Virtual Labs Have Evolved – Have You?

From whence we came.

Hands-on labs are not a new thing. As long as there has been technology education, there has been a need and desire to practice what you learn. The very first hands-on lab I did was pretty amazing (cue sarcasm). I had to write COBOL code on paper, because actual mainframe time was at a premium.

We were given a problem and had to write the logic to solve it—again, with pen and paper—and hand it to our Instructor for grading.

Corey Hynes, Skillable's Founder and Executive Chairman of the Board

Corey Hynes
Executive Chairman of Skillable

Hands-on labs, as we think of them today, became a mainstream part of technical education in the 90s with Microsoft and Novell incorporating
them into virtually every training course they released.

Thankfully, things have evolved since then.

Training labs of every type.

Labs have appeared in various forms over the years, including:

Sandboxes.

This fairly unsophisticated type of lab is still quite popular on many of today’s content platforms that simply want to offer labs. A sandbox is an environment, typically with some restrictions, that allows users to “play” or “experiment” with technology. Often billed as “open worlds” or “flexible,” these labs are nothing more than access to software without any guidance on how to use the tool. The idea is you have learned something through video or text and now can experiment with it. Think of a sandbox as Lego bricks—no instructions or goal, just build what you want. However, if you don’t know what you’re doing beforehand, the entire process can be overwhelming, frustrating and time wasting. Learn more about the limitations of sandboxes.

Step-by-step or walkthroughs.

This type of lab has been the default lab style for nearly 30 years. Typically, it consists of an environment containing software and then a set of highly detailed click-by-click instructions. Personally, I created dozens—if not hundreds—of these labs over the last 20 years. As software has evolved, this lab style has been relegated to the past. Step-by-step labs are time consuming to make, difficult to maintain and essentially amount to a reading exercise for learners. I can’t tell you how many times as an Instructor I had a student struggle with a lab only to find out they misread one step four pages ago, and the user should have been named Robert, not Roerbt.

Scenario.

Though they are less common, scenario labs have appeared in various forms over the years. In general, a scenario lab blends the openness of a sandbox with the direction and guidance of a step-by-step lab. Scenario labs use a design in which learners are given objectives and processes, but not detailed instructions. Imagine an instruction like: “Create a user named Robert who is an Administrator.” You know what to do, but not the steps to get there. These labs are often pitched as a higher or better form of lab. You must solve for the how, but not the what or the why.

In the world of cloud where software evolves on a continual basis,
labs that are 100% dependent on a user interacting with a UI in a
very specific way are not sustainable.

A learner's ability to follow instructions is not evidence of a skill.

That aside, for all the negatives of step-by-step labs, they do have their uses. If you’re looking for a way to provide someone who has no familiarity with the software and you’re willing to invest in the creation and maintenance of the lab, this style might be a good fit. 

Skill challenges.

Challenges are the newest form of lab, leveraging modern instructional design and scoring technology. Centered around the principles of challenge-centric learning, these labs blend the best of lab types. In a challenge-focused lab, learners are presented with a scenario and a set of objectives. Depending on the difficulty of the challenge, they may be presented with hints, tips, procedures, videos or other instructional materials to help the learner accomplish the objectives. At the end, the learners’ ability to solve problems, devise solutions and perform tasks is scored. You have a contextual scenario and you need to determine what to do and how to do it. Where you struggle, you have help. Challenge labs enable learners to learn more and are provided with a clear picture of their current skillset. 

Skillable provides training labs for the future.

When I was an Instructor teaching Microsoft, Netware, Linux and Oracle back in the 90s, I had an easy way to tell if a student did the work to complete a lab. Typically, if Lab 3 did not work, it was because they did not do Lab 2 correctly. When training was linear, this was more or less ok. While sequential step-by-step labs were a sure-fire way to determine if students “did the work,” they did not determine if they “had the skill.” In almost all my classes, I would forgo the vendor-built labs for my own custom challenge scenarios. My students were presented with real problems and tested to see if they could figure them out, enabling them to learn more in the process.

In today’s world, the risks are higher. Software is more complex. Organizations need more than a participation award to have confidence that their employees have the right skills at the right time. They demand verifiable evidence of skill. Whether it’s part of a hiring process to ensure the massive investment in hiring and onboarding is worth it or knowing the employee on the night shift knows how to address problems, scored labs have become the best tool to deliver that confidence.

So, what is a truly modern lab experience?

Modern labs engage learners in more ways than just reading.

A modern lab does more than present learners with a series of steps to complete or a procedure to follow. A modern lab presents real-world information and real-world scenarios and directs learners to produce outcomes. It does not care how outcomes are produced, the tools used or even if additional help was needed. It only cares that learners can achieve the result. This is the ultimate measure of skill. Given a set of conditions and a set of constraints, do users have the skills to produce the desired result in the desired time?

