Inside E-Learning: The Virtual Experience
Before investing in the newest tools for learning through certification candidates should understand how to discern what’s worth their money and time from what’s best left on the virtual shelf. Students interested in rich, engaging learning experiences—whether certification-oriented or otherwise—have access to tools and technologies that can meet their needs in many interesting ways nowadays, often at surprisingly low costs. The biggest factors in enabling the emerging e-learning renaissance stem in part from ever-cheaper and more available CPU cycles and ubiquitous Internet access, but also from ongoing increases in interactivity, communication, collaboration, animation and other techniques to help bring training concepts, activities, labs and problem-solving to life in the e-learning materials (or environments) themselves.
What Should E-Learners Expect?
When shopping around for e-learning offerings, you should be permitted to take a “try it before you buy it” tour of at least a sample course, if not the very course that interests you most. It’s important to get a sense of the kind of e-learning environment in which you’ll be working should you decide to invest your time and money into a vendor’s specific e-learning offerings.
Among the many things that you should look for when evaluating such offerings are the presence or absence of the following qualities and capabilities:
- The training materials should be clear, well-written and easy to follow.
- Some kind of virtual practice lab or simulation environment should be included where appropriate, so you can practice applying the terms, concepts, tools and technologies you learn. Learning by doing is an important part of any educational experience, but absolutely essential for modern certifications where completing tasks, solving problems and other actions are often an important part of what’s tested.
- Access to supplementary reading or study materials that help you dig deeper into background information where necessary, or simply enable you to learn more about topics of special interest (or relevance to on-the-job needs). Where certification topics are concerned, this often means access to virtual libraries like the joint O’Reilly/Pearson Safari offering available at safari.informit.com. You also should find links to certification sponsor information relevant to an exam (such as objectives, recommended reading, technical information and so forth) built right into certification study environments.
- For certification topics, access to practice tests and question banks should be part of the regular learning experience. In this case, you’ll usually see only subsets of questions relevant to the topics at hand. You’ll also want complete question banks for learning assessment and exam preparation purposes.
- Some means of interacting with fellow students, and for communicating with instructors, is needed. This type of interaction ranges from asynchronous links through message boards or e-mail to real-time chats or conferences, but the ability to see and learn from the questions of other students is as important as access to instructors or other subject-matter experts.
- Where complex processes or assembly and disassembly of systems are part of the curriculum (for example, when removing and inserting a cartridge from a laser printer), animation can be really helpful. Even better, there is animation that can be run forward to show how to take something apart or deconstruct its components, or backward to show how to put something together or reconstruct its components.
Whether or not you find only some of these qualities and capabilities in e-learning offerings depends on which materials you evaluate. It also depends on how much the materials cost. You’re likely to find more of such things in materials that are more expensive, and less in those that are cheaper. But remember that it’s up to you to do your homework in advance. If you look for the kinds of qualities and capabilities that work best for your learning style, you’ll be doing your part to ensure a quality learning experience from whatever materials you end up selecting.
Building on a Web Services Model
Though it’s not specifically designed to be a learning platform, Microsoft’s SharePoint illustrates the kinds of things that e-learning students expect and routinely receive when they pursue their studies online. In this case, what’s enabling all kinds of communication and capability is a seemingly infinite array of Web services and communication options, all based on the Microsoft .NET Framework and related development tools and environments, such as Visual Studio .NET, Visual Basic .NET, Visual C# .NET and so forth.
SharePoint is bundled with all editions of Windows Server 2003 (from the Web Server Edition all the way up through the Datacenter Edition) in the form of SharePoint Services. Microsoft also sells a separate portal product that works with Windows Server 2003 platforms. In either case, SharePoint is designed to encourage teams of individuals to communicate, collaborate, share work and ideas, and exchange ongoing dialogue—all valuable tools for students preparing to pass their certification exams.
SharePoint also includes facilities to let team members (students, instructors, administrators and technical staff in an e-learning model) access a series of shared content libraries and make use of a broad range of services that include:
- Access to news and announcements, presented to members when they log in to SharePoint Web sites (also available in the form of alerts, which can be auto-generated and mailed to team members by request).
- Mechanisms for submitting documents for comment, review and approval, with the ability to track status, ownership, tasks and assignments.
- Shared lists for tasks, calendars, schedules and other group/team activity-scheduling and inquiry mechanisms.
- Support for interactive discussions through message boards, instant messaging and e-mail distribution lists, with automatic archiving of all such interchanges.
- Support for online meetings, either text-only or with voice and/or video capability, as well. (Similar archiving applies to this service.)
While SharePoint contains more features than what is described here, it doesn’t target e-learning specifically, like Blackboard, Toolbook and other similar platforms. Still, it is obvious that the Web services model lends itself to the creation of e-learning experiences that provide more different ways to communicate and to work with learning materials than one might expect.
Best-of-Breed Authoring Tools
The same kinds of capabilities now also inhere to the best of e-learning authoring tools. This makes it easy for courseware authors to augment text with images, animations, demonstrations and simulations, among many other enhancements now possible for traditional two-dimensional text and graphics. They also make it easy to integrate such enriched materials with online message boards, discussion groups, IM applications and other ways to encourage students to interact with each other, instructors or other subject-matter experts. That means you’re likely to see more of these options when you choose e-learning as your certification prep method.
Among tools that receive special notice for creating the best possible e-learning materials, you’ll find the following: