Video provides a good alternative for MCSE certification training

Choices abound when it comes to picking training materials in pursuit of an MCSE. Peter Parsons shows you how video courses from CBT and LearnKey can help provide good training alternatives.

The options for MCSE certification training are extensive, and the best method for study is almost certainly a combination of books, classes, and even boot camps. There’s really nothing to it, is there? Well, except for a few minor details, such as your employer’s not footing the bill, your savings are nil, your calendar is solidly blocked out through your next two birthdays, and how could you possibly decide which books, classes, and boot camps are right for you anyway?

Resist the urge to feel beaten before you’ve even begun. Take a step in the right direction and towards MCSE certification by considering video training as a viable—and in some cases preferable—method of study. In this Daily Drill Down, I will show you how video training can help enhance your MCSE preparation by taking a look at two offerings from CBT and LearnKey.

Why should I consider video training?
If you’re pursuing a self-study Windows 2000 MCSE certification (or any other self-study cert, for that matter), then you already know about the reams of doorstep-size books that come as part of the coursework. The tomes for the core exams alone are enough to cause a panic attack and perhaps even a change of career altogether.

If you are fortunate enough to have a deep-pocketed employer or a long-lost oil tycoon for an uncle who will fund several thousand dollars worth of IT training courses, then you are one of the lucky ones. The limits of training funds and time, being as they are, depressingly visible, I nevertheless refused to accept that books and the Web were my only sources of knowledge. What I was after was something akin to a live classroom session, but much cheaper while still being equally effective. So it came as a welcome break to discover some great additions to the prescribed paper-based courseware.

Enter the movies, er…videos, actually. They say a picture can paint a thousand words. If this is the case, then a movie not only paints millions of words but also breathes life into them through movement and sound—a most inspiring notion when it comes to IT. When I talk about videos, I don’t mean the kind that you need a VCR for. Rather, I’m referring to full-motion video distributed on CD that you can use in conjunction with other programs to assist you in your training.

Although I knew there were many video offerings to be had via the Web, upon trawling the medium, I was amazed at just how much material there is out there and the differences in price among the many products that I found. I started by downloading some demos from various vendors. These initial forays surprised me; some were excellent, others much less so—and that’s being diplomatic. Doubtless some of you have had similar experiences.

I decided to narrow my quest by searching for positive comments from some quality sites dealing with IT certification and career progression. Then I pinpointed what I felt were the two most promising products: CBT Nuggets and LearnKey’s MCSE Sessions With Aaron Spurlock. These two companies generously offered to supply me with samples of their MCSE products so that I would evaluate them and share my findings with you (and them). While CBT Nuggets supplied me with an entire set of Windows 2000 MCSE course videos, LearnKey sent me only the Windows 2000 Server course (exam 70-215). Thus, for the purposes of this article, I will focus on the Windows 2000 Server course.

The immediate and most noticeable difference between the products is that the CBT Nuggets courses are contained on one CD-ROM each, whereas there were five CD-ROMs for LearnKey’s Win2K Server course alone. Never one to prejudge quantity over quality, I quickly got down to a thorough diagnosis of these two products, starting with CBT Nuggets.

CBT Nuggets
The CBT Nuggets videos are accessed by a simple Flash panel, which will autorun when you insert the CD. This Flash menu (check out the fish!) offers an introduction and the main videos, all split by topic. The videos themselves are viewed in Windows Media Player, which offers the Stop, Pause, and Play buttons. If you need to get to a precise place in the video, you have to use the slider.

Dan Charbonneau, an MCT since 1997, hosts the video sessions. He also holds Novell CNE and Cisco’s CCNA certifications. He has taught MCSE classes since 1998 and has his own consulting firm, which counts the city of Minneapolis among its clients. Obviously, Charbonneau is extremely knowledgeable about his subject. His presentation is amiable, clear, concise, and, most importantly, accurate. Typically, Charbonneau introduces a topic and uses a virtual whiteboard to illustrate theory principles and draw diagrams to clarify. I especially liked this approach because it really felt like I was sitting in a classroom having a one-to-one lesson. On more than one occasion, Charbonneau brought to light various points and issues that are not covered in the Microsoft Press 70-215 course book.

Following these explanatory intros, Charbonneau moves on to demonstrations, using his own lab network to illustrate his points. The sessions on Permissions and the Windows 2000 Boot Process, among others, are outstanding.

When it comes to price, the CBT Nuggets videos are extremely competitive. At the time of writing, the entire set of seven MCSE videos was available for $399. This set includes videos for these Microsoft exams: 70-210, 70-215, 70-216, 70-217, 70-219, 70-220, and 70-221. Alternatively, you can buy single course CD-ROMs for $99 each. CBT Nuggets also offers another useful product, namely, the entire set of MCSE course videos for Windows NT 4 and Windows 2000 combined. Seeing as there are still a lot of hybrid networks out there, this could be a good choice, as well. The complete reference will save on shelf space, and you can have a celebratory book burning party to boot!

