How to evaluate and compare virtual IT lab providers in 2024

How to evaluate virtual IT labs providers

Buyer guide with tips to help you select the best hands-on learning platform.

Whether you’re new to hands-on learning experience platforms or about to reevaluate your existing virtual lab provider, this article will help you navigate the virtual IT lab software market, answer your questions about how to make an informed decision when selecting a virtual lab provider and help you avoid buyer’s remorse.

If you’re wondering how to write an RFP (request for proposal) for a virtual lab environment or platform, this is a great resource as it includes tips and guidance on selection criteria and questions to ask.

To help you make the right choice, here are eight domains with questions to help you determine the best virtual IT lab provider for you.

Hands-on learning platform capabilities.

Traditional virtual training labs that guide learners on how to use technology, software or tools can be overly prescriptive—telling a user what buttons to click and what steps to follow. While this approach is valuable for basic knowledge transfer, it’s limited in its ability to create sticky skills and knowledge retention.

To rapidly build and validate new skills, learners must be taught when, why and how to use tools within a real environment (not a simulation). This enables them to freely explore the environment and receive real-time feedback.

Look for virtual lab providers that offer capabilities such as:

  • Automatically graded/scored labs
  • Agile, adaptive live practice learning environments
  • Automation scripts and templates to build virtual training labs faster
  • Lab Developer and Instructor tools
  • Learner guidance and support materials
  • Validate skill attainment
  • Integration into your LMS and current learning paths
  • Embraces AI to accelerate content development
  • Offers a learning management system (LMS) if needed

Below are some questions to ask providers to qualify that they can provide high-quality, robust and effective hands-on learning experiences.

You want a partner who brings expertise and a path to success. A proven track record provides confidence and peace of mind. You don’t have the time to be a vendor’s pilot project.

Training labs that challenge learners to apply their knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) to solve problems they’ll face on the job provides them with more opportunities for engagement and skill development.

The ability to automatically grade a learner’s work is important in scaling high-touch learning experiences in training modules, Performance Testing (PBT) and assessments. The right lab platform automates these, automatically checking learners’ lab work which enables you to maximize your time and resources. Learn more about scored labs.

Look for providers who enable Instructors to collaborate with learners in real-time during virtual or in-person classes or at events with lab sessions. Capabilities such as “over-the-shoulder” instructor lab monitoring equip Instructors to provide more personalized teaching experiences and positions them to quickly identify if knowledge or skills gaps exist and whether more instruction is needed.

Sandbox environments provide learners with a secure, hands-on practice environment where they can safely experiment with tools and applications. The best virtual lab vendors like Skillable offer both virtual labs and sandbox environments to provide more opportunities for skill development and learning.

Learning is no longer a “one-size-fits-all” approach so providing hands-on learning experiences that fit within synchronous and asynchronous learning and multi-modality formats is critical.

Lab authoring and development tools.

Another important factor to consider when evaluating providers is the level of effort it takes to build, integrate and deliver labs. There are numerous features providers can offer to streamline lab development and launch, including pre-built lab templates, self-publishing capabilities and more. Here are a few questions to ask vendors regarding lab development and delivery:

Look for lab providers who offer a variety of authoring tools that help you author and manage labs and provide recommendations on how to make them better.

For example, Skillable Studio provides Lab Developers with a lab authoring environment to create, edit and manage your training labs. It also includes our real-time Lab Advisor, which provides recommendations on how to enhance lab development and optimize performance.

Verify that vendors provide support for the environments you need such as cloud, virtual machines, containers, coding, data science, etc.

Industry-leading lab vendors offer self-publishing capabilities which allows you to publish labs on your own rather than gated by the vendor’s publishing process. Skillable, for example, offers self-publishing capabilities in addition to intuitive authoring tools that allow you to customize labs for specific audiences—all without IT’s involvement.

  • Sometimes you may need help building a lab, creating your first automaticallly graded assessment or developing custom courseware. Situtations like these separate a virtual lab platform company from a comprehensive hands-on learning provider.

 

  • Sample questions:
    • Do you have Instructional Designers and Lab Developers who can help us build labs if we need assistance?
    • Do you have teams that can help us write performance tests and assessments?
    • What is your experience creating custom courseware?
    • What is your lab design methodology?

This is important if the lab provider is building content for you. Organizations that follow the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standardization framework make it easier for course authors to integrate rich lab content directly into your learning management system (LMS). Benefits include the return of graded results and advanced protection of student information. Organizations such as Skillable that are LTI Advantage Complete certified have proven their commitment to standardized development to reduce amassing homegrown technical debt.

