The couple of weeks leading up to Christmas involved a lot of intense revision for me, as I prepared for the Microsoft exams to finish updating my MCSE on Windows Server 2003 to MCITP Enterprise Administrator.
When I set out to do this, I had originally intended to combine the tasks of reviewing John Savill’s Complete Guide to Windows Server 2008 with getting ready for my exams but it soon became apparent that I simply didn’t have enough time to work my way through the entire volume (excellent though it is!). Instead, I used the Microsoft-published exam preparation guides to identify the recommended Microsoft E-Learning courses.
If I’d written a review of the courses after the first couple of days it would have been a glowing recommendation – and in some respects perhaps I should be holding off on this review as I am somewhat battle-weary; however, having just taken two certification exams based on this study method it seems as good a time as any to assess the suitability of these courses.
Starting out with the selection, there is a huge catalogue of courses available which mirror the Microsoft Official Curriculum instructor-led courses. The prices are not bad either, when compared with classroom training; however, in many ways, I prefer the interaction that a classroom environment provides.
The format of the courses is good – built up as a number of virtual classroom modules, with a mixture of demonstrations and animations (with transcripts), textual content, and puzzles/tests in each lesson. Each lesson ends with a self-test and there is a summary and a glossary at the end of each module. There’s also a full-text search capability.
It’s possible to synchronise the content with a local cache to provide offline viewing – indeed, I only used the courses online for one day (when I was in the office and the proxy server wouldn’t let me download some new courses for offline working – the offline player includes the ability to edit proxy settings in the options but is not exposed in Windows until after successfully downloading and launching a course – and online viewing required me to add microsoftelearning.com to Internet Explorer’s trusted sites list) but it’s important to note that the virtual labs must always be completed online (this functionality is not available in the offline viewer).
Somewhat annoyingly, the course overview (which is the same for each course) and the glossary are included in the progress count, so after completing all of the available lesson content, most of the courses I attended were marked as only partially completed (it is possible to mark a course as complete in the My Learning section of the Microsoft Learning website but this will not complete the course in your transcript).
I could almost forgive elements like this, but the next annoyance really affected my ability to learn. You see, I’m English, and I will admit that sometimes I find it difficult to listen to an American accent for a long period of time (that’s nothing personal – I’m sure the same happens in reverse). But the demonstrations and animations in these courses are recorded in an American monotone – and it doesn’t even seem to be human. After listening to a few of these, with misplaced paragraph breaks and identical pronunciation for recurring words, regardless of sentence structure and intonation (or lack of), they actually become very difficult to concentrate on. Towards the end of my revision I stopped working through entire courses and instead concentrated on the introductions, summaries, and making sure I could complete the puzzles and self tests at the end of each lesson – avoiding the computer-generated monotone entirely. By simply recording all of the demonstrations using a human voice (as most of the module introductions are) then a vast improvement could be made.
Then there are the animations – which are at best ugly and at worst confusing. Watching icons appear and disappear in a manner which at times appeared to be random whilst the computer was talking to me did not help at all. In the end, I nearly always resorted to reading the transcript.
Whilst the animations may be a design crime (as are many of the diagrams in Microsoft Official Curriculum courseware) even worst was the inaccuracy of some of the information presented – which shows it was produced by an outside agency (Element K) and sometime suffers from a lack of technical quality assurance.
Let me give some examples:
- Course 6519: one of the self-tests at the end of a lesson claims that NT 4.0 supports Kerberos (for that I would need Windows 2000 or later); and in the context of Active Directory database mounting, the module claims that one should “use a line printer daemon (LPD) utility, such as Active Directory Users and Computers, to view the data” (clearly LPD should have been LDAP…).
- Course 6521: one of the reviews claims that only Active Directory Lightweight Directory Services uses an extensible storage engine (ESE) for its database store – contradicting the text elsewhere in the module (as well as being incorrect); and a self test asked me to “identify the feature that AD LDS supports but AD LDS does not support” (!).
- Course 6524: .PIX files referred to in the text, whilst the demonstrations clearly showed that the extension is .PFX.
- Course 6536: claims that “Hyper-V is supported only by the Windows Server 2008 Standard 64-bit edition” (64-bit yes, standard edition only – certainly not).
- Course 6169: claims that “The various wireless networking standards are 802.11, 802.11b, 802.11a, 802.11g, 802.1X, and 802.11n” (802.1x is used for implementing network security but is not specifically a wireless networking standard).
There are typos too (sever instead of server, yes and no the wrong way around in test answers, etc.) as well as references to product names that have not existed since beta versions of Windows Server 2008 (e.g. Windows Server Virtualization). Other beta information has not been refreshed either – course 6529 refers to a 30-day grace period before Windows enters reduced functionality mode when it is actually 60 days (and RFM is much less brutal today than it was in the original versions of Windows Vista and early Windows Server 2008 betas). In another place, virtual machine (VM) snapshots are mixed up with volume shadow service (VSS) snapshots as the course suggests that VM snapshots are a backup and recovery solution (they most certainly are not!).
I could go on, but you get the message – almost every module has at least one glaring error. Mistakes like this mean that I cannot be 100% certain that what I have learned is correct – for that matter, how do I know that the Microsoft examinations themselves are not similarly flawed?
In the end, I don’t think it was just these courses that helped me pass the exams. Boot camps (and that’s what intense online training is the equivalent of) are all very well to cram information but they are no substitute for knowledge and experience. The outcome of running through these courses was a combination of:
- Refreshing long-forgotten skills and knowledge on some of the lesser-used functionality in Windows Server 2008.
- Updating skills for new features and functionality in Windows Server 2008.
Without several years’ of experience using the products I doubt that I would have known all of the answers to the exam questions – indeed I didn’t know them all (but the knowledge gained from the online training helped me to evaluate and assess the most likely of the presented options).
So, is this training worth it? Probably! Is it a complete answer to exam study and preparation? Possibly – but not through cramming 100 hours of training into a couple of weeks and expecting to retain all the knowledge. What these Microsoft e-Learning courses represent are a low cost substitute to formal, instructor-led classes. There are some downsides (for example, the lack of interaction and the poor quality control – instructor-led courses benefit from the feedback that the instructors provide to allow improvements at each revision) but they are also self-paced and the ability to go at my own speed means that, given sufficient time, I could work through a few of these each week and allow time for the knowledge to settle, backed up with some real-world experience. On that basis, they’re certainly worthy of a look but don’t expect them to provide all of the answers.
If you want to try one of the Microsoft E-Learning courses there are plenty available discounted (or even free). Afterwards, I’d be interested to hear what you think.