HOW TO GET STARTED WITH VIRTUAL TRAINING LABS
A GUIDE FOR GETTING STARTED WITH HANDS-ON LEARNING EXPERIENCES AND VIRTUAL IT LABS.
An introduction to virtual training labs for companies looking to adopt outcome-based learning into their employee, customer and partner training programs.
Hands-on learning experiences are a better way to build and measure digital skills. Discover how virtual IT labs can help you create an integrated learning experience that can assess, develop and validate skills for your customers, partners and employees.
The half-life of a skill is shorter than ever: Five years for general skills and a measly two-and-a-half years for technology-related skills.¹ This means the longer it takes you to teach, develop, validate and then apply skills to the job, the less return you will make on your training investments.
To bring skills to market faster, “show and tell” simply isn’t enough anymore; neither are the rote “type this, click that” activities. The learning industry needs to set a new benchmark for what constitutes “hands-on learning.” It includes evolving to providing immersive, interactive and engaging environments that validate a learner’s skills through hands-on experiences with the desired outcome to be job ready.
The intent of this guide is to help lay the foundation for what is needed to get started with experiential learning that’s best for your learners.It's for professionals who are responsible for the skills development of internal and external audiences, specifically those who:
Oversee and/or work in workforce upskilling, training and education programs (e.g., Instructional Designer, corporate trainer, learning architect, curriculum development, learning & development)
Develop and manage customer education and partner enablement programs (e.g., Customer experience/education, customer success, partner enablement, technical training)
Create and manage certification and Performance Testing (PBT) initiatives and programs.(e.g., Head of Certification, Training and Certification
In this virtual lab guide, you'll learn:
Virtual labs have a lot of use cases, but don’t psych yourself out. Chart a path and take an incremental approach to creating a ‘learn by doing’ ecosystem. This helps you build a program unique to your organization’s requirements.
You’re not alone in this. If you need a sounding board or want to partner with an expert to get started, grab 30 minutes with a Skillable account executive to talk it out. We’ve helped organizations around the world strategize, author, build and launch more than 25,000,000 labs in our 20+ year history.
We have the expertise and empathy to meet you where ever you are in your lab maturity.
What are Virtual Training Labs?
Virtual training labs, also called virtual labs, virtual IT labs or hands-on labs, are cloud-based non- production environments that provide learners hands-on, interactive learning experiences. These learning environments immerse users in your technology, software or tool by giving them hands-on access to “learn by doing.” This increases skill retention rates and drives faster adoption. Labs are designed to build user competency by providing outcome-based scenarios based on real-world tasks that simultaneously teach and validate skills.
Because virtual labs are hosted in the cloud, users can access them anytime, anywhere. Eliminating barriers to learning resources provides users with more consistent and accessible education which improves the overall training experience and increases user satisfaction.
For live events such as Instructor-led classes, Instructors can proactively monitor learners’ progress and offer feedback and guidance as needed. Coupled with hands-on practice and Instructor feedback, the solution allows for maximum learning and caters to the needs of modern learners. A study from the Research Institute of America found virtual training increases learning retention rates by 25-60%.²
In an ideal world, learning would transfer perfectly into practice and then to on-the-job application. Unfortunately, the reality is that it seldom does. Users are highly likely to make mistakes during the training. It’s only when users are on the job and the risks higher that mistakes are revealed. Skills-validating practice helps both users and Instructors recognize and correct mistakes during the learning process, reducing the chances of errors reoccurring while on the job.
Virtual training labs put users in remote live, non-production environments where skills can be assessed, developed, applied and then validated in a meaningful way.
What are the different types of virtual training labs?
What’s the difference between simulations and virtual IT training labs?
Virtual training labs are designed to mimic real-world software or platforms where users can freely experiment and practice completing real-world scenarios. Simulated environments are more restrictive as users can only understand how a software or tool behaves under certain conditions.
