MCSE Self-Study Options

CBT single-exam products

Last month, I examined several comprehensive MCSE computer-based training (CBT) study programs. Although these comprehensive programs are helpful, they can get expensive. What if you need a CBT study program to help you pass one class? Fortunately, several MCSE examination products offer topical components that you can purchase individually. This month, I'll look at three of these products: GartnerLearning's CBT Series, LearnKey's Standard MCSE Core CD ROM Series, and NETg's Skill Builder. I'll also examine a new interactive simulation program from PC Age, LearnByDoing Windows NT.

CBT Series
If piecemeal CBT is what you are looking for, GartnerLearning is the first stop you should make. The company offers dozens of Windows-related CBT courses for MCSE candidates, although the courses are not specifically designed for MCSE certification.

GartnerLearning's Web site offers an unstructured field of courses. The company has clustered several classes—including those using NT Server 4.0 and NT Workstation 4.0—under the Operating Systems category, and other Windows 95 MCSE self-study courses under the Networking category. GartnerLearning might consider listing all its MCSE courses under a Certification category.

GartnerLearning uses a text- and graphics-based interface. No multimedia equipment is necessary, which is helpful for users with older computers or laptops without multimedia capabilities. However, the lack of multimedia components has a downside—the GartnerLearning products are little more than online books.

I tested GartnerLearning's NT Workstation 4.0 Maintenance course. Of the four products I reviewed in this article, this software proved to be the most complicated to install. Instead of simply creating a link to an executable file on the program CD-ROM, the installation program prompted me for an installation directory and dumped the entire contents of the CD-ROM onto my hard disk. Luckily, the program consumed only 30MB of disk space.

When the installation completed, I was ready to start using the product. When you launch the software, you must provide a username and student identifier to keep your records separate from other users' records. After I provided this information, a screen showing the program's lessons and topics appeared.

When you select a topic, a screen with several options appears, as Screen 1, page 92, shows. You select what area to concentrate on using the command buttons on the upper left side of the window. The first button accesses a series of Objectives for the topic. The Concepts button presents numerous informational slides that you can scan. Once you study the concepts, you can view the steps necessary to complete the tasks that the Concepts section outlines. The Summary section provides an overview of the information you've studied.

As you move through the various topics, the main portion of the window changes to show information on each subject. When there is more than one screen of data for a topic, you scroll through the screens using the arrow buttons at the bottom of the window.

The Examples button on the left side of the main window accesses specific cases that supplement the Concepts section. The Hints button provides tips and techniques. The Questions button leads you to a series of questions that help you gauge your mastery of the CBT program subject material. The Practice button (not shown in Screen 1) presents you with a series of exercises to reinforce your learning.

The list price for the GartnerLearning CBT Series is high. However, the company plans to rework its pricing structure to make the software more affordable.

CBT Series
Contact: GartnerLearning * 800-532-7672
Price: $950
System Requirements: 33MHz 486DX processor or better, 8MB of RAM, 35MB of hard disk space, Windows 3.1 or later

Standard MCSE Core CD ROM Series
If you are a busy systems administrator, LearnKey understands that your time is limited. This company has a good study option for you. The Standard MCSE Core CD ROM Series is a set of 16 CD-ROMs containing interactive instruction and testing software. The material in the Standard package includes everything you need to pass your core MCSE certification exams. The Standard package topics cover Windows NT Workstation 4.0; Windows NT Server 4.0; Networking Essentials; and Windows NT Server 4.0, Enterprise Edition.

You need a well-equipped system to run the LearnKey programs. LearnKey's published specifications are somewhat low (100MHz 486 processor with 2X CD-ROM drive). To get the full benefit of the streaming videos, I used my American Megatrends dual Pentium II processor with a 3-D multimedia package running NT Workstation 4.0.

Installing the software is simple. You insert the CD-ROM, run the setup program, and answer questions about how you want to install the software. I finished the installation in 45 seconds.

After you launch the program, a logon screen asks you to supply a user name and password. This feature lets more than one user access the software on one system.

After you log on, the product's instructions appear, as Screen 2 shows. The top portion of the window contains either interactive instructions or your test questions, depending on which option you choose to view. On the lower left side of the window is an index of the topics the instructions cover; a yellow arrow highlights the topic you are currently studying. To the right of the index is a series of command buttons, including Interact, Test, Help, and Exit.

The Interact feature lets you perform a task while the software displays a list of steps necessary to complete the task. For example, if you want to add a new user to the domain, click the Interact button and select Add A User To The Domain. A screen containing step-by-step instructions appears. You can follow the steps or click the Coach Me button, which will simulate the steps to follow in its display.

The software challenges your understanding of the subject material in several ways. Each lesson contains pre- and postinstruction quizzes. The preinstruction quiz gauges your understanding of the subject material, and identifies weak areas. The postinstruction quiz tests your mastery of the material. In addition, each lesson contains one or more Challenges, which are either questions or simulations. You access challenges from the menu options.

