Remote learning

As the regional demand for qualified IT professionals continues to increase, training providers are examining new ways to deliver courses free from time, cost and location constraints

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  April 28, 2003

Regional skills|~||~||~|The regional IT skills crisis has sparked a significant amount of debate over the last few years. However, regional governments are now undertaking a range of initiatives designed to improve IT skills, while training providers and vendors are refining their teaching methodologies to deliver training courses free from geographical, cost and time constraints.

The deficit of skilled IT professionals can in many ways be considered a never-ending cycle because of the continuing technical developments in the IT industry. While vendors roll out new products and technologies with steady frequency, it takes a time for training providers to develop courses for these products and it takes yet more time for people to be certified in these tracks.

“There are more skilled professionals in the region, but the gap is not being closed because the rate of supply is slower than the demand,” confirms Melad Ghabrial, president & CEO, Synergy Professional Services.

There is, however, increasing evidence that the skills deficit in the region is shrinking. While local governments are upping their efforts to deliver IT skills within schools and universities, enterprises are recognising the important role skilled IT staff play in staying ahead of the competition. As such, the number of skilled professionals is growing annually.

“We see more and more demand for new technologies and specialisations because the younger generation already have a certain base knowledge of computing and network technology, so the level of training and certification is rising,” says Josef Miskulnig, managing director, Fast Lane.

“We’re seeing that there are many more highly skilled people in the region and there is much more development than there was two years ago,” adds Mark Heard, general manager of The Network Center.

Furthermore, enterprises are increasingly tying training demands to any new products or technology solutions that they purchase. “It’s almost a standard requirement in any customer’s bid that when they buy new equipment they want to be trained on it as well,” says Hani Nofal, technical manager, 3Com Middle East.

Despite this growing enthusiasm for education, regional attitudes towards training vary. While certain countries are taking a more proactive approach to improving their skills base, others are have not been so fast in developing initiatives. Ghabrial suggests countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar need to invest more seriously in educating individuals in IT practises, especially in light of the localisation plans of many Middle East countries.

“For these countries to see Saudisation or Emiratisation succeed they need to provide the right skills to people, otherwise, we will just be talking about it on paper, it will never happen,” he comments.

This is a view supported by Ali Derisavi, e-learning centre manager for New Horizons in Kuwait, who also suggests that the success of localisation initiatives is further complicated by the continuing developments and changes that occur within the IT and networking sector.

“When foreign companies come and operate in our local market, we [local companies] have to be more innovative and more dynamic… and when we are talking about innovation we are talking about better and more creative use of modern technology. [To achieve this] we need more qualified people to work in the IT field,” he explains.

However, other sources suggest that regional attitudes are changing and that localisation efforts are beginning to penetrate the national consciences. Alongside the initiatives of many regional governments, an increasing number of local citizens are choosing to remain in the region for further education or returning to the Middle East for jobs following training in the US or Europe.

“We are seeing a lot of local people coming from universities with a vested interest in working for an Arab company. They have invested in training and they are very keen to ensure that the localisation of the workforce continues,” says Jon Saunders, regional sales manager, Cisco Systems, Middle East.

In parallel with regional efforts to push IT skills into schools, vendors and training providers are also looking to encourage university students and post-graduates to continue their education and invest in IT specialisations, particularly within the networking space.

Although many of the region’s universities and colleges offer vendor certifications, training providers are keen to push the message that such courses represent an important step on the career ladder for participants.

“These [courses] are a continuation, the next stage [in the learning process] after college or university. Their degree is important, but having industry certifications becomes more essential if they are going to be working in a specific industry. Microsoft, Extreme and Cisco certifications all become more important when they are in the industry,” comments Heard.

Specialising in a particular technology or vendor is not only about gaining a generic knowledge of that field, or adding lines to you CV, it also provides up-to-date training on the latest developments and technologies released into the market.

Currently, vendors report that security, convergence and voice over IP are among the ‘hot courses’ requested and attended by students. “Specialisations in security, converged networking, voice/data over IP — these things are definitely in high demand. But even the basic levels – routing and switching, LAN connectivity, WAN connectivity – are in demand too,” affirms Ghabrial.

||**||E-learning|~||~||~|Alongside the growing demand for specialised networking courses, training providers and vendors are modifying their delivery channels to ensure that they are capable of providing anywhere, anytime training in a way that is cost-effective to both themselves and their customers.

3Com is among the vendors that have invested time and effort in developing an online learning platform for partners. The vendor’s initial certification programmes — 3Com Certified Solutions Associate and 3Com Certified Solutions Expert — are carried out through its 3Com University web site; while more advanced courses involve a mix of both instructor-led training and online testing.

