This is the third of a series of articles that reviews where Well House Consultants has been - and where we're going - after 6 years of blogging and some 3000 articles. - "towards the next 3000"
Moving Course Material and Presentation forward
What has changed recently / will or may change, sooner or later ...
• Colour Manuals
If you've attended a course already this month, you'll have taken away your course notes / manual complete with full colour diagrams where appropriate; we've recently replaced our 40 page a minute duplexing monochrome printer with a similar colour model - using technologies that were just a dream just a few years ago.
Should we provide manuals electronically too?
We've chosen - thus far - not to do so; the main issue is that delegates like to write on / make notes in their books, and technology doesn't yet have us to the point where every delegate could make notes as quickly and easily as with pen and paper - you'll see them come into class with pens and paper rather than with their own laptop to make notes, so supplying a .pdf only
would be a retrograde step; supplying both may be an option (and we do already for delegates) but there's a question there over controlled and audited distribution; on one hand, we want the manuals out to be useful and as a sales aid, on the other hand we've got a big investment that we can't give away to a lot of people for free - it would be fair neither on us, nor on the people who pay for our courses.
• Customer's own systems
For on site courses, we've always provided one workstation (laptop) per delegate for use throughout the course. That's because delegate companies didn't used to have lots of kit lying around, because of setup issues on their own systems, and because they didn't want to try out all sorts of experiments (including opening and closing security holes) on their own key work systems. And once we had a fleet of (say) 12 machines, there was little point in not
using them ... it made little difference in cost to have them carried in the car to site and switch on, or left at home.
However - there's been something of a drift in that last year or two. Virtually every delegate now has his own laptop, and some of the things that we train on are on many operating systems by default, or are trivial to install. For some subjects (e.g. web server deployment - Apache httpd / HTTP Server and Apache Tomcat) we will stick with our own machines - there's a lot of things to download and install, there remain the security aspects, we really don't want to much up delegate's settings on their own systems, and the machines end up being grouped during the course for proxying / load balancing / clustering / hot standby practicals which means there's an element of tiding up afterwards.
For on-site courses, we're already moving towards customers providing some equipment; every week we're training four or five delegate at least, so we always need that many computers. But as computer stock levels increase, the 9th and 10th machines aren't exactly in hot use every week and by the time we get to delegates 14 and 15, we're stocking / purchasing computers that are only used once in a blue moon. Add to that, a preference for delegates to use the operating system / editor / environment they're used to, and add further the need for the tutor to drive, overland to take all the kit (when flying or train would be some of quicker / cheaper / more relaxing) and you'll see that we're not wedded to providing all the kit.
We will - for the foreseeable future - continue to have one workstation per delegate available for public courses in Melksham. We will continue to offer systems on-site - at least up to the number of delegates who attend our public courses (8 systems) - but I would expect that more and more we'll be using systems supplied by the delegates and having them learn on their own equipment, in the environment in which they'll be working. Not only will it save on us (and keep price rises to a minimum), but it will also give them a more tuned experience. And our tutor's experienced enough to be able to help across editors / operating systems / environments.
• More Pair Learning
. "Pair programming" is where two people work together on a single keyboard to develop code. First (Manager's) reaction is "inefficient" ... but think about it. You get a far better thought through piece of code. You get far fewer blind alleys / madcap ideas tried and pulled back. And you get two team members who both know the code, thus avoiding "key man" issues when one's off sick / left the company / retired / too busy on other work.
When I used to train people on Solaris, using Sun Equipment, and on Irix and GL using Silicon Graphics equipment, we initially provided just one workstation between two delegates. And - especially for systems admin course - it worked very well indeed. People paired up, people discussed things between them during practical sessions, and they actually gained more and came up with better results than they would have done each with their own machine. Almost regrettably, to market the courses we added inventory (and in those days cost) so that we could claim "fully / properly resourced" courses for which the price and profit went up but for little or no gain for the delegates, though they didn't realise this!
Hardware has become a commodity these days, and our training techniques have moved on too - we're doing some "pair" work already and I can see much more of this in the future. Some things change - but we'll remain committed to practical training for tasks to be undertaken at work or as part of an interest
rather than school / college training where the objective is to be able to pass a particular exam, or to receive a certificate of endurance / completion, and where the balance may be against pair learning.
