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Over 90 percent of IT certification failure is due to the use of unsuitable preparation methods and tools. Effective preparation ensures you have the required skills and knowledge in the specific field. Anything else is gambling.
IT Certification examines your skills and knowledge in a particular subject matter.

Relying solely on work experience is risky, since your nature of work might limit your exposure. For example even though you might work on Local Area Networks (LAN) everyday in your workplace, your corporate LAN may be quite different from that of a company a few blocks away, or even right next to you.

Since certification will test you in all possible areas of your subject matter, you must have someway of acquiring the knowledge you need and confirming that your knowledge meets the required standard.
The IT industry has created quite a few preparation options to aid certification candidates. Each option has its strengths and its weaknesses. The option(s) you choose should be based on what works for you.

Popular options are: Text Materials, Instructor-led Classroom training, Computer Based Training (CBT), Video training, E-Learning, Practice tests and Online resources.

Where are you? Where should you be?
Before choosing an option, you must answer this question: what is the gap between your present knowledge level and experience and what your certification demands?
Some options involve the acquisition of knowledge through reading, listening to and watching certification "how-to" materials. Other options may demand the application of knowledge to gain practical skills. Examine the certification requirements; assess yourself: in which areas do you need support? Sometimes you may find that a combination of options is best.

Let us look at 3 popular options.


Text Materials
Will self-study with text materials alone get the job done for you? Or does text barely scratch the surface? Text materials include study guides, books and manuals. The materials aim to cover all exam topics. Quite a few books also come with CDs containing exam preparation software as well as electronic books.

Text materials are very popular with certification students because text is much cheaper than most of the other learning alternatives. Apart from published books, there is also a vast amount of information provided through product documentation produced by each certification sponsor. Such free documentation is available for download via the sponsor's site.

Is reading is for you? Do you regard reading as a slow and painful method of learning, or are you someone who enjoys reading?
But reading alone is not enough if you need hands-on skills. Like the expression states, "what you need to learn to do, you learn by doing." How much practice do you need? Be honest. If you choose reading, should it be your only option? Remember you're not going for the test to earn a paper certification; you're going for a certification that means something.

You can use study guides in addition to other knowledge options, most often with practical instructor-led, classroom training. An advantage of books is portability. You can do your reading at the bus stop, while waiting for your flight, or on your trip back home. Books are also useful as reference materials. Furthermore, text allows you to learn at your own pace.

Text can however be dry and dull. There is no interaction. In addition, when using text for certification preparation, make sure you're not reading out-of-date text. Be very careful, particularly with certification programs whose syllabuses have been updated. Today in the market, there are books for both the current A+ exam and for the A+ exam that has been phased out. This applies too for MCSE Exams. Currency of books is most important. But can you know if a book is current, if you are not current?

Computer Based Training (CBT)
CBTs refer to popular software tools that deliver educational material through computer technology. CBT programs are interactive and require you to answer questions and carry out various procedures with the aim of imparting knowledge to you. Some CBT programs are also task-oriented as the programs lead you through step-by-step procedures of the subject matter.

Several CBT programs termed edutainment software facilitate learning by entertaining you in the process of learning. Multimedia features of the computer are used to create presentations that easy to use, attention catching and thought provoking, with an ability to combine pictures, video, sound, animation and text. Computer screens now come alive. With the right combination of rich graphics, humor, lively sounds and music, learning comes to life. This mixture of games, education and entertainment, is intended to stimulate you to learn better.

What's more, CBT allows you to replay presentations and choose any topic to work on. Since it is interactive you can learn from your mistakes, and like text materials you can learn at your pace.

An advantage of CBT you can benefit from is its ability to simulate computing environments. This is extremely useful in situations where using "live" equipment for training is too costly or impractical. For example, the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) E-trainer provides a customizable, simulated network environment that puts three routers and a switch including hundreds of router commands at your disposal. The need for and the expense of using real switches and routers for your learning exercise are eliminated. And of course you can configure and reconfigure till you're satisfied without worrying about the effect it will have on your computing environment.

A note of caution: not all E-trainers are effective. The most common problem of some CBTs is the inadequacy of information provided by the software. This severely limits your ability to use it for reference purposes. It is also a form of training that I would call "On Your Own", as you go through the software alone. Of course its ability to impart practical skills is restricted as it is purely software driven. On the other hand, like the text materials, you can be easily combine CBT with other options.

However, the use of CBT may be restricted where access to PCs is still expensive, as you can only use CBT if you have access to a PC that meets the software specifications.

Instructor-led Classroom Training
Many regard instructor-led training, whether for certification or not, as the most effective means of learning IT. The focus is on both the theory and practice of IT. The "See it, Hear it, Do it." Concept. Effective instructor-led training provides interactive and participative training that speeds up the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Fortification exercises enable faster building of your skills. And you can gather helpful insights from the real world experience of the trainers.

But is Instructor-led training perfect? No way! Apart from the fact that quality varies widely, a major hindrance for many is cost. Instructor-led costs money in view of the need to ensure high quality and effective delivery. In some countries this preparation option is made even more expensive by unstable power supply, inefficient telecommunications and high equipment cost.

While it makes sense to shop around and compare prices; but price should not be your sole determinant for choosing a training institution. Don't focus only on what you're spending now. Do a proper cost benefit analysis before deciding if the cost will give you value.

Most training centers provide text materials for tuition and reference purposes. Some training providers give you books and CDs along with tuition. But high quality materials are not enough qualify a training center as first rate. Other factors you should consider are the competence of trainers, degree of instructor support, IT certification focus, track record and quality of facilities.

Does the institution have professional technical trainers that are experienced in the issues at hand? Instructors must not just be knowledgeable and experienced in these fields; trainers must have effective training skills, i.e. the ability to impart skills and knowledge.

Is the training environment appropriate for skill development and acquisition of knowledge? Assess the physical setup. Visit physically. Inspect equipment and facilities. Don't be distracted by flashy settings. There is a lot of window dressing out there. 

Ask questions because you're investing your time, effort and money.
What is the course format like? Does the institution have different programs that address the same certification?
The track record of the training institution is particularly important. What is the opinion of students who have taken training in the past? What are the certification exam results of past students like?
The institution must also have clear focus with regard to certification. Does the training center have a clear understanding of what certification can and cannot do? Or is it just joining the bandwagon? Remember you can't give what you don't have. Does it provide any form of counseling advice to prospective students?

If you choose instructor-led training, you may have to learn at the pace of class set by the institution. Can you adjust all your other activities to meet the training schedule? Is this inconvenient for you? Or can you make out the time?
Still instructor-led training seems to achieve more for students that any of the other options, most particularly when there is a focus on in-depth hands-on exercises.

I have just looked at three popular preparation options. E-learning, Practice tests and Online resources are also accepted learning alternatives. You need to carefully consider each option. But don't accept just any provider or material that comes your way. Price, quality and format vary widely for materials and providers. Ultimately, the choice is yours based on what will let you reach your goal of IT certification. Can you afford to gamble? With certification, if you fail, your money is gone for good.

All the best in your IT Career,

Jide Awe

Jide Awe is the Publisher of 

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