Oct 20, 2008

Gaining Knowledge - what’s the best way to do it?


A few days after my “Knowledge or Recipes” post, Greg Ferro started his “Experience or Certifications” series with a radical “I would always choose certification over experience” approach that quickly moderated into “Knowledge is more fundamental than experience … but you need both”. It’s nice to see someone else thinking along the same lines as yourself :).

In his third post, he discusses various approaches to gaining the knowledge you need to pass a certification exam. It’s debatable whether the certification exams really test your knowledge or memorization of facts from the training materials (including all the errors in the materials), but let’s not go there. What attracted me in his post was the discussion of the methods you can use to study; one of my favorite not-so-technical topics in the last few years.

It’s absolutely true that the classroom training is not the best option for everyone. If you know too much, it can turn into an utterly boring experience (some of the worst time in my professional life was spent attending presentations where I was looking for the last 20% that I could not get anywhere else). If you aim above your knowledge level, you’ll just waste your time (I sometimes had students on an advanced OSPF course that attended ICND the week before … clearly a waste of time and money). But if you select the right course at the right time and get a good instructor that can answer your in-depth questions, the experience (and knowledge gain) can be invaluable.

Furthermore, the cognitive skills and the best method to absorb knowledge vary between students. Some like to read (myself included), some need aural input (listening to instructor or podcast), some need visual aids and diagrams, some learn best in an interactive questions-and-answers environment. If you prefer to read (and you read fast), classroom training might not be your best choice, but if you’re in any of the other groups, anything beats reading a textbook.

Obviously, the quality of the instructor and the course material is paramount to the added value you get from a training course. While it’s hard for a student to influence the quality of the course material (although we would all be delighted if bloggers would start commenting on what they get in the student guides), you can make an impact on the quality of the course delivery, as I’ve explained in the “Don’t despair, vote!” post published in Fragments, the official NIL blog.

Last but not least: if you’re attending a course as an individual aiming to pass a certification exam, you don’t have much choice, but if you’re a network manager that needs to get a group of engineers trained on specific topics, you should never stick to the standard vendor-developed certification courses. They always contain topics you don’t need and you usually you need more than one course to get the knowledge required in your network. The solution is customized training; you’ll find what we can do to help you in the “I want that course! … Sure, but do you NEED it?” post by Marjan Bradeško.

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