Virtual labs provide:
- Freedom to explore in a live, non-production environment
- Flexibility to work towards specific outcomes that may have multiple solution paths
- Ability to easily manage and update the environment when software changes
Training simulations are:
- Non-live environments specifically built to mimic a specific use case of existing software or technology
- Reliant on prescriptive instructions which limit what a user can and can’t do
- Harder to manage and update when software changes
How virtual technology labs work
Labs provide users access to a copy of the software or tool. In technical terms, users access an instance (copy) of the software or tool image (image is a copy of the software used for the lab). They are hosted in secure, non- production environments either on-premises or in a datacenter (aka the cloud).
Virtual labs enable organizations to create labs and courses for their own software or topics such as:
- Coding and software development
- Cloud technologies
- Data and analytics Cybersecurity
- Artificial intelligence (AI)
- Network administration System administration
- Database administration
Organizations can customize labs with specific learning objectives and then either connect labs directly to their existing LMS or launch from a lab provider.
For example, Skillable’s virtual training platform enables you to create hands-on labs that meet the unique needs of your learner audiences, whether that’s a step-by-step, guided experience or a more complex scored lab that uses automatic scoring to give users instant feedback and track how your learners are progressing. When it comes to delivering the labs to your learners, you seamlessly integrate your organization’s LMS by using our fully-documented API or access content through our training management system (TMS).
The highly flexible and customizable nature of labs enables you to use them in a variety of settings such as training, Performance Testing (PBT), technical sales demos and events.
What are common use cases for virtual labs?
Training and skills development
Virtual labs are designed to teach and reinforce what users learn in a classroom, on- demand course or event by enabling them to apply their knowledge, skills and abilities.
For example, you could task users on how to access valuable customer data inside an organization’s CRM system or how to troubleshoot and resolve a security issue. We call this “skilling” because this approach is designed to deliver outcomes by building and proving skills development; “training” has a passive, attendance-based connotation.
For example, Comtech, a telecommunications company, wanted to improve the agility of its cybersecurity training and build an adaptive learning program based on a knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) format. By providing employees with hands-on cybersecurity labs that are easy to update, they’re able to keep pace with fast-moving best practices and high stakes threats.
Erik Wallace, Director of Sales and Business Development at Comtech, said: “Performance-based assessments are an important initiative for us. We want performance-based labs that tie back to a KSA format so that if a learner is weak in a certain area that we can recommend content that aligns with skilling needs, whether that’s lab training, a wiki, videos, courseware or a Challenge Lab.”
Thanks to their partnership with Skillable, 90 to 95% of Comtech’s learners show real-world, job-ready proficiency after course completion.
Read the Comtech case study.
Certification and Performance Testing (PBT)
“Hope” is a powerful thing—except when it comes to skills development and training program effectiveness. Organizations that hope their customers, partners and/or employees have the necessary skills are exposing themselves to financial, operational and security risks. You need to validate that your users “get it.” With scored virtual labs that’s now possible.
Organizations looking to build certification and testing programs can leverage Performance Testing (PBT) scripts and scoring so they can go beyond “pass/fail” grading.
Read more about Performance Testing (PBT) with Skillable.
Technical sales and partner enablement
“Practice makes perfect,” especially when you’re giving a sales presentation. If you’re following a product-led growth strategy, your demo must be flawless.
This is a challenge if your technical sales and partner teams aren’t provided appropriate access to what they’re selling. With a lab solution, you can change that.
Increase sales productivity by providing your account managers, solution engineers, technical account managers and channel partners the opportunities to learn and experiment with the software and tools they’re selling. The hands-on practice coupled with Instructor-led or peer-to-peer discussions will create sellers who know the ins and outs of your solution. As a result, sellers will be better prepared and confident, leading to improved conversions rates and, ultimately, increased revenue.
Eighty-two percent of potential buyers want to test products prior to purchasing.³ Meet your prospects’ preferences by showcasing your products or services at events (both in-person and virtual).
This enables your team to have customer conversations in real-time as well as more readily identify interested buyers earlier in their buying cycle so you can help shape requirements.
Continuously assess and develop both current and potential team members’ skills by having them complete hands-on labs. For example, you can identify the best talent for specific roles by validating candidates’ skills with scored labs. From here, you can continue to retain and develop learners’ skills with custom hands-on labs.
