions quite naturally.
- FAQs: Over time, regular observers and experts develop a sense of the questions that are asked most often and the answers that best accompany such queries. Good online communities not only anticipate and provide these things, they update them regularly as well.
- Mailing lists: Though far less interactive, mailing lists remain a good way to convey Q&A, dialogue and ongoing conversations to a large list of widely distributed participants. Mailing lists work particularly well for those whose work or life schedules prevent them from access to prime-time interactive events online.
- Message boards: Like mailing lists, except all messages reside in an easily navigated and accessed online store, message boards also work well to exchange and expose information on various topics of interest to certification candidates.
- Online seminars: A way for Web sites to “push” slides, graphics and other screen-oriented information displays to users, one screen at a time. Some even include real-time (or time-synched) voiceovers. All attempt to provide a workable channel for information delivery from an instructor, expert or designated presenter to a large online audience.
Here again, active online communities may occasionally resort to other forms of interaction (virtual or real conferences are fairly common), as well as online courseware, online instructor-led training and so forth. Surprisingly, even big value-adds like online chats or training from well-known experts or “names in the field” may be available to community members for free. That’s because savvy site operators turn to corporate sponsors to help support such activities and keep the cost burden from weighing too heavily on the backs of certification candidates.
Finding Good Symposiums Online
Now that you know what kinds of information a good online symposium can and probably should have, the real question is: “How do I find the good stuff online?”
There are two general answers, each equally frustrating and rewarding depending on how much effort you put into implementing their recommendations:
- Start from the best points of departure: Interestingly, some of the best general certification resource sites (aka, certification portals like CertMag.com, Cramsession.com, ExamCram