ZDU offers online Windows 2000 training, along with plenty of other topics, but this reviewer still prefers that personal touch when he learns.

An Online Education

ZDU offers online Windows 2000 training, along with plenty of other topics, but this reviewer still prefers that personal touch when he learns.

There may be a hundred reasons why distance learning is right for you—so kick back and let me take you on a little journey into the realm of Windows 2000 electronic learning via ZDU. But first, my bias: I’m an instructor myself, and over the last 12 years I’ve given and sat through many courses, none of them online.

ZD University (part of ZD Education, which until recently was owned by Ziff-Davis, Inc. and is now about to be acquired by U.S. Equity Partners, LP) offers a variety of online courses not limited to the computer field. ZDU organizes its training into three “libraries:” computer professional (evaluated here), business skills, and personal computing. Access to each requires a separate subscription, although the more you sign up for, the bigger your discount on each. Once you’ve obtained a user name and password and signed in, you can pick from a variety of technical courses—everything from the basic “Upgrading my PC” to higher-end programming classes like “Visual InterDev” or “Advanced Java.” My interest was focused on Win2K courses for this review, and these are offered under three major subcategories: Windows 2000 Installation and Administration and Windows 2000 System Support, which are self-study courses, and Windows 2000 Professional, which includes instructor-led courses.

Product Information
ZD University
$365 for a year’s access to the computer professional library as a single user; $125 more for access to the business library as well. Multi-employee discounts range from 10 to 50 percent.

Structured after a traditional university environment, the home page offers many student services you’ll recognize from your beer-guzzling days in college, including a course catalog and an automated learning advisor that offers assessment exams to help you determine which self-study course to take or predefined track of courses to pursue. Unfortunately, only a limited number of courses have assessments, and there were none for Win2K. The online store will sell you the required courseware for any instructor-led courses you take. The Student Union is nothing more then a series of message boards, (powered by O’Reilly WebBoard), called “lounges,” where you can interact with other students. The Resource Center gives you access to Books24x7, one of the most useful parts of this site. Just like the school library, Books24x7 gives you online access to a complement of full electronic versions of technical books from a variety of publishing houses. You can select a book for placement on a personalized “bookshelf” for later access and place a bookmark on a page while reading so you can pick up later where you left off. Finally, Student Services is where you can view your online transcript and change your login profile options.

The Self-Study Route

If you prefer to go through a course at your own pace and don’t care much for structured reading assignments or homework, then the self-study courses are for you. A quick setup option downloads the latest version of Macromedia’s Shockwave applet to perform interactive exercises.

Each course is usually divided into three lessons. Each lesson covers a set of objectives and is structured like a slideshow, with each slide introducing a different concept. These concepts are illustrated through summary charts or interactive activities. Interspersed throughout and at the end of each lesson are quizzes for reinforcing the concepts.

I found the technical content to be quite good and accurate with concepts easily digestible. Numerous interactive exercises are accessible through the “Activity” button. Most activities are Shockwave “interactives” that have the look and feel of the Win2K desktop, replete with working menus, dialog boxes, and applets. Of the various interactive tools offered in the lessons, these simulation activities will probably be of the most use to you, especially if you lack a PC running a live copy of Win2K on which to practice the concepts being taught. Figure 1 shows an example of a simulation activity.

Figure 1. Simulation activities in ZDU courses let you work on Win2K chores without having the software installed on a machine.

The lessons themselves are fairly short—usually from 8 to 14 slides. At the end of each lesson is a two-question wrap-up quiz that’s not very challenging. There simply aren’t enough questions to accurately assess what you’ve learned.

Some lessons also have dynamic content that steps you though a task. These aren’t interactive—the demos take you through a series of graphics that illustrate how to perform the task.

Other activities walk you through Win2K dialog boxes by having you move your mouse cursor over an item so that a brief explanation pops up. These appear to be verbatim explanations of the context-sensitive help you would see in Win2K dialog boxes. Win2K technical tips are also offered throughout the lessons.

One feature I found useful was progress tracking. The site remembers not only what courses you’ve already completed but also where you left off in the course in progress. Whenever you navigate to the training program’s main page, there are links available for you to jump right back in mid-instruction.