LearnKey's solution
LearnKey’s product is a different beast altogether. For starters, the five CD-ROMs do not contain a series of individual videos as such. Rather, the LearnKey product is an actual piece of software to be installed on your machine, entailing a reboot and all. Upon cranking up the software, the first thing you need to do is register a username and password.

A word of caution here: I did test installations on my desktop and laptop, and I got some weird screen positioning of the username and password fields on my laptop. No amount of tweaking the resolution altered this. I didn’t have this issue on my desktop (even at the same resolution). Still, this is more of an observation than a major problem.

LearnKey’s five CDs are split into Windows 2000 Server topics, and to view the videos, you have to have the CD inserted in the drive. I did not find a way to transfer everything from CD onto a hard drive, as I was able to with the CBT Nuggets product (albeit in exchange for the thick end of 600-700 MB of hard drive space per CD). This may be a problem, depending on your setup. If you’re doing some work on the go, you will need to have the LearnKey CDs with you in order to use them.

The interface itself is quite slick, with topic buttons to take you to the various sections. Due to the material being CD-ROM-based, there are frequent breaks with a “One moment please” pop-up message in the viewing screen. This is slightly annoying, especially since it wouldn’t happen if the software could be copied to the hard drive.

There are also three buttons labeled Test, Challenge, and Directory that are worth discussing. The Directory button simply allows you to jump between sections, as there are no forward or rewind buttons. The Test button offers 50-question pre-session and post-session tests so you can compare your levels of understanding before and after the tuition videos. This is a really neat feature of this product, but the nature of the questions is aimed more at confidence building than anything else, because they seldom relate to the real world and, therefore, are less indicative of the questions you will face on the certification exam.

Something else that attracted my attention within the Challenge section is that there are simulations that must be completed by a series of clicks. An objective is defined (for instance, configuring some elements of a console snap-in), and you must complete the objective in a hands-on, practical challenge. This makes for excellent practice and offers learners the chance to familiarize themselves with the Windows 2000 Server interface.

The only irritating thing I found with the simulations was that if you don’t click the sequence exactly as it is programmed in the software, it takes you right on to the next question, rather than back to the beginning of the one you’re trying to get right. Very puzzling! However, it is better than nothing, especially if you don’t have access to a small network test lab.

Aaron Spurlock, MCSE, hosts the actual video sessions. Spurlock is a well-known trainer who holds multiple certifications, including CNI, CNE, MCSE, and MCSE+I. He has produced training materials for NetWare, as well as Windows. Spurlock’s approach is friendly, and his level of knowledge is beyond reproach, so accuracy is not a concern. I would describe Spurlock’s presentation as enthusiastic, to say the least, which can be very motivating when you’re trying to get your mind around various difficult concepts. Spurlock uses a mixture of on-camera shots, PowerPoint slides, and practical demos to teach the material.

While I appreciate the efficiency of using PowerPoint to carry across ideas, it is sometimes a little impersonal, bordering on repetitive, especially considering that each CD contains around 1-1.5 hours of material. I preferred CBT Nuggets’ use of the whiteboard, even if it was a little rough around the edges by comparison. Although Spurlock’s explanations are accurate, Charbonneau’s are not only accurate but also crystal clear. Charbonneau has a knack for explaining topics using very few words. I can imagine that those new to Windows 2000 (whether they are old hands at NT4 or not) will benefit from Charbonneau’s explanations. Having said that, Spurlock’s sessions on disk management and fault tolerance stood out for their excellence. The few animated demos in the PowerPoint slides were effective, especially the one illustrating disk striping in action.

LearnKey’s price may give you a bit of sticker shock. For the full-blown Windows 2000 MCSE classic edition, which includes 31 sessions and 93 hours of training, you’ll have to pay $3,350. The basic course that I mentioned here has a list price of $615.

Decisions, decisions
So, faced with the task of making a choice, which of these two products should you go for? Both products have their strengths and weaknesses. They both offer a lot of flexibility in terms of when and where you can study. Both products are strong enough that if you must chose between them, you could base your decision on your available budget and still sleep at night.

Remember that the two products are very different, and this is reflected in their price. If you already have books but want supplemental materials and have a good grasp on the fundamentals of the Windows NT family, then the CBT Nuggets sessions will probably be sufficient. If you want more interaction and feel you need more than a library of technical videos, then LearnKey’s solution might be the best choice for you, because you’ll be able to take advantage of features like the Challenge exercises.

Whatever you decide, be aware that neither of these products is going to let you get away with no reading whatsoever. Remember, too, that these are not the only products of this type on the market; however, according to my research, they are among the best. You should also look around for practice tests for the MCSE program. There are numerous sites out there that offer free online testing, not to mention vendors that sell test-question packages.

In the end, of course, knowing the material well enough to ace the exam is the ultimate goal. I had the benefit of being able to use both products for my studies, and I can assure you that they both played an important role in my 900 score on the 70-215 exam.

The key to succeeding on the certification exams is to make sure that your test preparation is well rounded and that your sources help you to enjoy the learning process. I know there are many Microsoft-certified technicians who groan at the thought of having to recycle their skills, not only because of time and money but also because of a lack of motivation. Using a mixture of learning materials and methods will make that uphill climb seem a lot more manageable.

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