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How Microsoft's renovation of the Authorized Technical Education Center (ATEC) program will affect training

Microsoft has made major changes to the Authorized Technical Education Center (ATEC) program that will take effect in this year. Microsoft calls the new program ATEC98. For a list of the changes, see the sidebar "ATEC98: What's New?" To understand the new program from Microsoft's perspective, I interviewed Marsha Kabakov, director of the training channels program at Microsoft.

What was the driving force behind the changes to the ATEC program?

Customer feedback. We want to provide courses about a specific technology soon after that technology comes out, and to create a pool of qualified people to deliver those courses. We want to help businesses rapidly implement new technologies.

We converted the Microsoft University program to the ATEC program 3 years ago. The ATEC98 program is another major step forward. Microsoft's goals are to make the training more convenient for customers and to provide just-in-time training with more flexibility, so that courses can respond to each customer's specific needs.

The new program emphasizes online training. How will this affect existing training centers?

ATEC98 places a heavy emphasis on online training. The Microsoft OnLine Institute (MOLI) is now closed, but Microsoft has merged the MOLI's content with the ATEC program and expanded the online program. A group of ATECs provided most of the MOLI's online training anyway, so the change reflects reality. Now one program will provide both classroom and online training. The ATECs offering online instruction will be able to localize course content and determine their hours of operation. Each ATEC will be responsible for the quality of its online training.

Originally a dial-in network, MOLI moved to the Microsoft Network (MSN) when MSN started. As MSN's focus shifted from providing online content to giving users access to third-party content, MOLI had to change. Microsoft will share with the online ATECs what the company learned from MOLI, so that the ATECs can use Microsoft's experience to improve their online programs.

How does the role of the instructor change in ATEC98?

Instructors are very important in online training. Training needs to be interactive, and a good online instructor can add a great deal of value to a course. Web-based training makes interaction easier than bulletin boards or email-based systems did, because Internet communications can eliminate lag time between questions and answers. Those instructors who have always added value to their classroom courses will do well online, and those who have delivered their courses without improving much on the provided materials will not do well.

How do you see the content of the ATEC courses changing?

The quality of the course content will remain high, but the course topics will become more customer driven than Microsoft driven. Microsoft considers trainer preparation very important, because trainers must be able to respond to customers' requirements. ATEC98 will require a new model for training the trainers, so that they can give their clients the most up-to-date information available. Microsoft is considering several options, including putting training materials for Microsoft Certified Trainers (MCTs) online.

How will this new model for training trainers affect the quality of trainers and training?

Microsoft is trying to address the issue of trainer quality. Employing high-quality trainers will be extremely important in ATEC98. Microsoft wants to improve the quality of trainers' training, to remove the inconsistency in trainer quality that has been a problem in the past. ATEC quality standards will not go down.

Some people have the perception that Microsoft is lowering ATEC requirements and that any organization can become an ATEC under the new plan. ATEC98 will not even require ATECs to have a classroom.

The ATECs will still have to abide by current standards. So far, the ATEC market has been open. Microsoft does not prevent organizations from becoming ATECs, as long as their business plan, their staff's qualifications, and other aspects of their organization meet certain requirements. These requirements still apply under ATEC98. If an ATEC chooses not to have a classroom, that ATEC may not offer public classes, but it may provide online courses or customized, private training onsite. Microsoft will require ATECs to submit evaluations for all private classes that use Microsoft courseware. Microsoft sees customized training as a market that will increase substantially over the next several years.

Some people think that letting Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs) deliver classes will erode standards. What motivated Microsoft to make the decision to let MCPs teach?

Public classes still require an MCT. Anyone signing up for a public class should know what to expect, and the MCT certification helps ensure that the instructor meets a certain standard. However, clients that schedule private classes often prefer a particular instructor who is not an MCT but has a background in the industry and with the product. This preference is especially prevalent in companies looking for BackOffice and programming classes. A company may already be working with an MCP on a consulting basis and want the MCP, with whom its employees are comfortable, to deliver a private class. Keep in mind that the client makes the decision about who teaches the class. A client that receives instruction from an MCP of its choice will not be getting less than it bargained for. Such decisions require a judgment call on the part of both the client and the ATEC.

Do you anticipate continued growth in the training business?

Definitely. Very strong growth. Making predictions in the computer business is hard, but last year growth was way ahead of most predictions. Microsoft is very aware of the need to retrain currently employed professionals and train new people coming into the IS business.

I don't see any sign of the growth slowing. I see a lot of opportunity out there, and with all the new products Microsoft is introducing, customers will have an even greater need for information and training.

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