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MCSE Help :  Education matters
Philip Hunter looks at the evolution of Microsoft’s certification courses
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In recent years, IT training has grown vastly in significance for vendors, their customers, and individual IT workers alike. Leading vendors have seized upon it both as a medium for raising consciousness levels about their products and technologies, and for alleviating the skills shortage that is choking the growth of the industry as a whole. For customers, the accreditations are seen as a basic statement of competence in a particular skill, and for that reason the paperwork is something that IT staff increasingly need. In fact there are signs that vendor accreditations are becoming more highly regarded by employers than degrees. Indeed one significant trend is the growing incorporation of vendor specific courseware in generic degree courses by the more vocationally oriented universities and colleges of further education.

Much of the credit for pioneering this now booming field of IT accreditations sponsored by vendors must go to Novell with its Certified Network Engineer (CNE) qualification. But now Microsoft is making the running with its MCSE (Microsoft System Engineer) and the more recently introduced MCSD (Microsoft Solution Developer) aimed at programmers. Only major vendors can afford to compete in what is becoming a very expensive field characterised by rampant inflation in numbers in an attempt to defeat the skills shortage and cope with proliferating demand. Now as we all know inflation erodes the value of things, and IT accreditations are no exception to this rule.

Devaluation

The problem is that in order to attack the skills shortage, Microsoft and other vendors have ramped up their training programmes, with the result that the number of people with the various accreditations has increased enormously over the last two years. This has led to criticisms that the accreditations no longer carry the status they once did. Some employers no longer view the MCSE qualification by itself as evidence of competence in running Microsoft networks.

However, in order to meet these criticisms, Microsoft in particular has taken several worthwhile steps, essentially making the courses and exams more relevant to the real world of managing IT installations and their user populations. One step has been to extend the courses with additional options that are harder to pass and that incorporate training in skills beyond the basic Microsoft products. There is now, for example, the MCSE plus Internet course, incorporating an additional three exams dealing with Internet technologies and issues, in addition to the six basic NT and Windows related exams.

“It certainly seems true that whenever the criticism about MCSE becoming devalued by increasing numbers gets raised, Microsoft comes up with another level of certification,” says John Collins of ARIS, a Microsoft CTEC (Certified Training and Education Centre). “So the status is maintained by offering additional levels.”

Microsoft is also attempting to maintain the credibility of its accreditations by making the actual testing more sophisticated to reflect real problems, rather than just giving answers to factual multiple choice questions. “One new technology, more in the development arena, is using case study based testing, where you have to work out what is the best development project for a given case study scenario. Candidates have to specify how to implement it, which is very much more task based,” says Clare Curtis, Microsoft’s UK certification development manager.

No cheating

There is still a need to test that basic facts have been acquired and that key points have been understood. The traditional approach has been via multiple choice testing, which is relatively easy to computerise for both the taking and marking of exams. But this approach suffers from several weaknesses, one of which is that because exams are not taken at a single sitting but are constantly ongoing, there is considerable scope for cheating. Although candidates do not all get the same question, (they are drawn at random from a pool), there is still only a limited number of permutations and it is easy to determine the kind of questions and topics that will crop up. Furthermore, multiple choice tests are relatively poor at splitting candidates up into a wide band of different standards.

With adaptive testing, questions are chosen according to whether the candidate got the last one right or not. If the right answer is given, the next question is harder, and if not, the question is easier. Usually topics are chosen one at a time, and if a candidate answers several questions of progressively increasing levels of difficulty correctly, then the testing moves on to the next topic. If, however, one or more questions are answered wrongly, the testing will dwell on that subject for longer to assess that candidate’s exact capability. So adaptive testing increases the precision of the exam, enabling a candidate’s level to be assessed more accurately, and it also reduces the potential for cheating, because it is harder to predict what sort of questions you are likely to get.

Even with adaptive testing and the incorporation of existing material into exams, there is still a limit to what they can tell you about the potential of a candidate to do a particular job. Partly for this reason some employers are now starting to demand that candidates take additional tests in an attempt to determine their suitability for a particular task. We are not talking here of psychometric testing, which may be done as well, but tests that are really an extension of the existing set of accreditation exams such as MCSE, although more oriented towards specific tasks.

“We sometimes get asked to develop systems like this for clients on the back end of training,” says Collins. “Even employers that have taken the Microsoft certification route may want to see proof that people have actually learnt something from it.”

Marked improvement

There is, in any case, a trend towards task based questions within exams on specific products. In a Word exam for example, candidates might be asked to set up a document with a 2 and a half-inch margin and a particular page layout. This sort of question can be marked quite readily by computer, highlighting another trend towards the increased use of computer and distance based learning. This has the potential to cut costs and also to increase the rate at which people can be trained. When video conferencing is incorporated, it will enable classes to be bigger and distributed across multiple locations, while still allowing some one-to-one interaction between pupils and the instructor. This is vital, for experience has shown that people learn faster when there is someone on hand to deal with problems that arise, even in predominantly self study courses.

“We’re encouraging our CTECs to incorporate both instructor and computer based training, and there is a move now towards online training with the trainer used as a mentor,” said Microsoft’s Curtis. “I don’t think it will ever replace standard instructor led courses completely, but it makes the courses more flexible.” It can avoid the need for people to travel to courses which increases the cost, especially if accommodation is needed.

