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School of Hard Knocks - IT Certification Bootcamps Go Bust As E-learning Advances
By   Ben Ice

In December 2009, thousands of IT students received a nasty holiday surprise as leading IT certification bootcamp providers ComputerTraining.edu and Vigilar's Intense School suddenly announced they were going out of business, effective immediately.

Online IT forums flooded with panicked posters desperate to determine whether they would be able to continue their coursework and obtain refunds for training they'd never receive. Many posts took on a tragic tone as concerned colleagues and other training firms lamented the fate of the victims. "The worst are the clients who have bought classes that will not be delivered or clients who have bought a large quantity of vouchers worth absolutely nothing, some of them losing their yearly training budget. This is the tragedy in all of this," stated Sondra J. Schneider, the founder and CEO of Security University. It appears both training firms may have fallen victim to the ongoing credit crunch.

Although the suddenness of the announcements came as a shock, industry insiders were not surprised that investors and banks abandoned training programs based on antiquated business models. Many noted that although expensive classroom instruction was once the primary option for IT certification, elearning has replaced it as firms focus on cost-efficiency and increased ROI. For organizations struggling to do more with less for the foreseeable future, e-learning advancements may even represent the difference between potential growth and stagnation.

Are Classroom Bootcamps Worth the Risk?

There's no denying the value classroom training bootcamps have provided the IT industry. Courses are usually led by highly qualified subject experts. Students receive attention in small to moderate sized groups. Ideally, their focus is not diverted from the subject by outside distractions and competing job duties. Although some executives continue to view classroom training bootcamps favorably, the exorbitant cost is unfortunately becoming a luxury few organizations can now justify. Training firms that continue to count on luxury spending in 2010 will undoubtedly struggle and fail.

Although companies still rely on quality IT certification training, only 48% of the IT certification courses conducted in 2009 occurred via traditional instructor-led classroom-based training. (1) In 1999, that figure was 71%. In 2010, only the training firms that offer a variety of affordable e-learning alternatives can be expected to survive.

Vetting IT Certification Bootcamp Providers

In the wake of the closings of bootcamp providers ComputerTraining.edu and Vigilar, IT bootcamps may pose a significant investment risk. Since courses are often paid for weeks or even months in advance, and the training firm's financial records are not common knowledge, there's no way to anticipate where the ax could fall next. Even training institutions that appear to be thriving could be in trouble.

For example, Vigilar's Intense School advertised a 95% pass rate on exams. The company's website continued to post news of awards and achievements during the months before the school's closing, including an appearance by school representatives on the Today Show. News that the school had been named a finalist in the 2010 SC Awards for outstanding achievement in IT security came mere days before the Intense School closed its doors for good.

Statistics like these prove that there is no foolproof way to vet IT certification bootcamp providers in today's economic climate. Unlike e-learning products that can be provided immediately upon payment, bootcamp courses are usually scheduled in advance, increasing the risk of loss if the company's fortunes fade quickly. In a statement posted on the company's website, ComputerTraining.edu representatives claimed to have been shut down by BB&T Bank "with no forewarning or notice.

Several training providers have offered to provide similar courses for free or at a reduced cost to Vigilar and ComputerTraining.edu students. Clients can also contact their state educational regulators to try to recoup some of their lost investment. Many remain hopeful, but these limited and often inconvenient options just aren't good enough. IT executives are wary of becoming overly dependent on training programs wedded to outdated business models and fearful of bootcamp failures derailing their own training objectives.

Relying on Bootcamp Guarantees?

Before bootcamps began closing, the principal risk associated with purchasing the courses involved paying significant upfront fees only to have poorly prepared students later fail the exams. Of course, classroom bootcamp vendors offer satisfaction guarantees to help you mitigate your investment risk. But how often are those guarantees actually implemented? Take this example: Employee A fails to pass the PMPcertification exam after you've paid $1900* (plus travel expenses) for the 4-day classroom test prep course. You request a refund from the vendor, but you are only eligible for an initial refund of $275, and your employee must take the exam again within the next 30 days to be eligible for any additional funds.

In fact, IT training vendor PMStudy maintains a refund policy that requires students to fail the PMP exam three times before the company will refund the entire course price - and that refund only applies if the student took the first exam within 30 days after the bootcamp and makes each subsequent attempt within the next 30 days, and the next 30 days, and so on...

So although you could potentially recoup your entire investment in this scenario, the process won't exactly be painless. And, of course, you won't be able to recoup lost travel fees, the price of accommodations, or the employee's lost time away from work while he was attending the bootcamp.

What's the E-Learning Cost Comparison?

Using our previous example, suppose that Employee A decides to forego the $1900 bootcamp and instead selects a comprehensive PMP exam prep package** from the same vendor, only this time in an e-learning format. The cost savings? At least $1500, and possibly more, since many e-learning vendors provide a variety of packages that allow employees to receive only the materials they actually need. Add in fees for travel, accommodations, and lost work hours, and the numbers can change from red to black in a hurry.

How Much Time Can You Save with E-Learning?

Since e-learning programs allow students to study at their own pace, employers control the amount of time lost during the workweek. Some employees are permitted to study solely during non-working hours, while others enjoy study periods during any downtime that occurs throughout the workday. Unlike classroom training, e-learning is flexible, so employees and employers have the power to determine when studying should occur. Unfortunately, many employers are now short-staffed due to the recession, so they can't often spare key employees for offsite bootcamp courses.

