I know one reason why I’ve never met anyone who’s earned a perfect score on an IT certification exam. In addition to having to master considerable knowledge of a technology, candidates must deal with the fact that training providers and the vendor sponsoring the exam can’t always agree on correct answers to even the simplest of questions.

When discrepancies arise, it’s easy to immediately blame the company that built your training software. I found myself tempted to do just that last week when preparing this review of Serebra’s “Technology Based Training” (a combination of computer- and Web-based training). At that point, I could have easily written off this product.

Fortunately, I dug deeper into the discrepancy I found. I’m glad I did. Despite finding a glitch in Serebra’s Microsoft certification prep software, my initial impressions of the product proved valid: Serebra’s performance-oriented training tool may be perfect for those IT professionals seeking to strengthen specific weaknesses, especially from a hands-on standpoint.

Computer-based training that works
Classroom instruction is one thing; computer-based training is another. I think classroom training is effective because you usually have to set up a server, configure settings, administer network settings, create new users, configure new shares, etc. In other words, you are required to perform those procedures that the certification exam requires you to understand.

But not everyone has time to take a week away from work. Plus, classroom training can be prohibitively expensive for some organizations and individuals. Luckily, computer-based training has made advances.

Many early computer-based training programs offered simple scenarios, online reading, and multiple-choice tests. Serebra’s software includes many enhancements that emphasize interaction.

The software begins by having you complete a preassessment test. The goal is to eliminate those concepts you already understand and save you the time of studying them. When the training software kicks in after you’ve taken the preassessment test, you can go right to those topics you need to learn. You’ll find easy-to-read onscreen displays that describe and teach the different concepts, procedures, and elements you need to master. The training software makes excellent use of diagrams, and many bulleted items offer mouse-over features in which additional information can be displayed simply by highlighting the item in question.

Serebra’s training software is broken into courses (e.g., installing and upgrading Windows 2000 Server), which can be purchased for reasonable prices—most are less than $40. There are also discounted bundles. For example, the Windows 2000 Server bundle that covers exam 70-215 includes 13 courses but costs only $195. These courses contain practice tests at the end of each unit, which focus on specific topics such as planning for installation or performing unattended installations. The practice tests are beneficial because they provide immediate feedback as to whether you’ve mastered the concepts discussed in that unit.

Best of all, many of these questions force you to configure elements upon which the certification exam will test you. For example, there’s a mini-applet that tests your ability to delete a partition, create a new partition of a specific size, and specify that Windows 2000 Server should be installed in that partition. You have to perform the action properly as if you were actually installing Win2K. No multiple-choice question can mimic such a simulation.

Serebra likes to stress the performance-oriented nature of its training. You must demonstrate that you know the topic by performing the actual procedure using the real-world simulation screens.

At the end of each unit, you’ll find a postassessment exam. Your score can help you determine whether you’re ready for the real exam, where you’re likely to see many questions in the same format as the one you’ve already experienced using the Serebra courseware. For example, you’ll find that the CD includes multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, ordering, and drag-and-drop questions, as well as matching scenarios.

Compared to classroom training, Serebra’s TBT offers another appealing advantage. While everyone’s aware that you can study where and when you want with TBT tools, you can also purchase just those courses covering specific topics you need additional help on. No training center that I know of will let you purchase, say, just chapters five and eight out of their Win2K Server classroom binder, along with the accompanying lectures from the trainer.

One last feature provides additional value to the TBT CD: a search box. While it may sound as if it’s no big deal, being able to quickly search an entire course for a specific topic also simplifies using the TBT software as a reference resource once your studying is complete and your certification is in hand.

Why you should never use a single resource
When I first loaded Serebra’s MCSE Exam 70-215 – Installing, Configuring and Administering Windows 2000 Server bundle, I liked what I saw. Serebra has built excellent simulation questions into its assessment tests. Soon, though, I encountered two assessment questions I believed to be incorrect.

The first turned out to be my own fault, and I was wrong. I thought 128 MB of RAM was recommended for a Windows 2000 Server installation. It turns out that 256 MB is recommended. The Serebra courseware was correct.

The second question wasn’t so easy. In fact, it sent me on a wild goose chase. I soon found I was encountering the most maddening of all IT certification candidate crises: conflicting or confusing statements as to what constitutes a correct answer. It wasn’t until I’d conducted more research that I finally discovered the facts.

The question asked for the minimum amount of RAM a system must possess to install Windows 2000 Server. Serebra lists as its correct answer 64 MB. I thought that seemed too low. So I checked Microsoft’s Win2K Server Web page, which says 128 MB is supported, but 256 MB is recommended.

Trying to verify the minimum requirements quickly, I looked to a training book, the MCSE Windows 2000 Server Training Guide, from New Riders. It listed 256 MB of RAM as the minimum requirements for Win2K Server installation. Frustrated, I turned to Microsoft’s Windows 2000 Server Administrator’s Companion, which lists the minimum RAM requirement as 64 MB. Unfortunately, both of those books are wrong, and neither one of the errata I checked corrected their errors.

It turns out that the original Win2K Microsoft documentation listed 64 MB as the minimum RAM required, but 128 MB is the correct answer, which I verified with a little digging on Microsoft’s TechNet Web site.

Something as simple as finding the correct answer can sometimes be difficult. As a result, you should never approach an exam having studied only a single training resource. In the case of Serebra’s software, by itself, I don’t think the content covers enough ground to get you through an exam. However, it can supplement a self-paced training book or even classroom instruction well. Considering its cost, it’s a reasonable price to pay for a supplemental training tool.

Eckel’s take
It’s never a good idea to approach an exam having studied only one book or having taken a single class. I wouldn’t recommend trying a certification exam if you’ve completed only one online training session or finished just one CD-ROM course. IT exams, by design, encompass many procedures, facts, and concepts. As you saw from the minimum hardware requirements question above, it’s also an excellent idea to let a second training resource supplement and confirm those facts and concepts you have questions about.

Serebra, which offers a wide variety of online and TBT products, may offer the supplemental training resource you need. Unlike some training aids, you can purchase just those courses you want. Better yet, you can sample the wares before buying. Serebra offers free demonstration software on its site. Think of it as training a la carte with free samples to boot.