Continuous, Contextual Learning With Virtual Labs

In technical training, is content king? What about context?

Perhaps they share the role. After all, learning programming languages is one thing, but being able to use them is another. As training professionals, we know that learning in a hands-on, real-world environment can improve transfer and performance. In a 2017 survey by Training Industry, Inc. and CloudShare, Inc., IT training professionals reported a preference for virtual training labs, saying they are a better fit for IT learning than other modalities.

A virtual training lab is a digital environment where learners can access training features like chat, “over-the-shoulder” help, videos and content, and where they can also practice tasks like coding. “It’s a real environment that you would expect to walk into and sit down at your desk and start coding in,” says Kyle Gingrich, vice president of IT and certification at Skillsoft.

Skillsoft recently announced CodeX, a new virtual coding lab, which Gingrich says extends the company’s existing curated content for developer training by adding contextual learning: “You’re coding in it, but you’re also learning how to navigate that particular environment,” since it includes actual integrated developer environments that developers use on the job.

CodeX reflects a trend in the training industry toward performance-based training and assessments. This type of training gets closer to levels 3 and 4 of Kirkpatrick’s model by measuring actual behavior change and demonstration of new skills. Using a virtual lab, organizations don’t have to hope based on a multiple-choice assessment that employees can use the coding skills they learned in training; instead, they can ask them to build real websites or products and show a real impact on business results.

CloudShare recently announced that its client MuleSoft has increased productivity and decreased time to resolution by using a lab environment for its customer support team. Providing an environment in which team members can safely test solutions means, according to Michal Frenkel, director of product at CloudShare, that MuleSoft “can support customers using far fewer resources and in far less time, while also vastly improving their quality of service.”

Using Virtual Labs for IT Training

In Training Industry’s 2017 survey, respondents identified several essential features for virtual training labs to be effective in IT training, including:

Screen-sharing/thumbnail view for instructor supportAbility to use the lab on a flexible schedule and on multiple devicesChat tools to message instructors and other learnersAbility to refresh the labAbility to customize the lab’s language, look and navigationAbility to integrate the lab with other software

Including video is a good way to enhance learning, according to Gingrich. “If you’re watching a video, it’s almost like somebody’s there with you. When you’re training, sometimes you need that peer-to-peer contact to keep it more engaging.” She also recommends ensuring that the code learners develop in the lab environment is applicable to their work; once it’s validated in practice, they can include it in the project they’re currently working on. Finally, make sure the lab isn’t used in isolation; CodeX, for instance, is mapped to GP Strategies’ curated IT training content, “so it’s part of a whole learning experience.”

So, which is king? Content or context? As with many questions, there’s no black-and-white answer. However, at least when training technical professionals, a combination of curated content and contextual learning may share the throne.

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