Upon completing all lessons in a course, a review screen appears that gives you the option of reviewing each lesson. Other links to allow you to go to the next course or pick a course from the catalog don’t appear to work.

Instructor-Led of Sorts

Since none of the Win2K instructor-led courses were available at the time of this writing, I enrolled in a two-month Windows NT 4.0 system administration class. The course has eight lessons, one for each week. You must purchase a textbook from the online store to do reading assignments. I decided to join a class in progress in “audit” mode and to gather feedback unobtrusively from the class by reading archived student and instructor messages.

It’s a misnomer to use the term “instructor-led” here. It should really be “instructor-facilitated,” since no live interaction with the instructor takes place. I would define a truly instructor-led online course as one where the teacher interactively leads the class in an online lecture either through a live Webcast video session or prerecorded video file. At the very least, the courses could offer real-time chats, where the students and instructor can interact. The ZDU version is nothing more than predefined reading assignments, quizzes, and homework facilitated by the instructor via message boards.

The instructor also designates “field trips” for the students to go on. These are Internet URLs that the student should navigate to and report back on. For the first class field trip we were advised to go to www.microsoft.com/windows/server with the following instructions:

Take a look at this site and find out what you can about the new version of Windows NT coming out. Windows 2000 comes in different forms. Find out what they are.

Class Discussion Questions
1. What is the most exciting feature in Windows 2000?
2. Do you see any similarities with Novell NetWare?
3. Will you switch to Windows 2000? Why or why not?

I thought this field trip was a little too advanced for someone who was supposedly just learning about NT systems administration.

An online quiz for each lesson is provided strictly for self-assessment purposes. The instructor posts the answers so you can check your work. I wasn’t impressed with the instructor who led this course. His answers were short, vague, and sometimes technically inaccurate. (The grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors come from the instructor himself.) For example:

1. How can you increase the security of the administrator account?

A: Create two new admin accounts using ordinary names (like Roberta or Erin or not ordinary like Jebadiah) the longer the better. Give these new accounts full admin rights by putting them in the Admin and Domain Admin group (we will do this in week three). Then remove all the rights to the ADMINISTRATOR account. This will really steam up anyone one breaks into the Admin account, they won’t have any access after all that work. Then they have to try to guess which account is the real admin account then break that password. I would keep one admin account for general use and lock the other account logon name and password in the company vault. Tell the president (or the like) that if there is ever any problem with the network there is an emergency admin account in a sealed envelope in the safe.

This is technically inaccurate. You can’t take away the power of the Administrator account. You can rename the account so that a potential hacker would have a hard time guessing which account is the omnipotent admin, but you can’t render the admin account impotent.

6. How can you create a “secret” share so that nobody can see it but people who have the name and rights can attach to it?

A: Any share name that starts with a dollar sign ($) will not show up in the Network Neighbourhood but can be accessed using the Universal Naming Convention (UNC) method. Many people map a drive to this kind of share to save typing each time they logon.

This is also technically inaccurate. To make a share hidden, the share name should end—not begin—with a $ character.

You won’t receive a grade for your instructor-led course but can receive Continuing Education Units or CEUs (provided through the American Council on Education).

A Starting Point

How do I summarize my learning experience online? These courses are a primer, a starting point to be supplemented by intense hands-on work with the operating system in a networked environment—and I’m not just talking about two PCs running Win2K on a home network. To prepare for your MCP exams, you’re going to need access to a much bigger network, with multiple domains and server roles. On my home network, I have eight PCs rack-mounted and running various versions and configurations of Win2K, and this still doesn’t seem to be enough to get the depth of understanding required for this product. So I find myself often in the classroom, where I can assemble a greater variety of simulated environments.

Would I recommend ZDU? I highly recommend the self-study courses. These are well-structured, with the right amount of interactive exercises that promote learning. More work is needed, however, in the area of pre- and post-course assessment.

I wasn’t overly impressed with my instructor-led course. I didn’t have the time to sample more than one of these courses, so it’s possible I could have had a more positive experience with another instructor. But I don’t particularly like the overall format. I would expect more “live” interaction with the instructor—online. Otherwise, it feels like that scene from the movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where the students decide not to go to class any longer, replaced by their tape recorders; eventually the instructor is also permanently absent, replaced by a tape recorder. Distance learning doesn’t have to feel distant.

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