Modern labs utilize active learning. Active learning is more engaging, motivating and drives a higher level of retention and skill acquisition as learners must continuously assess, comprehend and make decisions.

Users must then put those decisions into action and react to feedback from both the software and the lab environment in real time. For today’s learner, it’s not enough to know what to do or how to do it, they must be able to put those skills into action.

Modern labs produce high fidelity evidence of skill.

I have signed tens of thousands of course completion certificates over the years. Yet, my signature on a piece of paper is merely proof an individual sat in a room for a few hours—nothing more. It is not evidence of skill. Likewise, the fact that someone has answered a few dozen computer-based multiple-choice questions is not indicative of skill. 

Think about it: Would you hire a painter for your house without seeing pictures of their work? Would you trust someone to give you a haircut without seeing their previous work? Requiring high fidelity evidence is prevalent in everyday simple interactions, yet in technology, we often settle for weak claims when trusting individuals with jobs and roles that, if performed incorrectly, can have a material impact on business.

Skillable uses “Activity-based Assessments” to provide evidence of skill. These assessments do not ask questions, but rather evaluate changes to a software environment to ensure tasks were completed correctly:

  • Is software configured in a correct way?
  • Was a formula used to calculate the correct result in a spreadsheet?
  • Did learners meet a time or performance level?
  • Is something that was broken now working correctly?
  • Did you properly apply a patch to address a vulnerability?


These assessments provide the high-fidelity evidence needed to confidently determine if a person has, or does not have, a skill.

Modern labs are highly personalized.

Lab personalization comes in several forms; modern labs have all of them.

  • Modern labs personalize the scenario and instructions.
    • For example, Skillable incorporates technology known as “tokens” in lab instructions. These tokens represent a broad spectrum of information about the learner, the software they are working with and the way it’s implemented. This may include usernames needed for the lab, the specific names and details of cloud resources and set preferences. These tokens allow everything from tips, hints and instructions to assessments and scripts to be perfectly tailored to your unique lab instance. This is vitally important when labs are deployed on the public cloud where global uniqueness and identity are key.
  • Modern labs personalize the experience by tailoring it to your difficulty preference.
    • Preference can be set by you or determined through assessment. For example, if learners already possess a subset of the skill in the lab, those areas are automatically made more challenging while those they struggle with are made easier.
  • Modern labs are personalized for the organization.
    • Skillable enables organizations to change the look and feel of the virtual lab experience to match internal branding and themes. Furthermore, the lab can be personalized using the organization’s dictionary. Instead of referring to a generic “Web App,” the terminology can be changed to “North America Order Processing Queue” or whatever the organization chooses. This deep personalization makes the lab more real, relatable and, ultimately, more trustworthy.

Modern labs incorporate high levels of automation.

Modern labs, like modern software, are highly interconnected. Skillable incorporates a framework called “Lifecycle Actions” that enable the author to expand the reach of a traditional lab and perform any action they wish across any software, cloud or service. For example, perhaps your lab requires the creation of an account in a secondary environment or to download or provision some data. Or a separate account is needed to simply send notifications or to log data at the end of a lab. This framework provides the tools to do that in real time.

Automation is not limited to the lab itself. Skillable incorporates automation into the lab experience. Instructional Designers can craft experiences that allow the training lab to transform in real time in response to the user. My favorite is the “chaos monkey” technique. Imagine a lab environment that will break in some random, unknown way, midway through the lab. It’s now up to the learner to troubleshoot, diagnose and fix the lab. Instructors can leverage Activity-based Assessments to verify they were successful.

Imagine if before you allowed someone to support production software, they first had to complete a series of challenges in which they had to diagnose and fix that software. Every time they take the challenge it is broken in a different, unpredictable way. With each successful “fix” you collect evidence that you can use to determine their readiness to support the real, mission critical software that you rely on every day. What if talent management activities such as recruiting, retention and professional development were based on the same framework?

Top five things you should be doing if you want modern, hands-on training labs:

  1. Using challenge-centric design: Your training labs should present scenarios with various levels of guidance that rely on active learning, not walkthroughs.
  2. Collecting high-fidelity evidence: A lab should give irrefutable evidence that tasks were completed and completed correctly by measuring what changed in the software environment.
  3. Applying personalization: Labs should understand and adapt to the learner, the scenario and the organization.
  4. Implementing automation: Your lab should allow you to change the environment in real time to adapt to learners’ needs, create new challenges, test new skills and create a holistic experience.
  5. Delivering interactivity and feedback: Lab instructions should interact with the virtual lab environment. Beyond just copy/paste of text, instructions should change based on the changes made to the lab environment. Additionally, allow your instructions to interact with and modify your lab environment. Hands-on labs should provide real-time feedback to the learner as well as capture extensive telemetry and proof points for the organization.

Interested in skill validation?

We’d love to talk with you about how you and your team can bring skills validation to your training programs for customers, partners and employees. Request a demo.

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