• Video, webinar courses, etc
. Five years ago, people were telling me that the classroom would be dead in five years. But here I am, in mid-October, with something on my schedule and delegates lined up for courses in all weeks except 2 to the end of the year. The death of the classic "tutor and students" was much overrated; for programming courses, for the sort of thing we do, book learning and those other tools are helpful and can be used in parts but the are not a complete replacement.
You may have noticed a video on the blog a few weeks ago ... and where there was a first drip, there will later be more (I'm not going to say a torrent - I don't know yet!). And we're not only looking at conventional video, but also session recording / playback, etc - and indeed we're doing some experimentation with Camtasia software at present. The initial work is too rough for release even in "alpha" form yet ... but watch this space.
. I've always said "provide a room and the students and we'll do the rest." Of course, I should have added that we ask customers to provide tables, chairs and electricity too. But we have NOT asked for internet connection; the setting up of this, to allow Well House machines that have been used for all sort of jobs in all sorts of places inside a firewall, has been a serious concern to many customers - and indeed to ourselves, where we're concerned at the risk of having the finger pointed at us if there's a network security issue than comes to light after a course. However, things move on and we're usually online these days through a 3G mobile internet connection - independent of our customer's network, works at around 95% of UK customer sites, and provides a very acceptable level of service for browsing to reference sites and data sources during the course.
• Evaluations, and preps
. Let's face it - it's expensive to get someone trained. You have the course costs, you have their travel expenses and hotel expenses (if they're away from base), and you have their salary to pay during the time they're learning rather than in their normal production role. So you want to make sure that they're going to get the maximum possible benefit from the course.
I have seen many - far too many - cases of people sent on courses too early (so that they attend, then forget, before they have to do the job), too late (so that they're on a course after they've struggled to self-teach for a long time, and indeed may have succeeded in self-teaching), or at the wrong level - on a basic course where a faster or more advanced one would be better.
A number of years ago, we ran some "quiz sites" that let prospective delegates try out their skills; they worked well, but were (IMHO) somewhat ahead of their time, and didn't get the use they could / should. All the background statistical work was done to ensure that the results were significant (i.e. that the chance of a different result based on uniformly lucky / unlucky guesses was very low indeed) but at the same time we didn't make the tests unnecessarily long. Time to look after these sites was always a factor (and we didn't have enough time - not for the software work, which was easy, but for the data behind them), and we also found ourselves with a tool that could all too easily create aggression in the tested delegates; questions had to be very clear, very carefully asked, up to date, and set by someone who really knew his stuff (and even then people argued!). However, the time is coming for us to learn on our experience and to provide a new, precourse evaluation assessment. It may be available online. Or it may be on major customer sites. And / or we may put delegates in front of systems and ask them to complete it as the course starts, so that the tutor knows how to get the best of each group.
Mandatory preparations for delegates ... now there
is a difficult subject. We tell delegates to come fresh, rested, and without a stack of worries / distractions / things they have to deal with during the course. There's nothing like having to call a solicitor to push a house move through during a coffee break to help you forget the Perl you have just been taught ... unless you're calling your ex to fight over access to the children during lunch!
We do not
tell delegates to do any specific reading ahead of time as experience shows that there may be good intentions, and some may do so ... but others don't and we end up with a split class. And some will read up and get some odd ideas too! Such preparations are, though, more practical for a private, single-company course and there could be gains to be made through orchestrated pre-course work.
. "We have over 700 Open Source Books on our shelves". Yes, we do - and that will continue to grow. But not as fast as it used to. Some books are dated, and with some subjects the books / reference material is very much online as well as (or even instead of) the printed page. I recall training at a big company in Herfordshire, with a large technical library just off reception. But last time I was there, the library was gone - "oh yes - it's all online these days".
We've seen technical bookshops come and grow, and then the computing shelves gently reducing in size ... indeed we've seen Borders in the UK fold completely (though not, let's be fair, due to issues in the computing book market!). Places like Blackstones in Oxford and Foyles in London remain as beacons for browsing and buying (letting me loose in one of those is like letting a child into a candy store!) and I even question the book-selling levels in our subjects for online retailers such as Amazon - do their computing book sales hold up?
