Discussions are raging on and the voices are getting louder about the disappointing state of education. You’d be hard pressed to go a week without hearing a comment from the White House, a TED talk, or a news broadcast talking about improving education for today’s changing world. More and more tools are facilitating new ways of learning, increasing the number of opportunities to learn and expanding educational conversations beyond the classroom. We are participating in an era of change where formal education is embracing the real learning potential of informal learning. A study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that people learn 70 percent of what they know about their jobs informally.

So what does this mean to IT trainers? First, we need to be aware of our audience’s goals and reasons for learning, and not just the short-term goal of passing a certification. In most IT training situations, the goal is job related: “I need to know technology XYZ so that I can do my job, I can get a new job or I can do my job better/faster/more efficient.” It’s important that IT trainers are embracing informal training in their classrooms, lessons, books, etc.

Here are three tips to support informal learning in IT training:

Expand Your Network

In today’s business world, you are only as valuable as your network of people and resources, and the same holds true for IT trainers. It’s impossible for an individual to consume the enormous amount of information that is generated daily in the IT fields.

Search engines and sites like StackOverflow.com are fantastic resources for a plethora of technical knowledge. But nothing beats an old fashion personal recommendation on where to find the best answers. By collecting an organized network of quality resource sites to share when you don’t know the answer, IT trainers maintains their expertise with the ability to seek out the answer quickly and get back to a student or provide a response like “I don’t know, but let’s go to this site, and we’ll find the answer together.”

In addition to assembling a resource of quality websites, building a network of people at professional events, and conversing with others in the technology field using online forums like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter is very important. With access to professionals specialized in all kinds of areas, IT trainers can facilitate instances of informal learning. By getting the answer and following up with the student you have not only facilitated an instance of informal learning, you’ve also expanded your network of people to that student you just helped. You’ll never know if some day someone else will ask a question about a software or field specific question that the student you just helped out will know, but if that day comes you’re ready.

Teach Around Scenarios

When it comes to IT training one complaint heard from both trainers and students is “that curriculum is horrible.” Although there are many reasons for a “horrible curriculum,” one major reason is most lessons are created by vendors to train individuals in one predefined path from start to finish in a pristine environment. In reality, IT is a dirty, mixed-up world of ones and zeros. There is no such thing as a homogenous environment. IT is a heterogeneous world with different vendors, different user needs, and rarely do you get to start over from scratch. It is with this in mind that IT trainers should structure their lessons.

The first thought might be, “There is no way I can teach everyone in a class, reading a book, or watching a video the specifics of their environment!” Which is true, but what you can do is change how you’re presenting the information so students can apply it directly to their own environment. Too much traditional education is focused solely on the “what” and only dabbling in the “how” which doesn’t meet the needs of most students who are focused on training to succeed in their job, and not to just pass a certification test.

This is where training with a scenario comes into play. Scenario is the utilization of story to combine the “how” training with “why” training. Depending on your situation it may limit how much curriculum control you have, but in almost every situation there is flexibility in what and how it is delivered. Next time you teach a lesson, think about a real-world situation that you would need to know the information for. Then tell that lesson as a story including the what, how and focusing on the why or why not. The human mind is programmed to recall stories and key points in a journey much better than an encyclopedic list of facts. Don’t go over the top with the story, but simple conversational stories as if you were telling a friend about an experience, work the best. This allows the student to associate the topic with an experience they may run into in their own environment, instead of just knowing how its done which may or may not apply to them.

Hands-on Experience

At the end of the day, there are so many different situations and environments that you’ll be training people for as an IT Trainer. You’ll never be prepared for them all, but you can improve your own knowledge as well as the knowledge you pass along to the students by experiencing what you’re training first-hand. This will give you the opportunity to identify those trouble spots, the short cuts and refresh your brain with new ideas for training scenarios.  A few ways to give yourself hands-on experience include:

  • Find a non-profit in your area that needs help on the technology. Non-profits rarely have the budget for an experienced IT person like you. Seeking out those that need help offer great reward to your experience while helping out a cause.
  • Setup and use the technology you’re teaching at home. Sure it might be overkill to have your own Exchange Server for your personal email or a Cisco firewall to secure your home network, but it will force you into using the product on a regular basis.
  • Contact a local enterprise IT consultant, university, local business or professional network to see if they’d be interested in having a “take an IT trainer to work day” where you can tag along, help out and ask questions. Stay away from government and high security shops since they’re less likely to allow non-employed individuals access to possibly sensitive data.

IT education is rapidly evolving in today’s climate with current economic tightening and technology evolution. IT is becoming more prevalent in almost every industry. The demand for quality IT training is only going to increase. It’s up to us to improve the training.