A couple of weeks ago I took the SC-900 beta exam, which is one of Microsoft’s new security certifications. Side note, we are offering the associated one-day MSSC-900T00: Microsoft Security, Compliance, and Identity Fundamentals course starting April 19th! To prepare for the exam I used a combination of my existing experience and the free self-study content from Microsoft Learn.
I have to say, Microsoft has done well with their Microsoft Learn content. It’s clearly organized, easy to read, often has helpful images and videos, and covers the topics in short snippets that are quickly digestible. Overall, I’m a fan. When there is not another good option, or time is limited, I’ll use Microsoft Learn without hesitation. Self-study options do have a place in helping people get the knowledge and skills they need for their roles.
However, as much as I like free or inexpensive self-study options, they are a less robust solution than a live class with other students and an instructor. There are benefits to a self-study class, and there are weaknesses to that model. The same can be said of instructor lead training (ILT) classes. Let’s do a bit of comparison.
One of the oft-touted benefits of self-study is its flexibility. You can study whenever is convenient for you, wherever is convenient for you, and often using a range of technological options to access the materials. These are all generally true, but what are the downsides?
Jim Rohn is quoted as having said, “What is easy to do is also easy not to do.” Applied to self-study, the flexibility of being able to study whenever is convenient for you means that it’s also easy to not set aside the time for study. It’s easy to let work responsibilities, distractions, and, from the perspective of your boss or coworkers, allow “urgent” issues take you away from the “less important” need to spend in your self-study topic.
In contrast, instructor led training (ILT) is rigid. Although you can connect virtually, class happens at scheduled times. But this is a GOOD thing! You are forcing yourself to set aside time to learn the topic. You are (hopefully) removing the distractions. You can set your Teams, or Slack, or whatever workplace communication tool you use to Busy, Do Not Disturb, or even go crazy and select Away. For your email you might enable an autoresponder that you’re in training and that email responses will be delayed. In short, the rigidity of ILT is an advantage to your learning journey.
With self-study you can move at your own pace. You can move as quickly through the material as your abilities and the technology will allow you to do, or you can slow down and dig deeply into the concepts. You’re in control, to a point, of how much time it takes. Except you’re not. How many times have you decided to complete a project by a certain date, or within a specific amount of time and then just lost focus? How often has someone thrown a project or task at you with little warning and the expectation that you had the time to do it, because you don’t seem busy to them?
Theoretically you have the benefit of how much time it takes to do your self-study, but from a practical point of view, the issue here is the same with flexibility. Unless you force yourself, and everyone else, to let you focus, there’s a good chance you won’t complete your self-study goal.
But ILT? Yeah, you don’t get to move at your own pace here. You can look over the syllabus and or book and see how much material must be covered, and in how much time. You have a pre-scheduled half day, a full day, or maybe a few days, and at specific times. Your class time is set up for you. YES! You don’t have to think about it, you don’t have to create a daily plan to squeeze in a module here or there, you are IN CLASS! You’ve committed the time to get it done in that specific period. You know exactly when the time to learn starts and when the class is complete. If you’re a person who has trouble getting yourself motivated to set aside the time to make it happen, ILT is perfect for your learning journey!
There’s no question about it. ILT is commonly more expensive than self-study. In fact, the content from Microsoft Learn is completely free! You’d think that overrides all the other benefits we’ve discussed about ILT vs. self-study. Perhaps there are times when it does. Your boss might think so. But what do you get for your free (or cheap) self-study option in comparison to ILT?
Self-study gives you the content, online modules, images, and videos. It also often provides links to go deeper. That’s it. Oh, it may provide an email address or form to submit if there is a problem with the self-study system and to provide feedback. If that’s all you need, then go ahead and do self-study for that topic. As you know, I’ve used that method myself.
But the best learning experiences I’ve had, in any field, have always been with a live group and instructor, whether that was virtual or in person. It’s not even close. Why? Here are some of the reasons that paying for a live ILT class is worth every dime:
- Expert direction: Your trainer is a highly skilled individual in the topics the class is covering. She or he often has years of experience focused in those areas. The instructor isn’t just covering the material, like you do in a self-study course. No, the instructor adds depth with real-world examples, engaging stories, and provides extra value with related topics that aren’t even in the official materials. Your instructor will show you new ideas and insights, a different perspective, and fill in knowledge gaps you may have.
- Classmates: When you join a live class, you get to spend time virtually, or in person, with others who are learning about the same topics. Your classmates will share their experiences, explain what is happening in their environments, and give you ideas that you can take for your own use. You can make connections that will last into the future to aid you in your role. From an instructor perspective I work to encourage conversations between students, and often ask a student who has used a technology under discussion to take over the conversation for a time so everyone else can benefit from their experience.
- Questions: In an ILT class you can get real-time answers to questions you have about the subjects in the course, but that’s not all. As an instructor experienced with various principles, frameworks, and technologies, students often ask questions about their specific environments. In nearly every class I teach we spend time answering questions about what is happening in their organizations, it’s basically a mini-consulting session that you don’t have to pay extra for. You won’t see that in a self-study course.
- Working with a Learning Partner: Microsoft has a worldwide network of learning partners who offer ILT classes. Here are some thoughts from Microsoft about working with learning partners for your training needs:
“Learning Partners can assess your level of knowledge and deliver a customized training plan to quickly advance your technical expertise. They’ll help you:
- Define your path to hone in on the technical skills that are right for you to achieve career or business goals.
- Tailor your training plan to match your requirements and deliver training that levels up your skills to meet your specific objectives and project needs.
- Ensure steady progress with individual and team-level reporting, skills assessments, and knowledge checks to inform any adjustments to your learning plan.”
As a technical trainer, it may seem I’m a bit biased towards instructor led training. That’s certainly true, but it’s because I see so many benefits to you, the student. I absolutely believe in self-study as well, there are times when it is the appropriate option. However, using self-study exclusively will lead to you missing out on great value from other students, your instructor, and the guidance a learning partner can provide. Yes, do some self-study, but come to our ILT classes as well, we’re real people, providing real solutions to your training needs. Oh, just a reminder, “90% of the organizations with well-trained teams are satisfied or very satisfied with their ability to monitor, forecast, and optimize server, storage, and network resources.”
-Troy Stoneking, LRS Education Services Technical Trainer/Cybersecurity Assessor