Microsoft Official Distance Learning is set to hit the shores of the UK in the next few months. Will it be plain sailing for learners or be like riding to Bognor by bicycle instead of travelling by train? Helen Boddy investigates.

The flexibility of distance e-learning is not enough to endear it to all. But what if you throw in an online tutor and e-labs on real servers - will that win over the sceptics? Microsoft is trying to do just that with Microsoft Official Distance Learning (MODL).

Microsoft officially launched MODL last November and training providers in the UK are now gearing up to offer it to their customers here.

MODL blends instructor-led virtual online learning with self-paced e-labs. Microsoft has developed ten of the newer Microsoft server and developer courses for IT professionals in the MODL format. A certified trainer delivers the Microsoft syllabus over a series (typically five to ten) of two-hour sessions at set times to a group via Live Meeting.

'There are case studies, activities, and interactions between the students, so they are all working together,' says Wendy Johnson, MODL innovations product manager.

The learners then spend an hour on self-paced e-learning and a further hour to complete real-world scenario exercises in their own time and at their own pace between the sessions on virtual labs, hosted by Toolwire.

So what's new with the approach?

'While distance learning has been available for some time, what MODL has done is to combine all of the essential elements together in a very innovative way,' says Dave Britt, who has been involved as a consultative instructor from early on in the project. 'Scenario-based virtual labs, online assessments, distance learning, certified instructors and making the offering globally available.'

Cameron Crowe, Toolwire commercial manager, also believes that the idea of the four-hour module approach (two hours virtual ILT + two hours self-paced learning) to complete a module, is an innovative way of learning.

'Our research shows that after two hours of learning, the short-term memory is full, and the student needs to encode what has been learnt into the long-term memory,' he says.

'We are discovering that retention is higher with MODL. The pass rate is much higher than for Microsoft certifications usually.

'However, this new instructional paradigm has nothing really to do with distance learning. It could equally be followed instead in the classroom in four-hour cycles.'

'Toolwire's labs used for MODL also differ from most others because with most simulations you are on a set path. With our labs each student accesses, via the internet, their own server, which they can crash without affecting others.

Toolwire's Live Labs are already used in some CISCO course, but the company developed the 'day-in the life' scenarios specifically for MODL.

'They are almost like a soap opera or sitcom,' says Crowe. 'The learner gets emails, pagers etc and has to decide how to apply them in a live environment. The student has access to a live server to perform "day-in-the-life" tasks, creating solutions on live servers, application platforms and desktops.'

The price to take a MODL course is similar to classroom-based training but there are other cost benefits for companies, stresses Johnson. There is no need for travel and subsistence costs, nor to take key staff away from their desks for a substantial period.

'For training managers, I think MODL is a great training paradigm: it offers the learner flexibility but with the confidence that they are following the same technical content that would be delivered in a classroom environment,' says Britt.

He sees three scenarios where MODL will be of particular benefit:

  • companies with reliability offerings. For example service desks where it's hard to release a person for a whole day.
  • groups of people over different time zones who need flexibility. And for people who want to learn at home.
  • one instructor providing a global delivery, where you have participants in multiple classrooms.

Flexibility is of course a watchword for promoting this distance learning. 'One major advantage is the ability to train outside 9am to 5pm’ says Will Hawkins of QA-IQ, which is gearing up to offer the courses. One major client has engineers in South America and can't let them out on courses, but they want standardisation of their skills.'

Is this flexibility, however, enough to guarantee success?

'We know from our research that IT professionals generally are sceptical about e-learning,' says David Pardo, director of IT Skills Research. 'They are very positive about e-labs, but they don’t like self-paced e-learning, and they are still to be convinced about live virtual classrooms, because most of the early implementations have been hard to use.

'MODL is a great concept - its flexibility and versatility are beyond question - and it will win the hearts and minds of IT professionals if it succeeds in integrating the various elements to deliver truly interactive and effective learning.'

Richard Chappell, managing director of Learning Tree, however, believes MODL simply will not be as effective as classroom-based ILT.

'There's no question the technology can do it, and on paper it's very neat, but learning in this way is a bit like trying to go to Bognor by bicycle compared to taking the train,' he says.

'I'm not against e-learning but think its place is more for bite-sized chunks of learning, for example, of Excel or PowerPoint,' he says. 'I don't think this sort of delivery is right for full-on technical courses for IT professionals.

'I think that the drop-out rate will be high with this sort of training, whereas it's rare for anyone to drop out of a week-long course. I can guarantee a buyer that after one week in the classroom the student will be skilled, equipped and competent. I wouldn't have the confidence to do so with distance learning.

'To see if this is really good value, you should consider if skills transfer will have taken place after the course, as well as potential cost savings.'

Good completion rates would help make a case for MODL, suggests Chappell, but, Crowe says they do not have enough data points to do so yet.

It is indeed still early days for MODL. 'Counting pilots and course offering around 400 students so far have experienced the MODL course,' says Johnson.

'As it's still only in its first year, we are gathering intelligence on which courses work best. We are still investigating which audience and which subject areas work best.

'In this financial year, ending June 2008, we will also roll out four courses in Windows Server 2008 and our top-selling developer course, Developing Microsoft ASP.NET Web Applications Using Visual Studio .NET.'

Two training companies, QA-IQ and New Horizons, have signed up to offer MODL in the UK and are planning to start running courses in a few weeks' time. It's also a product that may appeal to start-up providers, given that no buildings and little equipment is needed to deliver it.

Of course, given that MODL is delivered via distance learning, there's always the option of buying a course from a provider in another country.