When issues arise, seconds feel like hours and tempers can flare. This makes having a well-trained help desk paramount. Virtual labs can be created and customized to replicate a customer’s specific environment, enabling the support agent to troubleshoot and resolve issues within the lab. This helps agents increase first-call resolution rates, answer time-sensitive email/chat support faster and easily transfer to next tier support, if necessary. As a result, overall resolution time is decreased, customer satisfaction is improved and issues that could potentially damage your credibility are extinguished.
Virtual training labs can present a large amount of content in an easy-to-digest way, ensuring agents have thorough knowledge of the platform they’re supporting.
Training content management
Tired of managing training documentation via screen shots in Word or PowerPoint? If you sell software with aggressive release schedules, your team is trapped in the nightmare that is maintaining up-to-date training materials. Virtual labs can wake you from this by minimizing the burden of constantly updating screen shots in Word or PowerPoint presentations.
What you’ll find on the best virtual training platforms
Virtual lab providers can provide a myriad of features and capabilities intended to improve learning and skill development. But not all lab providers are the same. Features, ease of use, robustness and scalability will vary. We highlight some key features below.
Lab reporting and analytics
Reporting and analytics enable L&D leaders, Instructors and other business leaders to evaluate the success of courses and individual labs. The data and reports provided by the platform can provide insight into individual user activity or course success, allowing leaders to see how well learners are progressing or if adjustments are needed.
The best platforms equip your Instructor with tools and resources to increase their effectiveness and classroom management. Tools such as over-the-shoulder monitoring enable Instructors to track classroom lab progress and jump into a specific student’s lab to provide one-on-one instruction.
Third-party integration capabilities
If you have an existing LMS or CRM platform, look for a lab vendor who provides seamless integrations with these tools. These integrations yield many benefits, including an enhanced user experience, deeper lab insights and faster issue resolution.
Building and delivering
Pay attention to the lab development tools vendors provide and understand how different technical roles will interact with them. You should also see how the vendor is focused on helping you build better labs through training, automated checks and issue identification
With learners accessing labs from around the world, you’ll want to ensure vendors can easily provision labs without sacrificing performance or speed. The number of datacenters a vendor has is typically a good indicator of what you can expect in terms of performance and latency. For example, if a vendor only has two to three datacenters. It’s likely that learners who are geographically far from the datacenter will experience latency or performance issues.
How the right provider can help you increase Instructor effectiveness
Your Instructors have a lot of face time with learners, even if the class is virtual. They can make or break the learning experience.
When it comes to classes or events with virtual labs, equip your Instructors with better classroom control and management. This experience starts with having earlier access to class materials for preparation and extends to providing capabilities such as over-the-shoulder monitoring for Instructors, enabling them to log into a learner’s lab instance and provide one-on-one support. It also includes providing Instructors with a dashboard of all active labs so instead of disrupting the class asking about lab progress they can see exactly where users are so they can better manage time.
How to get started with virtual lab hands-on learning experiences
Whether you want to foster a culture of continuous hands-on learning or boost success of training activities, incorporating virtual labs into learning may not be as significant an effort as you think.
Here’s a high-level overview of the technology, employee skills and cost associated with virtual IT labs.
What technology do you need in your tech stack?
Essentially, you would need to build and deploy your own infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) platform or datacenter. This means you would need a physical location in which to set up, store and maintain servers (this may mean purchasing and setting up equipment for climate control) as well as implementing proper security measures.
Select your lab environment
If you already have a subscription to a public cloud such as Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Google Cloud Platform or you want to use your own cloud, you could build your lab environment here. You’ll want to ensure you have the right personnel and resources in place to set up and maintain the environment.
Lab UI integrator
Next, you’ll need to implement a UI integrator. This acts as the interface on which you’ll build labs and is what users will interact with directly. Finally, you’ll need a delivery mechanism to bolt all the pieces of the lab together (UI, cloud computing platform, tools, etc.). Skillable Studio, for example, would be considered a delivery mechanism as it binds together the UI, lab environment and tools in a single environment.
It’s important to note that building and deploying your own homegrown lab environment is entirely possible, though it does require significant time, effort and money to accomplish. If you’re looking to spin up and deploy labs quickly, you should to consider going with a third-party lab provider such as Skillable.