In the dustier recesses of our website is our library listing; it needs updating, and we need the more recent books adding in. But I don't foresee it ever being a big money spinner for commission, nor do I see it as a top priority to get it back and operational in full glory.
• Follow up exercises
. After courses, we give delegates a review sheet to complete (feedback is vital) and a sheet reminding them that they can get back in touch if they need to. In practice, at Well House Consultants we're a bit like mother and father bird, and once the chicks are fledged and have left the nest they become far more skilled than we even will in particular niches, and they rarely look back. Except that, years later, they may get in touch to introduce someone else or to come back, with fond memories of a previous experience, to learn a new subject.
But for those early testings of the winds, away from the nest, there have been suggestions of adding extra exercises at the end of courses or chapters that give delegates some further practice / practical things to try before they jump in with their live applications. I was very impressed very recently by the style and approach of "Engineering Mathematics" by K A Stroud and D J Booth and may learn a few lessons from those masters. [link to book]
I don't know about further exercises such as these to follow up; it may happen, and if it does we'll certainly be providing sample answer and support too. After all - our customers are our ambassadors, and we're proud and delighted when they soar into the sky and we hear about great things they have done, or they send us updates, messages, and more delegates.
• Extra Tutor
. Over 20 years, I've only come across a handful of people who could stand up and do what I do, over such a wide range of topics. There's a big technical background, there's a desire to communicate it needed, and an ability to do so too - week in, week out. Such people are very expensive, already (rightly) doing very well for themselves, and so unlikely to want to hit the road with traveling out to some distant town the night before a course, humping kit in and out, etc, week in and week out. I've said before - if Dxxxx or Pxxxx approached me and asked, I would love to expand in that way.
But you may also have heard me saying that I wouldn't recommend that companies send their employees who they want to learn Perl onto a course run by the author or Perl, nor to learn Python from the author of Python. Quite apart from the cost, these people are superb at working with language and the advanced stuff, but it's not effective use of their time and intellect to be doing the basics of "learning to program in ..." where we're looking at computer programming techniques, but with a Perl, Python or PHP spread on top of it. And - as I get geekier too - I can see that we'll have a separate and more apt tutor teaching our courses for newcomers to programming
. Which may - in time - lead to him/her taking on more of the intermediate courses that are our bread and butter.
• Stay away more
. As traffic on the roads gets busier, fuel and travel get more expensive, and I get older and slow down a little, I expect to follow the trend that you may have seen already over a couple of years - daily community less to private courses, but rather staying away even quite close to home, and travelling out the evening before / back on the morning after in many cases.
It's not just that I'm getting older, though. Time spend driving - especially - is time wasted from doing too much else. In a train, time is "quality" time that I can work / think, and hotel time is a real gain - I can really get on rather than be glaring at someone's bumper on the M25. Look on the other side, too. We run a hotel - and it's excellent research to see how others do it; I come back and will continue to come back with stories of how they do it - 9 out of 10 such stories will be reminders of how we should not
do something (and the sanity check is useful) but there are the occasional excellent ideas that I'm happy to steal!
• Support Web Site
. Ah - there could be a complete story here. The web site behind our training is critical to bringing in new delegates and providing ongoing service and interest for the customers we already have. I've made a few specific reference above to possible change - but the main message here at "3000" has to be a stability of purpose - bt a development with (and perhaps slightly ahead of) the times. As the site has grown, issues such as content indexing has grown (we're already "cms"d, "web2"d and programmed to reduce maintenance issues!)
• Ordering system
. Most training companies require payment with order, and work via a booking form. Then have problems with certain Leviathan companies who insist on (bully them) into a special deal ... "we are XXXX - if you want our business you MUST accept that we won't pay you until 42 working days after we receive your invoice after the course". We have typically offered 28 days payment terms to well established companies; at first, it was very much easier as it gave companies an assurance that they wouldn't loose if we went out of business. However, we're clearly around to stay, credit cards tend to offer guarantees anyway, so we're moving towards a situation where we may be able to request payment with order, or something along those lines. There seems little point in continuing with a system that's no longer industry standard, and which results in the inevitable and frustrating task of occasionally having to chase late payers - with all the extra costs we incur. This was brought home to me just the other day, when I was passed an account for a course that we gave just after the August Bank Holiday, and is now overdue; I know for a fact that the course was booked by a reseller, who was paid by the end user customer when he ordered the course in March!
