Thursday, January 28, 2010

Report Shows High Demand for Online Learning in Higher Education

Online courses continue to grow in popularity and relevance, and a new report (“Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States, 2009”) available from the Sloan Consortium offers insightful data about the growth. More than 2,500 colleges and universities—both 2-year and 4-year institutions—in the United States were included in the survey that researched online offerings in higher education. The results showed that more than 25% of college and university students took at least one online class in the fall 2008 semester. This number is staggering because it represents a 17% increase over the previous year. Since the overall growth rate in higher education was only 1.2%, a 17% increase in online learning shows a dramatic trend.

Elaine Allen, professor at Babson College and co-author of the newly released report, discussed the findings in a short video that can be viewed on YouTube. In the video, she said, “When we have a downturn in the economy, we tend to see people going back to school. They go back to school because they have been laid off or lost their job; they go back to school to improve their credentials in case they’re going to get laid off. So we see a higher demand for all types of classes in higher education.” Further, Allen shared that 75% of schools that offer online classes said their demand went way up, and 2/3 of schools that don’t offer online classes said their students were asking for them.

Many colleges and universities that currently use LabSim training in their IT courses have told us the same thing: they’ve seen many more adult learners in the past year returning to school to learn a new skill set or deepen their knowledge in hopes of finding better work. Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan—a suburb of Detroit—told us their story just last week. Professor William Schlick said, “We have many students who are out of a job and mad at the world. Using LabSim, we turn that around and help them find new skills.” IT courses can be highly effective for online delivery when a tool such as LabSim is used to provide hands-on learning while allowing students to work at their own pace and on their own time.

Have you used LabSim in an online college or university course? If so, we'd love to hear about your experience. Leave a comment or email

Emily Howard, TestOut

Friday, January 22, 2010

New A+ and What Makes LabSim So Great

If you’ve ever spoken with a TestOut salesperson, you know what an “open” simulation is. We’ve gone to great lengths to get the word out about our simulations because they set our training apart from all the other materials you could purchase. When you train with TestOut's LabSim, you’ll have real-world experience because our simulations require you to perform real tasks without forcing you down a specific path.

I’ll give you an example, and I think you’ll see exactly what makes LabSim so great…

Just imagine that you are learning what to do when helping someone fix a computer that can’t access files on a corporate network. This kind of problem can be related to any number of things: perhaps the computer hasn’t been configured with the correct TCP/IP settings, the DHCP server may not have been configured to accept the computer's MAC address, the computer may need to be joined to a domain, or the network cable may have even come loose. In the real world you would investigate all of those possible causes. So why use a simulator that doesn’t allow you to check every one of those possibilities as well?

With LabSim you can do it all. Our simulators won’t give you extra assistance that isn’t available in the real world either. Our video instructors will teach you everything you need to know to perform all the tasks the simulator will throw at you. Changing the simulated computer’s Bluetooth settings probably won’t help with the networking problem I just described, but the simulator will let you try it anyway, without ever letting on that you might be on the wrong track.

And just in case we haven’t made a fan out of you yet, we’ve just enhanced our simulators with new capabilities. We’ve just released an updated version of our A+ Essentials course, our first course to combine Hardware, BIOS and Operating System tasks into a single simulator!

Now when you assemble a computer in the hardware simulator, you can actually plug the power cord into a power strip, push the power button and watch the computer boot up. If you’ve put together a bad configuration, the BIOS will let you know and you’ll have to return to the hardware bench. But when you get everything assembled correctly, it’s a thing of beauty. You’ll actually see the simulated operating system installing all the drivers for the hardware you’ve installed and you’ll get real-world results for any issues.

Remember that networking problem I described before? In our new simulators, you could actually view the Network and Sharing Center in the simulated computer, then switch to the hardware view and plug and unplug cables to your heart’s content. Be careful about the power cords though; you can actually shut down the simulated computer that way, but you’ll lose points for that! Once you get both ends of the network cable plugged into the right places you can return to the simulated Windows system (unless you killed the simulated computer and have to go back through BIOS), and voila—the Network and Sharing Center will update with any simulated network it is now able to find.