What employee skills are needed?
How much do virtual labs cost?
Investing in virtual training depends on a number of factors, including:
- Use case
- Lab functionality and lab size
- RAM usage
- Number of concurrent users/concurrency
- Datacenter location(s)
- Cloud subscriptions
Below are the most common pricing models for virtual lab platforms:
Exact quotes can be obtained by contacting vendors directly
Is the solution worth the investment?
Build in-house or outsource to a third-party provider: Which is better for virtual labs
Organizations looking to implement virtual labs need to first evaluate this initiative against their core competencies. This is a critical step in assessing whether to build, host and manage labs in-house or with a third-party provider. Do you want to invest time and money into hosting and maintenance or do you want to invest in developing lab experiences that accelerate skills development?
From there, you need to define your organization’s requirements, technical acumen, headcount, budgets, timelines and gauge your appetite for learning curves and hard lessons learned.
Building a home-grown in-house lab solution
With on-premises hosting, you are responsible for developing, maintaining, securing, upgrading and troubleshooting your environment. You need to determine if you want to dedicate employee time to these tasks, especially if your software has an aggressive release schedule. You will have complete control over the lab authoring, development, publishing, auditing and cost control tools. While organizations can save money utilizing equipment and software currently in-place, it’s important to evaluate the total cost of ownership (TCO).
Partnering with a third-party lab vendor
Working with a dedicated lab vendor provides agility, scalability and other benefits such as:
Be mindful of the “IKEA Effect” on your home-grown training labs
So, which path should you choose?
Every organization has their own way of operating. Some must attempt and fail to build something internally before they can look at external vendors. Others remain keenly focused on their core competencies and bring in partners to support their initiatives. Technology leaders such as AWS, Microsoft, CompTIA and others trust Skillable to support many of their hands-on programs.
Leading organizations focus on their core competencies and partner with proven experts to help them succeed. That’s how you increase agility. That’s how you deliver on your business goals.
How to integrate virtual labs into an LMS
Organizations looking to enhance the performance of virtual labs can do so by integrating them into their LMS. The integration provides organizations with additional data insights such as the effectiveness of training programs, employee performance, user activity and more.
Best practices for virtual training labs
1. Create a framework for sustainable labs
Regardless of class size, material, use case or audience, labs will be the most successful when they’re created with specific goals already identified. Lab Authors should create project plans for each lab to ensure all learning objectives and goals are captured and that specific business goals are being met.
Additional factors to include in the project plan are:
- Architectural design
- Software used
- Software versions
- Background information on the lab build
- Potential pitfalls or project issues and their solutions
- Test results and subsequent changes
Remember, you’re in the beginning stages of lab development. Your plans do not need to be overly complex or sophisticated. Keep it simple. Considering each of these factors leads to sustainable labs that further business growth.
Read more about how to create a sustainable lab framework.
2. Adopt the scenario-based challenge-centric learning approach
Learning experiences that prescriptively tell users where to click and what to do are not suitable for maximum learning or skills retention. This rote learning approach is essentially memorization through repetition. While it may be useful in providing users with base knowledge and context, the method denies users the opportunity to think through problems and resolve them.
For training labs to have maximum effect, they should utilize challenge-centric learning. In this approach, users are encouraged to explore the interface or tool, experiment, make and correct mistakes and ultimately accomplish a series of tasks. The ‘learning by doing’ approach is a more effective teaching approach as it challenges learners to critically think through available options and choose the appropriate action.
Read more about challenge-centric learning in our “A Case for Challenge-Centric Learning” white paper.
3. Choose the right lab technology
The underlying technology that drives your virtual lab environment requires careful planning as this is what users will interact with. Skillable understands the importance of a purpose-built infrastructure and supports a variety of lab technologies to meet your business needs.
For example, users who work in Azure can use Skillable’s virtualization fabric to ensure all users get the same Azure training experience.
Read our virtualization lab fabrics 101 for additional information.
4. Backup lab data
Data loss is disruptive and costly part of digitalization. Even small data loss instances (around 100 records) can cost organizations between $18,000 to $35,000, depending on company size and data value.7 Because virtual labs contain thousands of pieces of valuable data (lab preferences, user information and progress, course attendance, etc.), it’s crucial to regularly back up to a secure location, preferably the cloud.