• Worldwide View
. It has always struck me as inefficient that we write and run courses at one centre in the UK, when the material and subjects are relevant across the whole English Speaking world. It's darned good material / they're excellent courses for you to learn on ... and indeed some people travel from far and wide to attend and we do have our own hotel to accommodate people. But - let's face it - that's not a practical way to tap the Australian / New Zealand / United States / Canadian ... etc ... markets as a whole.
Two other aspects here (to be mentioned). Firstly, how to provide training for companies who are spread around lots of worldwide locations ("we have 10 from East Anglia and 2 near Chicago who need the course") and, secondly, how to best train delegates for whom English is not their first language ... or who perhaps don't speak English to any great extent if at all.
I'm not suggesting Franchising; see my comments earlier in this article about who delivers the course. And I'm not totally thinking online either. I'm not planning worldwide tours; I don't have the time nor the organization to find everyone (though there is a very wide spread who do
know our web site!). So this "Worldwide view" sits on the end of my looking forward - training delivery - post as something of an open question. No crystal ball to hand, but doors that may open in the future, including some that haven't been invented yet.
Links to other articles in the series
A brief look back
Looking forward in overview - the next 3000
How will course presentation change in coming years?
Course subjects - what does the future hold?
Well House Manor - the next six years
Personal stuff - back and forward six years.
(written 2010-10-17, updated 2010-11-08)
Associated topics are indexed as below, or enter http://melksh.am/nnnn for individual articlesG310 - Well House Consultants - A better class of course 
Back in the saddle again - excellent open source course from Well House Consultants - (2015-11-26) 
Well House Consultants - Python courses / what's special. - (2015-10-28) 
Making use of huge data, object orientation, unit testing and frameworks - (2014-06-07) 
C++ Courses - do I get official certification at the end of my Well House course? - (2012-01-20) 
Data that we use during our training courses, and other training resources - (2011-09-04) 
Do university courses teach the right things for life at work later on? - (2011-08-10) 
The importance of feedback - (2011-04-30) 
Well House - Mission and Policy summaries - (2010-05-13) 
Why do I teach niche skills rather than mainstream? - (2010-02-13) 
Are we IITT (Institute of IT Training) members? - (2009-05-17) 
Why most training fails ... - (2009-03-30) 
Books and distance learning from Well House Consultants? - (2009-03-15) 
Weekday or Weekend PHP, Python and Perl classes? - (2009-03-10) 
Why Choose Well House Consultants for your course? - (2009-02-20) 
How long should a training module be? - (2009-01-27) 
Learning to Program in C - (2008-12-10) 
Seeing how others do it - PHP training - (2008-05-17) 
Making PHP and MySQL training relevant to the course delegates - (2008-03-15) 
New trainee laptop fleet for our Open Source courses - (2007-12-30) 
What makes our courses special? - (2007-12-02) 
Longer hours and better value courses - (2007-01-15) 
In praise of training course delegates. - (2006-05-20) 
PHP - London course, Melksham Course, Evening course - (2006-03-14) 
Short Linux and Perl courses for small groups - (2006-01-27) 
Learning to program in Perl or PHP - (2006-01-26) 
''I don't know'' is sometimes a good answer - (2006-01-09) 
What backup is adequate? - (2006-01-04) 
I have a river to cross - (2005-11-16) 
A year on - should we offer certified PHP courses - (2005-07-28) 
The training team that's looking out for you - (2005-07-07) 
Want to be one better - (2005-06-17) 
Elegant languages - Perl, PHP, Python - (2005-04-26) 
Course sizes - beware of marketing statistics - (2005-02-27) 
YOUR application and YOUR data - (2005-02-22) 
Some unusual features - (2005-02-18) 
Open Source becomes mainstream - (2005-02-14) 
Look after your staff and they'll look after you. AOL. - (2005-02-12)
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