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.

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