The list price for the Standard MCSE Core CD ROM Series is high but not unreasonable, considering the product's interactive instruction and testing. Buying a series of instructional videotapes and exam-testing software piece by piece would cost considerably more.

Standard MCSE Core CD ROM Series
Contact: LearnKey * 800-865-0165
Price: $1095.95
System Requirements: 100MHz 486 processor or better, 2X CD-ROM drive, 8MB of RAM, SoundBlaster-compatible sound card, 3MB of hard disk space, Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 95

Skill Builder
The National Education Training Group's (NETg's) Skill Builder is a complete set of CBT courseware you can use for your MCSE self-study program.

NETg's MCSE study programs consist of one or more CD-ROMs. The CD-ROMs are grouped together to form courses, and each CD-ROM has a course number, even though there may be more than one CD-ROM to a course. When you start the software, you provide a username and password, which allows multiple users access to the software and keeps their test scores and other information separate.

To study an MCSE examination topic, you must complete one or more courses. I studied two topics--Implementing and Supporting Windows NT Server 4.0 and Implementing and Supporting Windows NT Server 4.0 in the Enterprise. These two topics consisted of 11 courses on CD-ROMs to prepare me for two MCSE examinations. All of NETg's courses have the Microsoft Approved Study Guide status.

Unlike CBT products that present narrated video content, Skill Builder offers slides with descriptive audio overlay. Each course consists of several instructional units and a pretest, which lets you identify your weak areas. A mastery module tests your knowledge of the material.

The software installs in no time. Setup copies a few small files to your hard disk, and places a shortcut (pointing to an executable program on the CD-ROM) on your Start menu. The installation program asks for an installation directory where it can place certain files for which it needs write permission. Installing all 11 CD-ROMs took less than 30 minutes.

Using the software is easy and enjoyable. However, I had to take a break from the monotony of staring at multiple slides of information. Clicking the Pause button stops the presentation, and clicking a second time restarts it. The software also has a bookmark feature.

Skill Builder has a course map that lets you quickly see which units you've mastered, which units you have already viewed, and which units you have still to view. You can skip around to different portions of each course, rather than let the software present information in a predetermined order. Screen 3 shows Skill Builder's standard presentation interface on the NT Server 4.0 Analysis and Optimization CD-ROM.

The cost for the Skill Builder programs varies. Nevertheless, it's one of the most expensive self-study programs I've reviewed in this CBT series.

Skill Builder
Contact: NETg * 800-265-1900 (ext. 3)
Price: $1650
System Requirements: 33MHz 486DX processor or better, 8MB of RAM, 2X CD-ROM drive, Windows 3.1 or later

LearnByDoing Windows NT
PC Age designed LearnByDoing Windows NT for people who don't have access to an NT computer. The software is an interactive package that lets you perform common administrative tasks in a simulated NT environment. The LearnByDoing product does not cover specific material and is a little too advanced for ordinary users.

PC Age offers two versions of LearnByDoing: LearnByDoing Windows NT (what I refer to as the regular version) and LearnByDoing Windows NT Advanced Administration. I tested the Advanced Administration product. This package contains more than 100 simulations, in which users perform various advanced administrative chores, such as configuring a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) client, installing a Remote Access Service (RAS) server, and installing and configuring Gateway Services for NetWare (GSNW). The regular version of the software is more basic, showing users how to perform such activities as creating user accounts, creating home directories, and setting account restrictions.

Installing the software took seconds, because the installation program simply creates a Start menu entry pointing to an executable program on the program's CD-ROM. You click the program's icon to launch a window with a list-bar-style menu, then select one of the simulations.

The LearnByDoing software is not an alternative to a good study guide. The program doesn't explain the steps you take to perform a task. Nor is the software a good companion to a study guide, because the examples in the software follow a set series of steps that might vary in a study guide.

In addition, the simulations are not truly interactive. For example, instead of creating a simulated NT environment and giving you a task to perform, the LearnByDoing interface tells you what do to via a small instruction window within the display, as Screen 4, page 94, shows. Clicking or typing anything other than what the software expects or has asked you to do results in an alarm sound. Therefore, the simulation is really just a presentation that you must interact with to complete.

The step-by-step advance feature can be helpful because it will animate the step you have to complete when you click the appropriate arrow button. You can bypass each step, by having the simulator do it for you or by clicking the Step Forward button. For example, if Step 1 asks you to click the Start button and you click the Step Forward button, the program will move the animated cursor within the presentation and click the Start Button for you.

This step-by-step advance feature is the only testing tool I found in the software that had promise. If you are reading a study guide on how to set up a RAS server and you cannot follow the example in your mind's eye, you can use this advance feature to watch a play-by-play.

LearnByDoing Windows NT is a unique package that holds promise for the future. But, PC Age needs to add more simulations and make the simulations more realistic.

LearnByDoing Windows NT
Contact: PC Age * 800-722-4360
Price: $99
System Requirements: 486 processor or better, 8MB of RAM, 2X CD-ROM drive, 2MB of hard disk space, Windows 3.1 or later
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