by Heather Baukney

Training in the Real World: E-Learning Enables Hands-On Experience

Nov 15, 20008 mins
IT Skills

Kate Tallis, a WAN engineer at Lockheed, learned about networking the old-fashioned way—by reading tons of manuals and passing days in classroom lectures before ever touching a piece of hardware. The training was useful, she says, but it didn’t adequately prepare her for the real-life challenges and crises her network presents. But since October 1999, Tallis and five of her fellow engineers have been augmenting their traditional training with exercises on a new hands-on system that may revolutionize network administrator training.

In May 1999, Mentor Technologies Group, based in Annapolis Junction, Md., went online with vLab (, a system of exercises that challenges users to solve internetworking problems. The difference between simulated scenarios and vLab, however, is that Mentor backs up its courses with nearly $3 million of live Cisco equipment. Whenever Tallis signed on for any of the seven labs she’s completed so far, she commanded real hardware instead of paper diagrams. “It’s nice to be able to learn on a real switch, a real router,” she says. “With other types of training you can always go to the back of the book and see what the answer is, but with vLab you actually have to make the thing work.”

The system is attracting attention. In its first year and a half, Mentor has had tens of thousands of IS professionals participate in vLabs. The company’s major clients include AT&T, Cisco, Computer Sciences Corp., Merrill Lynch, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Sprint and Verizon.

Getting Real

Clark Aldrich, research director at the Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group, says that the realities of today’s workforce mean that vLab’s learning-by-doing model should continue to catch on. “Shortcutting the experiential learning process through immersive, frustrating, fun simulations,” Aldrich says, “will be the dominant form of prepackaged management training for the Nintendo generation.”

The game-system analogy even proves appropriate. When beginning a vLab course, users receive an assignment, Mission: Impossible style: “You have been assigned the task of creating and implementing a subnet plan for three remote offices….” A large clock in the upper right-hand corner of the screen counts down. “Describe your plan of attack,” the system prompts. If the user gets stuck, the system provides hints and detailed sample solutions, or she can call or e-mail an instructor for help. Aldrich says vLab’s approach is an antidote to some traditional e-learning ills. “One of the historic complaints about e-learning is that it’s too high-level, too theoretical,” says Aldrich. “[vLab] is a great way to deal with those problems because it’s practical and accessible.” And it’s nonfatal—if you crash this network, you won’t get fired.

Another major appeal of vLab is its 24/7 accessibility. Anthony Wolfenden, the senior manager of product line management and learning deployment, is responsible for making sure that vLab is available to 350 of the company’s 3,500 field engineers. “It’s the best for getting training when you want, where you want,” Wolfenden says. He considers it a wild success that during any given month, 10 percent of Cisco’s field workforce uses vLab.

Hands-on training also appears to make for better administrators. In September 1999, Cisco set out to determine which group did better on the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) exams, those who took five days of instructor-led classes (and five vLabs) or those who completed 20 vLab sessions. Of the group that had vLabs and no lectures, 88 percent passed their CCNA exams on their first try, compared with 77 percent of the classroom trainees. (The industry standard pass rate is 70 percent.)

Staffing Solution

As the industry longs for skilled network administrators, getting it right the first time—putting skilled people in place as quickly as possible—is becoming mission-critical. According to Andrew Efstathiou, an analyst with The Yankee Group in Boston, the staffing crisis in network administration will intensify in the next five years. He says that offering training like vLab may aid an organization’s retention. “This type of cutting-edge training might help companies hang on to their systems people,” says Efstathiou. “It shows that they are stepping up to the plate by providing training that will advance [engineers’] careers.”

The purchase of live e-learning will continue to boom as virtual lab options dispel the main objection to e-learning: lack of hands-on experience, says analyst Mike Brennan of IDC (a sister company of CIO’s publisher, CXO Media). “Virtual labs will take market share away from instructor-led, textbook-based training,” he says, “and there will be more training partnerships as it’s recognized as a viable training tool.” Mentor is already in partnership with communications vendor Marconi (whether it’s for vLab capability they won’t divulge). Mentor’s cofounder and Chief Learning Architect Greg Long says that the company is “in discussion with various other vendors to develop a vLab solution for their technology.” Brennan speculates that biggies like Lucent and Nortel may not be far behind in seeking out similar e-learning partnerships. “They’ll say, ’OK, Cisco’s got it. Is this something I need to differentiate?’” Although Framingham, Mass.-based IDC just began its analysis of virtual labs, Brennan speculates that, like any other single training method, they will not be the best for all learning needs. “A blended solution is the way to go,” he says. “Provide as many delivery vehicles as possible because different people learn in different ways.”

In fact, many of vLab’s clients piggyback the online exercises with desk-and-teacher courses. Caryl Graham, a client service manager of AT&T Solution’s Bank One account, says that the vLabs have become a mandatory prerequisite to traditional training. “If you take the vLabs before the class,” she says, “then everyone comes in more or less even. If you were low on the spectrum you can keep up and those on the higher end don’t get bored and frustrated.” Graham first beta-tested vLab nine months ago and was immediately hooked. “Around here we’ve always had a few routers to play with,” she says. “But most people would only take advantage of fooling with the network when it was broken.” As subscribers to Mentor’s enterprise system since August, Graham and her colleagues have accessed vLab via their corporate intranet. This model allows unlimited access to the labs, which run on a dedicated network built behind their firewall. The enterprise dedication also tends to speed up the system’s response time, solving one of the few but main complaints about the use of vLab. Jim Thurmond, who’s in charge of technology learning and systems and operations delivery at AT&T Solutions in Florham Park, N.J., says, “It was slow when it was outside our firewall, but since bringing it in-house it has sped up appreciably.”

Price May Be Right

Use of an enterprise system also seems to deflect the other main criticism that users, and potential ones, have of vLab—the price tag. Mentor’s Long says that opting for an enterprise solution drives the cost per lab way down. He admits that price is a valid concern and that some people, mostly students, have remarked to him that the service should be free. “But,” Long says, “there are rooms full of equipment behind this.” As for corporate clients, he says, “We’ve been working with them to train hundreds of systems integrators and turn them into revenue producing engineers.” Yankee’s Efstathiou says that, for access to such cutting-edge technology, vLab sounds like a bargain.

Of Mentor’s current clients, most find the cost fair but offer a few caveats. Lockheed’s Tallis cautions that because the vLabs are very targeted lessons, you have to be sure you know what you want. “If you don’t use it correctly, it can be very pricey,” she says. But so can classes. The cost of sending one person to a five-day class can approach $2,500, she says. “Like any training program, the more research you do, the better chance you’ll pick [the right course].” The expense of training for the CCNA certification with the typical five-day course, including the price of the course, travel, lodging and food, most often exceeds $3,000; vLab’s CCNA track pack of nine courses costs $715. The cost of taking people off the job also cannot be underestimated, says Cisco’s Wolfenden. “Every hour they’re out of the field costs $12,000.”

Long says that vLab’s challenge now is to grow with its clients not only by adding five to 10 new labs a month but also by offering alternatives to Cisco, such as vLabs for Windows NT and Windows 2000. The company also has its hands full expanding operations for current clients. AT&T, for example, intends to make vLab available to its global staff. Thurmond expects that the 1,000 to 1,500 users training on it by the end of this year will balloon to 3,000 by the end of 2001.

If the predictions prove true, other giants such as Lucent, Marconi and Nortel, might be next to dedicate some of their hardware to live network training. If, like Cisco, the gear in their control centers continues to outsize the pool of qualified systems administrators to run it, it might even be a necessity. n