A related trend here is that candidates are being offered more flexible schedules for taking courses. A few years ago there was little alternative other than to take the courses in a block lasting two weeks or so. This inflexibility, and the cost, tended to discourage individuals, particularly contract staff, from taking the courses to improve their skills and employability.

But now there is increased demand for courses from contract staff, partly because Year 2000 projects that have employed them are coming to an end. Skills quickly become extinct in this fast moving field. As a result some contractors employed on Year 2000 projects found that the skills they originally had before the glitch in the calendar temporarily took hold of their careers were no longer relevant.

“There’s a big push now from contract staff for training,” said Aine McGuire, business development manager at Microsoft CTEC, Pygmalion. “They’ve got away with not necessarily adding to their skills during Year 2000 conversion work because there’s been enough work out there, but that’s no longer the case with projects getting finished,” she added.

CTECs are being encouraged by Microsoft to woo such staff by making courses more flexible, and also by taking account of the fact that these people are usually not rank beginners and often already have some knowledge of NT and the Microsoft environment. What they need is a fast track course designed to sharpen them up for the exams. ARIS offers such a course for 3,950 called BootCamp, which is highly intensive, lasting two weeks and assuming some existing knowledge.

Take your time

Then for those in less of a hurry but unable or unwilling to take time off work, ARIS offers a flexible course called the Complete Professional, which can take up to 18 months. This is aimed at people who know exactly what courses they want to take (see box for some of the options) offering training at 175 per day, with free exams at the end. As anyone who has paid for a course will know, this is about half the typical rate for courses, the aim being to offer an affordable package for small businesses and contractors. The exact number of days will vary from case to case, but you could expect to get away with under 4,000 for MCSE qualification from a standing start.

To cope with the increased need for courses, Microsoft is leaning increasingly on the public education sector to complement its CTEC programme, the aim being both to reach new individuals and provide additional avenues to qualification with added flexibility. There are two prongs to this public part of Microsoft’s training and education strategy, the furthest advanced being the AATP (Authorised Academic Training Partner) programme, which is purely for giving Microsoft courses. “AATPs are authorised training centres to which members of the community can go to be trained in Microsoft, and the nice thing about traditional educational establishments is that they can be flexible, providing courses over a long period of time rather than intensively,” said Mark East, Microsoft’s UK education group manager. AATPs are growing in numbers fast, from 30 to 100 over the last six months with 200 expected by the end of the year.

By degrees

The other part of Microsoft’s academic programme, called GRASP (Graduate Recruitment Academic Skills Programme) is aimed at having Microsoft courseware incorporated into existing degree courses. GRASP partners are free to choose which Microsoft modules to incorporate and students do not necessarily take the accreditation exams. GRASP is still in its infancy, with just two UK universities involved at present at a trial stage. One of these, Napier University in Edinburgh, has decided to incorporate 60% of the MCSE modules, the ones it deems gel best with its existing degree course syllabus.

Students are then given the option of taking the remaining 40% of the MCSE courseware in their own time on a self study basis, and Microsoft is currently considering ways of helping them in this endeavour through supply of materials and online distance learning. It is quite likely most students will take up this option given the time and effort they have already invested in 60% of the MCSE courseware. It makes sense then to go the extra distance to obtain the MCSE accreditation as well as, hopefully, their degree. According to Leslie Beddie, head of the computing school at Napier University, students there are vocationally focused and interested in getting a job straight away, and being an MCSE cannot harm in that regard.

It can be seen then that Microsoft is taking rapid strides in the training field, its motives being both to conquer the skills shortage, and to gain brain share and, as a result, market share in the future.

Philip Hunter is an IT journalist

Microsoft’s training programme comes under the umbrella title of MCP (Microsoft Certified Professional). The most popular, and indeed until recently the only, Microsoft qualification was the MCSE (Microsoft Certified System Engineer). MCSE courses comprise MCP modules, and MCP is also the name given to the accreditation individuals get when they pass an exam in just one of the modules. To become a full blown MCSE you need to pass six exams, including four compulsory ones, which are Networking Essentials, NT Workstation, NT Server, and NT in the Enterprise. The last three of these were introduced when the training scheme was upgraded for NT 4, and no doubt will be brushed up again for Windows 2000. Then candidates must choose two additional courses from about 10 options, popular ones being TCP/IP, SQL Server, and Exchange Server, with Internet Information Server and Proxy Server climbing up the charts also.

An extension of the course called MCSE Plus Internet includes nine modular exams, with Internet ones now being compulsory.

More recently, Microsoft introduced the parallel MCSD (Microsoft Solution Developer) course, and this has just been changed to embrace the new Visual Studio 6 environment. Students can choose between Visual Basic 6 and C++ as the core programming language, taking exams in desktop development and distributed development. The latter includes server applications and COM/DCOM component technology. There is also a compulsory higher level module that is not tied to any specific language or development environment, called Analysing Requirements and Defining Solutions Architectures.

Microsoft is now considering raising the bar further by introducing an architect level certification, according to the company’s UK certification development manager Clare Curtis. This would be more in line with Cisco’s highly regarded CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert) certification.