E-learning affords businesses the opportunity to enhance the skills of their core workforce without sacrificing employee productivity. Contrary to popular belief, computer-based training also actually requires less time than instructor-led training. The time required to complete an e-learning course ranges by an average of 40-60%, with some students spending up to 80% less time on coursework. (2)

How Easy Are E-Learning Courses to Use?

Many e-learning vendors provide courses that appeal to several senses by integrating text, graphics, and audio features. This inclusion is critical, since most educators believe that students what they hear and see.

IT employees often prefer e-learning formats since they allow them to experience course materials in the format in which they are already most comfortable. Ask any IT worker whether he'd prefer to sit in a classroom with other students listening to a lecture or participate in a self-paced computer-based course.
You probably won't be surprised by his answer.

What's the Value of a Self-Assessment?

Self-assessments are one of the most unique features of any quality e-learning program. Students can take a pre-test before they even begin studying in order to gauge their strengths and weaknesses. This feature enables students to proceed with a program customized to meet their needs. Many are often surprised by the results, unaware of how much or how little they actually know about certain subject areas. By obtaining this information ahead of time, the student can then tailor his program to focus on the areas in which he needs the most assistance instead of wasting it on areas he may have already mastered. Self-assessments were created specifically to address the frustration many students experience by one-size-fits-all classroom or self-study courses that give equal weight to all course material regardless of the skill level or experience of the individual student.

How Does E-Learning Reduce Test Anxiety?

One of the most common obstacles experienced by potential test-takers in any field is classic test anxiety. Forcing an anxious employee to participate in a classroom setting can only exacerbate this problem.

Allowing students to study alone and take practice tests in the format they'll actually use for the examination can go a long way toward reducing their anxiety. Taking advantage of e-learning products that offer self assessment features are also helpful, since they give students immediate feedback on their progress.

Computer-based pre-tests can reassure students who are unsure of their abilities. Many are pleasantly surprised to learn they have already mastered certain areas of the exam. Even providing guidance on the areas in which they should focus can have a calming effect. Most importantly, e-learning affords test anxiety sufferers the comfort of studying and learning in private, and based on their own schedule.

Using E-learning to Standardize Staff Skill Levels

One of the most popular features of e-learning is the ability to use the medium across a large and diverse group of employees. In the past, the prohibitive cost of classroom bootcamps and accompanying travel requirements often led employers to select only a few choice staff members for IT certification training. Unfortunately, those decisions also meant that large numbers of IT staff remained uncertified and unfairly dependent on the lucky few who had received formal training. Since untrained staff members tend to underutilize existing technology, additional technical resources were routinely wasted, something no organization needs, especially in the midst of a struggling
economy.

Industry studies show that Microsoft certified teams are 28% more productive, and teams in which more than half of the team members are Microsoft certified demonstrate a 15-17% improvement in job capabilities.(3)

What Types of E-Learning Formats Are Available?

One of the strengths of the e-learning industry has been its acknowledgment that no two students learn in the same way. Elearning vendors know that Employee A prefers CBT training, but Employee B learns best by listening to audio courses during his commute, and Employee C just wants to take as many practice tests as humanly possible. Video, audio, and CBT options abound, as do more traditional workbook and textbook alternatives. Students can choose individual products or select a combination of tools in order to maximize their learning potential and improve their chances of passing certification exams on the first attempt. Computer based reporting features and constant feedback further validate their progress.

Conclusion

The sudden insolvency of two reputable and respected IT certification training firms has given the entire industry a reason to re-evaluate its training methods. As classroom bootcamp training becomes less of a standard and more of a luxury, e-learning presents a cost-effective alternative for organizations looking to do less with more, and do it quickly. Utilizing e-learning programs enables a global workforce to enhance skill sets without expensive travel and inconvenient scheduling headaches. Staff productivity levels are preserved, and learning becomes more individualized as students choose from a variety of video, audio, and CBT learning formats. Employees prefer the adaptability of e-learning. It reduces test anxiety and provides invaluable and immediate, student-specific feedback that can't often be duplicated in a classroom setting. Paid certification opportunities can certainly help you lure and retain the best and brightest technical minds, but providing these benefits to your workforce doesn't have to fracture your firm's bottom line. Utilize e-learning alternatives to strengthen your workforce while enjoying increased productivity and elevated employee morale.

Notes

*Actual 12/09 online cost of PM Study's 4-day PMP Bootcamp
**Actual 12/09 online cost of PMP Training: 40 PMI contact hours,* 4 Simulated Practice Tests,
Guides and Chapter Tests on all Knowledge Areas
(1) "Learning's Reinvention Jumpstarted by Tough Economy," Catherine Upton, Group Publisher
of Elearning! and Government Elearning! magazines, January 2010
(2) Hall, B., Web-Based Training Cookbook
(3) "Value of Certification: Team Certification and Organizational Performance," IDCWhite
Paper, November 2006.

Ben Ice is the Editor of The Cert Times and the Marketing Manager for ExamForce, a division of LearnForce Partners LLC.

For more information on ExamForce's IT certification e-learning products, please visit http://www.examforce.com

To request a FREE Exam Prep Software Bundle, go to http://www.examforce.com/customer/special15.php?sid=1106

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