Virtual Training

Sybex's MCSE Virtual Lab, while good, leaves something to be desired.

I must admit: When it comes to books or training materials I'm not one for reading from a computer screen. I've tried various e-learning courses and still prefer print copies of books and materials. One thing that intrigued me about this e-trainer was that the fact that it's a virtual lab. To me, this meant I wouldn't just be reading a book on the screen but performing actions in a see-and-do scenario. I wasn't wrong in that assumption.

My first impression was, indeed, positive. The product provides the user with the ability to run through all the lab scenarios by actually doing them one of two ways:

The user has Windows 2000 installed and can follow the step-by-step instructions.

The user can run a simulation that provides a "simulated" version of a Win2K environment.

The latter is an excellent addition to the product, as it can help users become familiar with Win2K without having it installed. Not every user has the resources available to gain access to the OS, and the simulations allow those who don't have such access to become somewhat familiar with it. After all, the exams are designed to ensure users have hands-on experience with the products.

I have always been a fan of Sybex's certification-prep materials and have used many of its products in the past. The first time I encountered its e-trainer style of learning was with its Network+ prep book. There was an e-learning trainer CD included with it, and I found it quite helpful.

I must admit, however, that there are some shortcomings in this particular virtual lab. The first item I noticed was during the Win2K Professional simulations. For the first four or five labs, you need to select a topic to practice, then choose a lab and click to start it—so far, so good. When the selected lab starts, another window pops up with step-by-step instructions on how to complete the lab with your own copy of Win2K—or you can run a simulation. Selecting the Start Simulation button starts a very nice simulation of the Win2K product and allows you to follow cues on how to complete the exercise.

Sybex MCSE Virtual Lab
To start a lab, you need to select a topic to practice.

The disconcerting part is that some of the next labs (as an example, User Accounts and Create Local Users) have a totally different style of interface, with a larger window for the simulation environment and another window that needs to be moved around the screen to complete the exercises; it tends to get in the way at times. It just strays from the norm of what the user is starting to get used to with the product. Not a big deal, and it doesn't affect the user's ability to complete the labs.

The next item—a major discrepancy as far as I'm concerned—is during the process of creating a user account. The simulation asks the user to click the Start button, select Administrative Tools and open the Local User and Groups MMC snap in. The Start menu is from Win2K Server, configured as a domain controller, and not from Win2K Professional as Active Directory User and Computers are displayed on the Programs menu. This doesn't exist in Win2K Professional.

In short, will the product help you pass the Microsoft exams by itself? No. Sybex states on the packaging that this tool a complement to its other study materials—and it's indeed that. It doesn't replace Win2K for the purposes of working with the OS, but it does offer a good alternative to those without the operating system. As any network administrator or power user will tell you, there's usually more than one method of performing various functions in the OS. The simulation allows only one way. This is actually a good thing, as the exams that contain simulations allow only one method to work through the exercise.

Microsoft exams aren't easy and require a thorough understanding of the products, as well as hands-on experience and practice. A virtual lab should provide an accurate simulation of the environments; in this case, I found discrepancies. The concept is good, and I know that Sybex can put together quality products, as I've passed exams with just its material alone. I was left wondering if Sybex had thoroughly tested this product before releasing it for review. As someone who has authored some computer books in the past, I can vouch for the need to have outside parties evaluate, critique and review the work for technical accuracy. Users will accept nothing less that concise and complete material.

If Sybex can fix the inconsistencies and small errors, it'll have a great product that will surely help many users gain a better understanding of how to use Win2K products and prepare for exams.

About the Author

Gerry O'Brien, MCSE, MCSD, MCDBA, MCT, has been working with computers since the days of the Commodore VIC-20. Over the past five years he's done network administration for The Hardman Group Ltd., a real estate management/development company, and owns Canadian-Based GK ComputerConsulting, which provides hardware and software sales, consulting, and development services to a wide range of clients.


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