The only thing closer to the real world would be… the real world.

--Nate Garner, TestOut Lead Software Engineer

Monday, January 18, 2010

New LabSim A+ Course: An Interview with Don Whitnah, Part II

Read Part II of my interview with Don Whitnah, TestOut vice president of product development, about the new A+:

How does the new LabSim A+ course prepare students for practical, hands-on application? What are some examples in the new course?

Don: We’ve designed the lab scenarios in the course to expose you to as much hardware and as many operating system tasks as we can. For instance, we have piles of hardware we’ve purchased to make sure our labs cover lots of different hardware. In class or at home, you may have one computer to work with, and you don’t get to see all the components. How many classes show you a BTX or an NLX motherboard? They’re covered in the exam objectives, but where would you get experience working with them? Texts might give descriptions of them, but our labs let you perform configuration tasks on them.

See what happens when you unplug the network cable; what does it look like in Windows? Get practice identifying problems and taking all the necessary steps to correct the problems. There are also troubleshooting questions on the A+ exam. In our labs you work through the scenario, so you don’t just memorize the solution, you’ve actually practiced doing the solution.

Why is A+ such a popular certification?

Don: A+ is popular because it’s an entry level certification and covers the basics that people need to know. Many people just want or need to learn about computers and how to manage and use them. There are also college courses that teach basic computer management repair tasks and use the A+ objectives as a basis for what they teach. So, A+ training is popular even if you’re not going to take the certification exam.
Another reason A+ certification is important is that many employers in the field of building and repairing computers require it. CompTIA is an industry trade association. Companies can belong to the association and then CompTIA takes their input for what to cover in the exam. They say to the company, “We want the exam to be useful to you, so what are you trying to accomplish? What do your employees need to know?”

Another reason A+ is so relevant today is the Department of Defense initiative 8570 that requires government employees to prove certain competencies. While it’s geared a lot toward security, A+ is also a part of what will satisfy requirements, depending on your job role.

Why should IT students consider becoming A+ certified?

Don: A+ certification might be required by an employer, or an employer may give a bonus or a raise if you get certified. Also, the Department of Defense requirement for certification may affect your job.

When you’re applying to jobs, some employers won’t even look at your resume if you don’t have certain certifications. Basically, they make certification a job requirement.

Two candidates may be equally qualified, but certification shows initiative and depth of understanding. It’s an extra factor to help you get the job. Certifications don’t substitute for experience, but they may be the one thing that gets you the interview or differentiates you from other candidates.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

New LabSim A+ Course: An Interview with Don Whitnah

With TestOut preparing for a release of the new LabSim A+ course this month, we spoke to Don Whitnah, vice president of product development at TestOut, to learn about the new A+. Read our conversation. (First half of our conversation is posted here; watch for the second half in a few days!)

Why did TestOut create new LabSim A+ courses?

Don: CompTIA updated the exams, so we created new courses. Our goal is to provide training to help you pass the exam.

CompTIA updates their exams for two main reasons. The first is a matter of time. It’s been 3 years since the last exam revision, and new hardware and new operating systems are being used. So, CompTIA updates their objectives to remain relevant. Also, CompTIA works closely with many employers who are using new devices in their companies and want to see that knowledge tested on the certification exam.

Second, CompTIA must remain accredited as a certification exam provider, showing that they use proper processes in creating exams. One process required is that they periodically revise their exams.

What has changed in CompTIA’s A+ objectives and exams?

Don: At first glance, the new objectives look very similar to the old ones. But looking at the details, you start to notice changes. For example, new devices are being tested—new hardware that has come along in the past 3 years, such as Blu-ray discs, solid state hard drives, SATA hard drives, Crossfire or SLI video cards. Also, new operating systems have been released, and the new objectives include Vista, including 64-bit computers and operating systems. The focus is shifting to the newer stuff. Similarly, they’ve dropped older, obsolete hardware from the exam.

A+ has always been made up of two exams, but now they’re changing what’s in the exams. Now, the first exam, A+ Essentials, is the theory, basics, and definitions—how things work, what are the pieces, what do they mean. The second exam is the A+ Practical Application and tests more “hands-on” information, such as how you configure, install, and troubleshoot.