5. Maintain lab storage and organization
Labs that are not properly stored and organized risk becoming lost as organizations scale. To avoid admins or Instructors being unable to find materials, all labs should:
- Follow a detailed storage map that includes instructions for naming and organizing folders.
- Follow a consistent organization method that has been communicated to all Lab Authors and Lab Developers.
- Be regularly updated and organized to ensure consistency.
- Regularly review labs and courses to ensure content is still relevant and up to date.
Common concerns about starting with virtual labs
As with any transformative technology, questions around whether it is right for your organization and your learners are common. The top two concerns we hear most often are around limited resources and security. Let’s put those concerns to rest.
Limited headcount or technology resources
Organizations with small training teams or a limited budget may worry that they’ll have to handle the setup, maintenance and troubleshooting of labs singlehandedly. Teams may also be wary of moving away from existing processes or training methods.
Luckily, small teams (and even individuals) can set up and maintain labs. Established lab providers will provide you with the tools to create, deploy and manage your labs.
If you’re not to that level yet, you can also use a lab provider’s professional services team to manage this for you. You will have 24/7/365 technical support as well.
Established lab providers also often have ready-built hands-on content available via subscription, enabling your team to offer skilling without having to create your own content. For example, Skillable offers more than 1,000 ready-built labs across topics and technologies, such as Cybersecurity, AWS, Azure, IT Operations, Programming and Data Science. Learn more about Skillable Challenges.
With Skillable, you can enhance your training program by optimizing existing resources and budget via our comprehensive platform and services team.
Eighty-three percent of organizations are concerned about security,8 specifically, protecting data and networks from threat actors. While security is everyone’s responsibility, security teams are responsible for reducing vulnerabilities by minimizing their organization’s ever-evolving risks through external partner networks. They rarely have enough resources to do their job, so make it as easy as possible for them to help you by being proactive.
Look for providers that prove they take security seriously and practice good cyber hygiene. For example, Skillable is SOC2 and ISO-27001:2013 certified. The SOC 2 (Service Organization Control 2) certification is a voluntary compliance standard on how organizations manage customer data. The ISO-27001:2013 certification signifies an organization has been extensively audited on how they manage the security of assets such as financial information, intellectual property, employee details or information entrusted by third parties.
How to avoid common virtual lab development mistakes
To drive maximum value from your training time, labs need to perform and augment the learning experience, not drive the learner into a state of frustration. We’ve helped our customer base launch over 25 million labs, which has provided us significant insight into common mistakes Instructional Designers, Lab Authors and Lab Developers make.
Here are quick tips to help you sidestep common mistakes:
1. Ensure labs promote active learning
To be serious about building real competencies, you need to exit the rote “click this, click that” lab approach—they do little to promote active learning, build learner confidence and provide data around skilling intelligence. In these cases, users are watching or reading material, answering multiple-choice questions and moving on.
Labs should be created with a ‘learn by doing’ mentality where users must use critical thinking to solve problems and learn skills. This results in more skills retention and more confident users.
2. Provide clear instructions
A training lab should contain clear, detailed instructions on the lab objectives and desired outcomes. This enables users to see the relevancy of the skills being taught and helps them understand how the skill will be useful in the future.
For example, instructions that simply read “Give Janet access to the database” are unclear and do not provide the same type of context as instructions like “Give Janet appropriate access to the Sales Orders database so she can run revenue reports.”
3. Include support based on the use case
Users must be able to easily connect with the appropriate support channel whenever needed—preferably at the click of a button. For example, users who are completing time-limited certifications or Performance Testing (PBT) should be able to contact technical personnel to help troubleshoot issues or resolve questions immediately.
Labs that are used for events or live training should include support access as well as direct links to documentation or resources on specific topics. Access to the right support channels and personnel help to ensure a seamless experience and more satisfied users.
Avoiding these common virtual lab mistakes ensures business teams create a truly immersive training experience that yields incredible results and benefits employees.
How to build virtual IT labs faster
Leverage Skillable’s template gallery to streamline the time and effort it takes to develop labs at scale.
