There are many ways to get technology training these days, whatever your level. Be it books / e-books, online e-learning packages, YouTube videos, even online AI instruction... But is there any room left for instructor-led training in today's education ecosystem? Naturally our answer is yes! And here's why...
Let's start off with the traditional old way of learning a programming language or technology – books. Of course, nowadays that could be an eBook as much as a physical paperback or hardback book. Such books were the original mainstay for learning technologies. I clearly remember learning to program in C using my Brian Kernighan and Denis Richie book on C (The C Programming Language book). That book travelled everywhere with me while I was learning C, including on the train up to London for a programming job interview at a major London financial instruction.
The advantage of that book was it was light, easy to read and to transport - and it doesn't need a power source!
Of course, the downside was that I could not ask the book questions such as ‘what do you mean by such and such a concept?’ Of course, this is not unique to books, but it is one of their main drawbacks. It is also necessary to follow the pattern presented in the book - it does not react to your learning style or take into account your existing knowledge.
In addition, books tend not to be updated very often, and as new versions of programming languages or toolkits may be released every six months nowadays, textbooks can become obsolete rather quickly.
Perhaps the more modern version of my C programming language book is the online tutorial. This has the advantage that being online it is easy to update and can be kept in sync with current releases of various technologies or languages. Of course, just because it can be kept up to date does not mean that such tutorials are kept up to date. I tend to warn people looking at online python courses to check the language version and any libraries being used in any worked examples included.
For example, Python 2 and Python 3 are not compatible and the difference between Pandas 1.5 and Pandas 2 might mean that an example does not work (or at least not in the way you expect). When you are learning this can be very confusing and even misleading.
Online tutorials may also be able to adopt a less linear approach than traditional printed matter, with hyperlinks that allow the reader to jump to topics of interest, but they are still predefined and cannot take advantage of a reader's existing knowledge or respond to direct questions.
However, such tutorials are the mainstay of a technologist’s toolkit as they can be very useful in filling in gaps or allowing one to build on their existing knowledge as long as it is the reader who selects appropriate tutorials at an appropriate level.
YouTube has an abundance of instructional videos of varying quality and depth, largely in the form of "how-to" clips covering everything from putting up shelves to building a jet engine. Naturally, there are a lot of technology / programming guides available too. For example, a DevOps developer who needs to set up a Docker Container for a new web app can easily find a step-by-step guide on how to do that on YouTube. But it might be ten minutes in before they realise that the video includes deprecated functionality - or just plain wrong (which only becomes apparent after wading through the comments section) - so it's back to hunting for a more up-to-date guide. It can be a bit of a Catch 22 situation as you need to gain some experience to help search for just the right thing in the first place.
That said, seeing and hearing someone carry out complex technical tasks step-by-step can be a very valuable tool.
Online e-learning courses often take all of the above to the next level. Depending upon the organisation and the set-up, they will typically involve a guided set of lessons, that contain material to read and often some videos to watch. They will also often have lab exercises to complete at the end of each lesson. These lab exercises may or may not be evaluated with feedback given - this depends on the organisation etc.
Typically, free online courses will have little or no interaction between the student and any instructor, whereas commercial courses (or those run by universities) may well include feedback on submitted material. They may also provide discussion session or chat groups that allow instructors and students to discuss the topics being studied.
This is naturally more interactive that just a plain online tutorial or YouTube video, but it still often requires the delegate to study significant amounts of material independently and then proactively take any questions they have to a subsequent discussion group or chat group.
AI bots such as ChatGPT have been put forward as a way of learning technologies and programming language. There is certainly some benefit in using such tools as an aid in your learning programme. For example, a user can pose questions to the chat bot and obtain descriptions, examples and conclusions relating to their questions. However, there are a few things to bear in mid with this:
So where does this leave good old-fashioned instructor-led training? On paper, it undoubtedly costs more than a cheap online tech channel subscription, but it is arguably the pinnacle of learning experiences. You benefit from a highly interactive environment in which asking questions and getting timely, well-formulated expert responses means you can overcome obstacles on the fly and progress at a comfortable pace. Your instructor can react to your cohort to ensure that the training takes into account what they currently know, keeps in mind what they need to know, and carefully monitors the progress they are making.
In addition, I can directly answer follow-on or extension questions which push a topic outside the original scope of an agreed syllabus, providing time allows and a good majority of delegates in the room are interested. This invariably adds to the interest, engagement, and ultimately value of a face-to-face course.
This is true whether we are talking about operating systems, container platforms, programming languages or tooling.
Face-to-face training with an instructor also has the benefits of having an expert who can ‘look over a delegate's shoulder’ and discuss with them the approach they are taking, best (or indeed worst) practices and ways of addressing a problem.
We also need to consider online training classes, particularly in our post-pandemic way of working. By this I mean a training course in which the instructor and the delegates are directly in contact but a medium such as Zoom is being used to present the materials and to handle interactions during practical or lab sessions.
From personal experience I can say that most people are happy with the virtual classroom, with only some preferring face-to-face training.
One advantage to the virtual classroom, is that I can take an individual into a breakout room and discuss any questions they have - which gives the benefit of "looking over the delegate's shoulder" in isolation without them having to ask anything in front of the whole room.
Even though the latest video conferencing platforms have come a long way, it can sometimes be a bit harder to encourage interaction, so we always recommend delegates keep their cameras on as much as possible - even via Zoom, seeing nods, smiles, or looks of puzzlement will greatly improve the learning experience.
This means that a good instructor can make the virtual classroom as interactive and exciting as the in-person environment.
Combinations of all the above can also be a great way for, say, a graduate program to be run. That is, after an initial introduction, some background tutorials can be given to get things moving, with face-to-face and virtual classrooms to provide direct instructor-to-delegate training - and perhaps with relevant videos and reading material filling in gaps on specific specialist or esoteric topics.
This takes significant planning and is not just a case of adding online tutorials and classes with a few videos scattered about. Everything needs to fit together into a coherent whole and that takes a significant amount of thought and consideration. However, when done well this can be a very good way of making efficient and cost-effective use of all the available tools and technologies.
The question posed at the start of this blog was ‘is there any room left for in person instructor led training in today's education ecosystem?’ I am undoubtedly a bit biased, but while other forms of education can sit happily alongside, I say yes, there definitely is room and it remains the best option for all levels of learners.
Take a look around our range of instructor-led training courses to find out how we can build the right learning solution for your team.