Training at Your Fingertips

Put a face to your training technology and save resources.

Project deadlines. Budget concerns. Not enough time in the day. Software development managers face common challenges as they try to train their developers on the latest technologies.

The Internet, virtual education and social networking are changing the way training is delivered to developers. While still useful in some scenarios, off-site seminars are no longer the training method of choice for many companies. Most organizations can no longer afford the high cost of class fees and travel, combined with the lost productivity that occurs with staff out of the office. Seminars generally present a large amount of information in a short period of time, but students may retain only a fraction of the material covered.

As an alternative, some dev teams have turned to text or Flash-based e-learning, without the human element, and have met with mixed results. Many developers find that the quality and depth of this type of content simply does not compare to that of traditional instructor-led training. Learning how to program in Visual Studio or SQL Server is complex; it can't be easily learned using thin content that fails to offer reinforcement mechanisms.

Microsoft in Sessions
Enter "just-in-time" learning, a hybrid training method that features instructor-led sessions much like developers would experience at an off-site class. However, these sessions are delivered in a self-paced, indexed format on CD-ROM, DVD-ROM or via the Internet in a hosted environment. Training apps run the gamut from products (Microsoft SQL Server 2005) and application trends (Business Intelligence) to frameworks (ASP.NET 2.0) and languages (Visual C# 2005). The just-in-time learning concept is gaining momentum because it allows organizations to lower training costs and increase productivity.

If you're looking to upgrade your team's SQL Server 2005 skills, most one-week, instructor-led classes will exceed $2,000 per student. Often, classroom instructors are available during the week to answer questions, but after that developers are essentially on their own.

In contrast, online just-in-time SQL Server 2005 training can run as little as $330 per developer. Companies don't pay costly travel expenses that quickly eat away at training budgets, and the dev staff remains on-site and available during training. With the right just-in-time tools, developers enjoy the same type of high-quality, instructor-led training as they do at a weeklong seminar. Instructors are available to answer questions via e-mail, and developers can continue to use the training as a valuable reference in the future.

Many developers embrace just-in-time learning because it provides readily usable content at their fingertips. Training sessions can be done on the spot during projects as needed, and then immediately applied on the job. This just-in-time approach can be valuable to both new and advanced codejockeys.

Higher Learning
What should you look for when evaluating a just-in-time learning solution? The following guidelines will help you find practical training tools:

  • Module-based learning template. Unlike traditional classroom-style learning that is linear, a quality just-in-time learning app is split into modules that are indexed and easily accessible. While the modules can be viewed sequentially as a complete course, the content within each module also should be designed to stand alone so it can be viewed on an as-needed basis. For example, to understand how to create a custom ASP.NET Web Part, don't take an entire ASP.NET course-simply jump straight to that topic and learn. The app should feature tools for quick referencing and bookmarking, allowing developers to jump right to the topics they need quickly and easily.
  • Reinforcement mechanisms. Learning to code is mastered by practice. Hands-on lab exercises, sample code, courseware and pre- and post-exams are all essential features for a complete learning app because they provide meaningful reinforcement and assessment for developers. Resources such as message boards or chat rooms where developers can collaborate and help each other learn new technologies are useful and often provided by vendors.
  • Rich, demonstration-based content. Look for content that covers the subject matter thoroughly while being presented in an engaging way. Whether it's mastering Transact-SQL or understanding generics in C#, developers should feel like they're enjoying a one-on-one mentoring session with an expert, including real-world demonstrations and examples. Check the credentials of the authors and instructors conducting the training-in addition to being experts in the technology, they should also be developers themselves who create practical content that's easy to understand and apply on the job.
  • Proven success. Select a just-in-time learning technology provider that is committed to customers and well respected in the learning industry. Has the company received industry recognition for their training? Is the training developed in-house for consistent content? Can the vendor provide case studies and client references?
  • Finally, make sure the company is preparing for future trends in developer training. Technology learning via podcasts and streamed directly to a developer's smartphone will make it even more convenient to learn on the go.

About the Author

Craig Jensen is president of AppDev Products LLC.

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