Data management and reporting.

Your ability to generate and capture more quantifiable data in measuring the effectiveness of your training programs continues to advance thanks to virtual labs.

Top virtual lab vendors enable you to use engagement and performance reporting tools that equip you and your team to analyze usage data to your desired level of granularity. The insights can help you understand where learners need additional support or where a lab may need improvement. Thus, creating opportunities for you to develop more adaptive learning environments and personalized training programs.

Asking the following questions can help you understand the analytic capabilities offered by a vendor.

  • Lab performance metric examples include: successful versus failed lab launch rates, activity script errors, launch failure errors, average latency by location, etc.

 

  • Lab engagement metric examples include: launches per learner, total run time by month/year and total learners.
  • To build agile adaptive learning environments tailored to your organization, data needs to go beyond confirming a user completed a lab. Leveraging a vendor’s data via API (application programming interface) will help provide a more seamless experience. Ask the vendor about their API capabilities and documentation. Hint: you want it well documented so it’s easier to learn and use.
  • Skillable’s APIs are fully documented in Skillable Connect so you have guidance on how to integrate into your existing LMS, CRM or other learning system for further data insights. (We can hear your developers rejoicing already.)

Vendor scalability and flexibility.

As your organization grows and evolves, your lab partner should be able to outline how they can scale and grow with you. To determine the scalability of a vendor’s capabilities, ask the following questions:

Virtual lab vendors with a global customer base should make it easy for you to provide high-performing labs to any user—regardless of location. Pay attention to how many datacenters the vendor offers and where they’re located.

You may need to provide opportunities for technology upskilling at a moment’s notice. Avoid reinventing the wheel because lab vendors like Skillable provide off-the-shelf labs that allow you to select from more than one thousand labs, license and launch them quickly so you can accelerate and complement your learning efforts.

Ask about the type of organizations that work with a vendor. This will help gauge whether they’re equipped to handle your requirements. Don’t get caught being a vendor’s first “big customer.”

Ease of use and user experience.

Virtual learning labs should be intuitive to build, deploy, use and update/edit. The shorter the learning curve, the faster outcomes are achieved. The following questions can help you determine how user-friendly a provider’s products are.

Users should have a consistent experience regardless of location, device or channel. Ask vendors how they accomplish this.

Self-service tools mean you’re in control. For example, Skillable’s self-service tools allow users such as Instructional Designers and Lab Developers to update, deploy and customize labs without help from IT or the IT lab provider.

Pre-built lab templates allow you to build, deploy and replicate labs more quickly. These templates provide the framework for the lab and can be customized as needed.

Technical support.

Regardless of how much experience you or your Lab Developers have with providing support, you may need additional help. Pay attention to how the vendor provides support.

When issues arise, seconds feel like hours and tempers can flare. You want a proactive vendor who jumps in to help identify and solve the issue. You’ll want to ensure you can reach support agents on convenient channels.

Security practices and processes.

When introducing a vendor into your ecosystem, you’re expanding your organization’s attack surface. So it’s critical to understand a vendor’s commitment and approach to security and validate with third-party sources. Vendors that are upfront about the maturity of their security posture will make it easier for you to get buy-in from your security team and pass their security assessment. 
 
While your security team will have specific questions for the lab provider, here are a couple high-level questions to start the conversation:
 
  • What steps does the vendor take to protect and secure your data?
  • How does the vendor minimize their security vulnerabilities?
  • What organization-based industry certifications do they hold validating their commitment to security?

For example, some of the security-related certifications Skillable holds include the ISO:27001 certification and SOC2 certification. It puts us in the .01% of most secure companies in the world.

Vendor reputation.

Look at customer reviews, industry recognitions, awards and third-party sites like G2.

Ultimately, you want to choose a solution and provider that’s outcome-oriented and capable of meeting you where you are today and tomorrow.

The shift to incorporating outcome-based, hands-on learning experiences such as virtual IT labs are strategic investments that yield long-term results.

Examining the eight areas above will help you determine which virtual lab provider is right for you in delivering high-touch and high-scale hands-on learning experiences as part of your training programs.

At Skillable, you’ll find that we meet the recommendations mentioned above and more. Our hands-on experiences are designed to engage learners and validate that they have the skills, enabling them to be more confident on the job and providing critical organization-specific skills data.

 

Whether you’re looking to build labs for internal employee training or custom software labs for customer/partner enablement, to make the right decision for your organization, it starts with talking with the experts.

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The most common reaction when somebody sees a Skillable demo is “I didn’t know you can do that!”

Let’s make it happen for you and your team.