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IT training gets an extreme makeover

By Cindy Waxer
February 11, 2013 06:00 AM ET

Another pitfall of adopting the latest training methodologies is the risk of attrition. Even if you invest thousands of dollars in training IT employees, there's no guarantee that they'll stick around -- especially since the training makes them more marketable. That's a risk companies simply have to accept, says Presley. CareerBuilder does. The company helps IT workers earn MBAs, offering full tuition reimbursements or paid sponsorships -- with no strings attached. "If they choose to finish their MBA graduate degree and then, in a month, leave the company, they still don't have to pay that back," says Presley.

But the risk of losing an employee or two doesn't seem to have deterred employers from embracing new approaches to training. Lynda.com reports that 5% of its members now watch its training videos on smartphones. While that figure might seem small, it has more than doubled over the past year and continues to rise.

It remains to be seen whether it will one day be commonplace for IT professionals to watch training videos starring Hollywood celebrities on smartphones. What is certain is that offering high-quality, creative training via a variety of delivery mechanisms is now a business imperative.

Waxer is a Toronto-based freelance journalist. She has written articles for various publications and news sites, including The Economist, MIT Technology Review and CNNMoney.com.

Training Trends

Behind the Lens of an IT Training Video

Not many people would disagree with Tom Graunke that IT training is long overdue for an overhaul. "Can you name the last time you did something in e-learning and said it was amazing?" asks Graunke, CEO of Stormwind, an IT training firm in Scottsdale, Ariz. "It's boring, and it's flat."

But the process of looking for ways to breathe new life into IT training tools can itself offer lessons in technology. Take, for example, Stormwind's experience developing its HD Live training system. Used by leading tech vendors such as VMware and Cisco, these live, interactive high-definition IT training videos feature an instructor standing in a control room surrounded by computer monitors. Throughout an hourlong online session, the instructor is seen in front of various screen captures and animated slides while lecturing and fielding questions from audience members in real time.

To make this online learning technology a reality, Stormwind had to find a way to deliver live, high-definition video to a standard Web browser. That's a considerable challenge given that the majority of today's browsers are barely sophisticated enough to handle Flash.

First, Stormwind built a studio with green-screen technology and created software-generated 3D renderings of various backgrounds, to make it look as if instructors are literally walking viewers through screen captures and slides when, in reality, they're just talking to a green wall.

But because typical Internet connections can't support the transmission of green-screen technology, Stormwind had to find a way to compress the massive, high-resolution files. It uses a mix of XML code and Java scripts to deliver the files to Flash media servers, which are designed to stream video to a browser regardless of an end user's device and bandwidth limitations. Essentially, the servers trick the browser into thinking that it's dealing with a single image rather than a hodgepodge of Flash, HTML, green-screen technology and 3D renderings. A Stormwind producer can replace green-screen images on the fly while Flash media servers prompt the browser to refresh 30 times a second for a constant feed of live images.

Instructors are trained in the use of green screens, and a producer is on hand to cue new images and request zooms and studio pans as if producing a live TV show.

Stormwind, which has been in business three years, says it has found that, on average, students retain 92% of the material presented in HD Live training sessions but only 30% of the material presented via traditional online learning channels.

— Cindy Waxer

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