The Practical Application test is still a multiple choice exam that they hope will identify the things you know. For example, a question may describe a scenario or problem and ask you how to fix it. Or give you a situation and ask you what to do next or what got left out. They hope you can say, “I’ve done this before, I know how to do this.”

How is this LabSim A+ course different from the last LabSim A+ course?

Don: The new LabSim A+ courses are different because we’ve matched them to CompTIA’s new objectives. But, more than that, the courses are improved on the whole. We now use multiple instructors in our video instruction, which adds variety to the course. We’ve taken our time and analyzed the objectives to make sure everything is there that should be and nothing is there that shouldn’t be.

The biggest difference is that we’ve completely redone the labs. Obviously, we’ve gone through every scenario and made sure everything that’s covered is relevant, new, and important. For example, we teach new hardware, and everything uses Vista as the operating system you work with. We’ve redesigned and rewritten every scenario. Not minor modifications, not a rehash of old stuff, but complete rewrites. We’ve also completely reprogrammed it to be optimized for online delivery.

The other big change is the most relevant for learning. In the past, labs where you install hardware or perform operating system tasks were separate labs. Now, hardware and operating system tasks are all combined in the labs, not separate, so you can see how the hardware installation affects the operating system. For example, a real-world task is to take a hardware component, plug it in, and configure it. That used to happen in separate labs, but now it’s all one activity. It makes the learning more realistic.

What makes LabSim the best choice for A+ training?

Don: One reason is the depth of content included in the course. You can go several places to get info about A+—books, videos, etc. But LabSim offers it all in one course, including text, videos, hands-on labs, and exam prep. LabSim is really the smorgasbord, not the a la carte.

LabSim even teaches stuff you won’t see on the exam. If you’re at home and want to set up a wireless network—you may not be tested on that in the exam—but in the real world, you would need to know. Or if you’re buying a new monitor, how do you know if the $500 monitor is worth the expense over the $200 monitor? It won’t show up on the exam, but you’d want to know. The LabSim course is very applicable and useful, even if you’re not taking the certification exam.

Another thing is the hands-on training. If you went to an instructor-led A+ class, you may get 5 days of classroom training on both courses. If you just want to pass the exam and get out of there, that may be okay. But if you really want to learn and understand, it’s not enough.

Some instructor-led training classes have some hands-on activities you can perform, but how many offer five different motherboards to practice on or allow you to tear things apart and drastically change a system? In a class setting, they’re limited both for time and hardware.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Broaden Skills for Your IT Career in 2010

Now and then I write about the IT job market and the outlook for new graduates. Many students approaching graduation in the near future are looking for insight about the skills employers will expect them to have. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal addresses this topic with useful data and advice. Writer Diana Middleton reports, “Technology, health care, and education will continue to be hot job sectors, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ outlook for job growth between 2008 and 2018.” Additionally, a recent survey conducted by shows that of the 2,700 hiring managers surveyed, one-third plan to add technology staff in 2010. Reports like these should lend confidence to students majoring in IT, computer science, and related fields.

At the same time, data show that employers are looking for specialized and crossover skills in their applicants. A technology degree is still critical, but the applicant who is hired will likely have additional skills and experience that may not have come directly from a college or university course of study. “That's because not all of those jobs will be purely techie in nature,” writes Middleton. She quotes David Foote, chief executive officer of IT research firm Foote Partners, who “advises current computer-science students to couple their degrees with studies in marketing, accounting, or finance.” Foote said, "Before, people widely believed that all you needed to have were deep, nerdy skills. But companies are looking for people with multiple skill sets who can move fluidly with marketing or operations."

What does this mean for you? Find ways to broaden your skill sets, whether through additional coursework that may or may not be a part of your major, or through part-time work experience and personal experience. Certifications are also available that prove competencies. For technology majors specifically, skills in online and social marketing, as well as search engine optimization and marketing analytics combine well with technology education. User-experience design is another high-demand skill, as well as expertise in green technologies.

What have you done to broaden your skills in preparation for your career?

Emily Howard, TestOut