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Technology Training in a Virtual Landscape

Scott McFall of ProTech discusses the shift to virtual IT training, how to effectively measure online learning and the future of virtual training

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By now, we’ve all become used to all things virtual. Our meetings, happy hours and family gatherings have all been taking place online. With life still moving forward, effective technology trainings are among other important matters that have moved to virtual.
 
While the popularity of live virtual training and learning had been steadily on the rise in recent years, COVID-19 has forced it into regular use. As this occurred, Scott McFall, vice president of Business Development at ProTech acquired valuable insight into all things virtual training: advantages, limitations, resources and where virtual training is headed in the future.

Entering a Virtual Workforce

The mainframe skills shortage and lack of computer science graduates holding mainframe skills has spawned a resurgence of past trends—specifically, mainframe new-hire bootcamps. ProTech has also seen an influx of interest from people that aren’t necessarily computer scientists as they enter the field. Those who are logical and analytical are being recruited into becoming mainframe professionals, regardless of their background.
 
Virtual training has been essential in this process, as multi-week programs have become increasingly popular to train these young professionals that aren’t trained in computer science.
 
“Graduates with physics degrees, people with any kind of science degree, are always very attractive—anything that's very analytical or detail oriented—so they're recruiting these folks and running them through these bootcamps that were sort of dusted off and revitalized for the modern age,” notes McFall.
 
With so many new, and sometimes inexperienced, programmers looking to enter the field, proper training has become essential. Large efforts are being made across the industry to ensure workers are properly trained for the industry, such as ProTech’s partner Broadcom’s Mainframe Vitality Program.
 
With virtual options becoming more common and useful, it’s important for consumers and companies alike to understand how to maneuver this changing field to get the most out of their virtual experience.

Understanding the Pros and Cons of Virtual

These virtual training sessions hold many advantages. Since there’s no need for traveling, virtual training is a lower cost option to in-person training, which is attractive to many people. It also allows training to happen simultaneously around the world, and helps reach a broader audience.
 
McFall has seen the implementation of virtual training to be an advantage to ProTech and its customers, allowing for the ability to provide training virtually around the world. “It's common for us to have a breakdown of mainframe students from across not only all of the country but often even all over the world—Europe, Asia, India. The time zones can be challenging but a lot of times you can usually find a time slot that accommodates everybody in the class,” says McFall. “Another thing that's logistically favorable is that rather than trying to fly everybody all together, with virtual we have the ability to confirm classes with students online.”
 
ProTech also offers courses that are Guaranteed to Run (GTR). This means that the course is confirmed and will not be cancelled or rescheduled. Courses can run with as little as one or two students.
 
But there are some downfalls of virtual training to consider. By turning to online sessions, it’s harder to build a sense of community, and some valuable interactions between students and their instructors are lost.
 
“The primary disadvantage to virtual is losing that sort of student/instructor interaction. When I would go off to a training class back in the day, I always enjoyed those side conversations that were between the lecture, between the lab, and even something as simple as going out to lunch with the instructor and learning about all of his experiences and picking his brain,” McFall says.
 
This downfall is very small, however, and doesn’t affect the overall course in a significant way. When looking at their Likert scores (a questionnaire surveying users’ satisfaction and attitudes) on course evaluations, ProTech found that their in-person courses came in at 4.45 overall, on a 5.0 point scale. Their virtual courses were rated a 4.44 overall, making the satisfaction between the two miniscule.

Ensuring Training Effectiveness

Despite Likert scores showing little difference between in-person and virtual training, many customers’ main concern is the effectiveness of the virtual courses. There are a lot of assumptions about virtual training paling in comparison to traditional in-person instruction, especially in highly technical fields.
 
To assure their customers and to guarantee that the lessons are productive, ProTech has developed several benchmarks to test progress, similar to those found in schools. “We write our own tests, our own quizzes and our own exams. We've also developed capstone projects that customers or students work on. They work with exams, reviews and capstone projects and to some degree there are still some on-line third-party products you could use to evaluate customer skills,” says McFall. “We sort of wrapped solutions into all of those and use those to measure effectiveness of training.”
 
Using quizzes, exams, projects and other assignments, ProTech has been able to keep track of learning progress in courses, tackling concerns regarding course effectiveness that comes up most often with potential customers.

Balancing Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning

Crafting a productive work environment is key for a successful virtual training class. McFall recommends taking the blended learning approach, combining self-paced and live instruction.
 
IT managers often make the mistake of thinking that self-paced courses replace all training, forgetting about live synchronous instruction altogether. According to McFall, the issue is that self-paced learning usually isn’t always the most effective way to run training.
 
 “One of the things we see customers make the mistake of is that they buy the license for the self-paced training. They send the links out to their students and they say, ‘Do this and do it on your own time, do it at home.’ We all know that nobody is going to do it right? They start it maybe, but do they finish it?” McFall adds.
 
To avoid this mistake, McFall recommends using self-paced and instructor-led training in tandem. He suggests using self-paced modules for level setting, prerequisites and homework assignments. Then, labs and classes can be held live with an instructor.
 
Blending virtual and live instruction helps keep the students engaged in their learning and makes the environment more productive. Including synchronous classes also provides some social interaction that many have missed since going virtual.
 
“This way if you blend it and make it part of an event, it becomes not only more engaging and interactive with other humans and things going on but you're also walking them through it so you're engaging them throughout the content,” says McFall.

The Future of Virtual Learning

Since the pandemic has made virtual learning and training a necessity, it begs the question “What about when the pandemic is over?” Interest in live virtual courses had already been growing in the past years, so it was already becoming popular, even without a pandemic, according to McFall.
 
He believes the popularity of virtual courses will continue to grow, now that people have gotten a chance to experience them. This past year has dispelled a lot of the skepticism people had about virtual training, like how engaging and effective it is.
 
“I think there will be less hesitation for customers to consider virtual training,” says McFall. “We always had to sell it a little bit and bring out those metrics of 4.44 and 4.45 and explain that it's really not that different and that there are break-out groups and hands-on labs, student and instructor interaction online. I don't think we'll have to dispel that anymore.”
 
While in-person events and trainings may begin to open up again, virtual courses will remain a great option for many. Between cost efficiency, elimination of traveling, and ease of use, virtual courses can be a convenient way to orient students with a new job or technology.

Top Tools for Virtual Training 

  • Interskill Learning: A synchronous training partner of ProTech, Interskill Learning is the worldwide leading provider of virtual self-paced training for the IBM mainframe computing industry. 
  • Coursera: Coursera is an online course provider offering classes in a variety of subjects. Here, people can get certifications, specializations and even degrees. It’s a great training resource with a lot of options. 
  • Open Mainframe Project: Open Mainframe Project offers training courses on various computing software, including Linux and COBOL.
  • Virtual Pair Programmers: This company offers video courses that train programmers and developers on several programs. They specialize in Java and are the largest. E-learning platform for it.
  • YouTube: YouTube is a great, free resource that’s extremely accessible. While there is some incorrect information out there to watch for, training videos on the platform can be useful and convenient. 
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