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Can academia provide the same quality of MCSE instruction as a CTEC? James attends a local community college and reports his findings.

You have many choices to prepare for your Windows 2000 exams including self-study, online training, and formal classroom training. Many of you are probably familiar with the weeklong technical classes held at Microsoft Certified Technical Education Centers, but what you may not know is that many traditional educational institutions such as community colleges and universities also offer their own flavor of Microsoft educational courses. I had the opportunity to evaluate one such course at my local community college; this month, I report on the viability of such training.

College Life, MCSE-Style
Front Range Community College ( Fort Collins, Colorado has an established curriculum that help students achieve the MCSE within the time frame of two academic semesters. Working in a lab environment, students attend instructor-led classes and work hands-on with Windows 2000 to achieve a passing grade in class and a certification. I sat in for one month during the Win2K Implementing and Administering Network Infrastructure portion of the course and worked side by side with students and the instructor.

There were 15 students in the class when I started, but by the end of the month this had dwindled down to approximately nine. The other six students dropped out for a variety of reasons ranging from illness to those who felt that they were simply over their head at this level of technology. Their computer backgrounds varied with some having only a basic networking background to others who were actively working in the computer field.

Although not a Microsoft IT Academy at the time I was attending the course, the college was in the process of becoming one, so as to take advantage of all the academy benefits which includes free software licenses and Microsoft Certified Trainer training for instructors. The college was already using Microsoft authorized courseware from the Academic Learning Series and had plans to switch to the more robust Microsoft Official Curriculum. Each student is also required to purchase a copy of Transcender's exam test preparation products.

The first semester covers the four core MCSE for Win2K core exams: 70-210, Win2K Professional; 70-215, Win2K Server; 70-216, Win2K Network Infrastructure; and 70-217, Win2K Directory Services. The instructor, Keith Boggs, who is also the Department Chair for Advanced Technologies at the college, told me that he was considering consolidating the Professional and Server portions into one month and rely on pre-qualifying students who had documented work experience or who took a five-week introduction class before they would be able to tackle the accelerated format. The second semester covered the three Designing exams: 70-219, Designing Win2K Directory Services; 70-220, Designing Win2K Security; and 70-221, Designing a Win2K Network Infrastructure.

But My Roommate Ate My Homework…
Each student is expected to complete a minimum of 12 hours of online study per week, plus six lab hours on campus. In the lab, students log into a Web-based forum (see Figure 1).

Web-Based Forums
Figure 1. Students log into the lab's Web-based forums to discuss topics covered in the class. (Click image to view larger version.)

Students are assigned chapters from the courseware to read each week and also must review and answer questions assigned from the Transcender exams. Students are also required to visit the online forum weekly and post new contributions discussing the topics for that week or respond to the posts that are submitted by other students. I was pretty impressed by the technical prowess of some of the students and their research abilities as they discussed the nuances of IPSEC and the inner workings of the Windows 2000 Registry.

Waiting for the Bell to Ring
Students also attended three-hour, instructor-led labs twice a week. The classroom/lab consisted of four rows of tables with six computers in each row. Each row of tables is configured as its own subnet and three of the instructor's computers are used as software routers between the subnets. Each computer has a removable hard drive system, so that the classroom can be reconfigured between different classes. Most of the class time is spent on hands-on work in the lab. There is little time for lecture and students primarily use the online forum for any class discussion. During the lab time, students could either perform hands-on exercises or work on Transcender questions. They could also make up any missed lab time on other days during moderated lab sessions.

The instructor was very knowledgeable on Win2K—he had been teaching the course for two years, having previously taught the NT 4.0 curriculum. He made sure that students maximized the amount of hands-on interaction they had with Win2K and was open to discussing any relevant Windows 2000 topics.

Making the Grade
The college is a Sylvan Prometric testing center and although students are not required to take the real Microsoft exams, if they pass an exam, it does help improve their class grade. Many of the students I had spoken with had not yet attempted an exam, citing test jitters and also questioning whether they felt prepared. Some of the students I spoke with had passed Win2K Professional and Server, but were leery of attempting Win2K Network Infrastructure (for good reason—it's a tough exam).

Students are also tested on their Win2K knowledge through online quizzes (see Figure 2). These are normally short, multiple-choice questions geared mostly towards making sure that they have a basic grasp of the concepts being covered in the class. Students also have to hand in their completed Transcender exams for grading by the instructor. Finally, part of their grade is derived from a midterm and final exams and their in-class and online participation.

Online Quiz Questions
Figure 2. Students can assess their Win2K knowledge through the online quizzes. (Click image to view larger version.)

Class Dismissed
Taking a more traditional academic approach to achieving certification is not for everyone, as it takes a considerable amount of time and discipline to accomplish. In fact it takes about the same time commitment as a disciplined person pursuing self-study. What sets it apart is the amount of hands-on training that is achieved by having access to dedicated labs and a mentor, not to mention the valuable interaction with peers who are seeking the same goal.

I found the college setting to be a viable alternative for the computer professional who wants to attend night classes to achieve certification. On the other hand, career changers may have a more difficult time taking this route unless they first attend prerequisite courses and attain a base level of networking knowledge. Making the commitment required for this academic program while working a full-time job is not an easy task, but dedicated individuals will eventually reap the rewards.

About the Author

James Carrion, MCM R2 Directory, MCITP, MCSE, MCT, CCNA, CISSP has worked as a computer consultant and technical instructor for the past 16 years. He’s the owner of and principal instructor for MountainView Systems, LLC, which specializes in accelerated Microsoft Certification training.

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