The template gallery allows Lab Developers to search for and choose pre-built templates to use as the base for a new lab. Each template includes information about specific components (whether virtual or cloud) featured in the environment as well as instructions on how to further modify the template.
Skillable’s templates have been organized into topic areas that are available as filters. Each one defines the best use case, the technology it’s designed to support, the necessary configurations and tools needed to begin building content. This allows Lab Developers to quickly search for and find necessary information needed to build labs.
Skillable currently has topic-focused templates in the following areas:
- Coding/software development
- Data and analytics
- Database administration
- DevOps/cloud technologies
- End-user productivity
- Machine learning/artificial intelligence
- Network administration
- Systems administration
Once new labs have been created, users can save them as an organization-specific template which is only available and accessible to the organization’s Lab Developers.
With labs readily available, and Lab Developers only needing to customize certain fields (such as name, series and organization), teams are able to quickly deploy labs and spend more time accomplishing learning objectives than on lab development.
Here are some free Skillable resources to help you build effective, high-performance labs:
- Optimizing Virtual Lab Performance
- Analyzing Virtual Lab Performance Data
- Create a Sustainable Virtual Lab Framework
- Virtual Lab Development Tips from a Lab Developer
- Tidy Up your Lab Storage in 3 Simple Steps
How to evaluate virtual training lab platforms and virtual IT lab providers
The software industry is changing—fast. Organizations are constantly searching for new and emerging solutions that will help them achieve their goals faster, improve business performance and boost
Virtual training labs are an ideal solution for organizations serious about modernizing their skills development programs and promoting a culture of continuous learning. However, as more virtual IT lab providers enter the market, it’s critical to filter out the noise and select the provider that meets your specific needs.
Here are the top characteristics to look for in virtual lab providers:
Virtual labs are designed to provide users with hands-on practice. Vendors who don’t promote this functionality and instead offer click-through or check box labs are not an ideal solution.
Instead, organizations should look for lab vendors that clearly emphasize hands-on capabilities. This could include functionalities such as providing feedback to users or validating actions as this ensures vendors are providing a ‘learning by doing’ approach.
Easy lab set up
Organizations should not need to spend excessive amounts of time learning a platform to become competent on it. Instead, they should be able to integrate with the provider’s ecosystem and soon after begin developing and deploying labs. Organizations should look for vendors that provide lab templates and a user-friendly interface.
Comprehensive feedback system
Vendors who feature a built-in feedback system provide organizations with a direct way to collect and gather user feedback. Organizations should look for providers who offer both qualitative and quantitative feedback as both methods will provide more in-depth explanations on how to drive improvement and enhance lab performance.
Reporting and analytics
In addition to feedback systems, organizations should be able to track multiple aspects of labs. Vendors who provide reporting and analytics that delve deep into lab performance provide teams with valuable information needed to make improvements.
Scalability and stability
Whether teams are looking to train a handful of employees or tens of thousands, virtual labs should scale with ease without sacrificing performance. Typically, cloud-based platforms ensure reliable, high performance on a global level.
Ultimately, because a virtual training platform is a long-term strategic investment, you will want to carefully evaluate vendors, not only for today’s needs, but for where you’re headed too. Select a provider that emphasizes hands-on experiences that are high-performing, intelligent and stable. This allows organizations to enhance their training strategy and successfully train and prepare learners.
Partner with Skillable to validate skills through hands-on experiences.
Skills don’t last like they used to. Agile organizations have an effective skills-to-market strategy and ‘learn by doing’ is a critical component.We’re in the relentless pursuit of making hands-on learning more agile and more accessible. It’s a foundational driver of our company’s mission to increase opportunities by skilling, helping your users develop skills faster, validate they built them and set up them up for continuous skilling that builds future-proof skills.
Book a live demo of Skillable’s lab platform
and see how you can modernize hands-on upskilling for customers, partners and employees.
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- Akhilesh Ganti, Endowment Effect: Definition, What Causes It, and Example.
- Acronis, How much can data loss really cost your business?.
- Jack Turner, Less Than Half of Large US Businesses Investing in Cybersecurity Despite Major Concern.