“At the advanced level we have different tracks — there is the 3Com Solutions Wireless Specialist, 3Com Solutions LAN Specialist and the 3Com Certified Telephony Specialist… they have to attend a five day training course and… if they pass we give them an activation key that they can use to take the final test on the web,” says Nofal.

3Com says one of the reasons it is utilising the internet for training is the cost to its partners. Travelling to regional training providers can be both expensive and time consuming. As such, the web offers a platform for tackling both of these issues, without losing the intensity of the certification testing, claims the vendor.

Similarly, New Horizons’ Derisavi emphasises the cost effectiveness of online training: “With e-learning you get training when you need it. It is affordable training — affordable in time, location and cost,” he comments.

Furthermore, Derisavi believes that e-learning will continue to gain greater momentum as the IT savvy next generation carry out an increasing number of tasks online.

“Five years ago e-learning wouldn’t have been a very successful idea because the previous generation wasn’t as computer literate. Now when we talk about the investment in IT within schools, this means that the next generation is going to computer literate… They are going to be working through the internet to do most things — banking transactions or government issues — so why not do learning online as well?” he explains.

Despite the growing enthusiasm for e-learning courses, content and web sites, there is still a strong body of training providers that suggest there is no replacement for instructor-led training, particularly within the networking space.

“Once customers [or partners] go down the avenue of getting specific certification for a product, they need to understand the theories behind the product features, but they also need to have seen it [the product] and touched it. From that perspective instructor-led classes with the equipment and the labs are always going to be important no matter how much e-learning or remote training occurs,” states Heard.

According to Heard, almost every course that The Network Center runs for its partners, which include 3Com, NetScreen, Huawei Technologies and Extreme Networks, involves hands on training, with at least 50% of the course involving time on the equipment “doing troubleshooting, configurations and really getting familiar with the equipment,” he continues.

||**||Remote learning|~||~||~|However, the emergence of remote learning offers a compromise to the e-learning/instructor-led training debate by fusing elements of both. Synergy and Fast Lane are leading the regional momentum towards remote learning, with the former recently announcing that it has established a remote lab facility in Dubai Internet City’s e-hosting centre.

The two Cisco training partners are proponents of the blended approach to learning that encompasses a variety of training methodologies while providing students with 24x7 remote access to lab facilities.

“We believe that e-learning and distance training are the ways in which people will be educated in the future, but that doesn’t mean that instructor-led is going to disappear. For e-learning to become a reality there are a lot of components that have to be done in parallel. It is not just a matter of getting a course and putting its content on the web,” comments Ghabrial.

With remote learning, course participants access Cisco equipment via the internet either during specified classroom instructor-led sessions or during their own time if they wish to polish up their skills.

“Whenever they need to have access to the products they can work through the internet, they don’t have to have the equipment onsite,” explains Ghabrial.

Although Ghabrial says that students can access the lab from any location, be it their home, office or a lab, using a normal dial up link, Fast Lane’s Miskulnig admits there can bandwidth issues with the remote learning set up.

“To have remote lab facilities you need to have reliable fast internet access, which is not provided in all parts of the world,” he comments. “How you set up your remote lab is also critical because performance response time is a big issue and you can upset your students if they have to struggle or waste time in trying to access equipment, rather than practising their exercises during the lab time,” Miskulnig continues.

Some sources have lamented on the fact that remote learning does not enable students to physically touch or handle products, and Miskulnig concedes that this can be an issue in the early days of training. However, he suggests that in terms of the actual training there is no real difference whether the equipment is within touching distance or 1000s of miles away.

“For the students it [remote learning] is transparent because they are still working on the live equipment. If it is set up in a proper way and executed in a proper way the student won’t realise the difference between using a remote lab and a lab next door,” Miskulnig says.

“It is normal practise to access the equipment through a management console… because to configure, run and maintain network equipment you don’t need to see, feel or touch it,” he adds.

Despite these concerns, training providers look set to continue with the remote learning model for network courses. Not only does the concept bridge the gap between e-learning and instructor-led training, but it is also a cost-effective way for the training providers to deliver equipment-intensive courses to a broader spectrum of people. Remote learning negates the need for them to transport heavy equipment in and out of countries; instead they just have to dispatch instructors.

“It’s specifically in the [networking] arena that training is going this way. For the simple reason that the high level classes require an enormous investment in terms of lab facilities,” explains Miskulnig.||**||

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