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Surviving IT training nightmares


band-aid PCs and projectors break down... the wrong software turns up... there are more students than terminals... Jooli Atkins offers band-aid solutions and preparation tips for IT trainers, for when it all goes horribly wrong.

The technology being trained on is often a major area of concern to IT trainers. Is it going to work? It doesn't matter how many times it's worked before, today is the day that it won't! Will everyone get the 'hands-on' opportunity they need? The key to any successful IT training event is preparation. Prepare for things to go wrong, where possible.

Photo of Jooli Atkins"It's much more important to have real-life experience of using the application, than detailed knowledge of all its areas."

No PC?

Have backup exercises that can be done without a PC while you arrange for a replacement through the IT department. And get the name of that vital department contact before the event.

More people than PCs

Is it imperative that everyone gets a PC each, or can they share? If sharing is an option, try to make sure that the same people don't share throughout. Rotate the sharing, but not the extra person. One of the most important things to consider is why more people turned up than you expected. It could be that the administration side of the business is not working as well as it might, or it could be that the business side of the firm has sent more people because they don't understand how this affects the training.

Data projector down

Be aware of the route for organising a replacement or a repair and an alternative strategy. Always prepare a paper copy in case you need to distribute this. If you are using a data projector for demonstration purposes, you can arrange the group so that they can reasonably see a PC and ask for a volunteer to carry out the demonstration, with your guidance. If this situation lasts for most of the day, make sure that you rotate your demonstrators to ensure participation.

The wrong software

Have PCs been installed with the wrong version, or even the wrong software altogether? If it's the wrong version, you might be able to get started with this and then arrange for a longer break than usual to allow for the PCs to be updated. If it's the wrong software altogether, you can do the introductory 'stuff' - discussing the software and its benefits to individuals - whilst the software is being upgraded. Come clean with the learners, because they'll know something isn't right and may begin to make up their own version of what's wrong if you don't tell them.

How much do I need to know?

As well as preparing the environment, preparing yourself is essential. One of the main areas of concern is how much you need to know about an application to be able to train someone else.

The answer, as with so many other questions, is 'it depends'. Of course, you need to know the content of what you are training. From then on, your effectiveness as a trainer can be increased in a number of ways.

It is quite reasonable for someone training in advanced spreadsheets to have little or no knowledge of the maths behind a function that returns the inverse of the gamma cumulative distribution. Similarly, a spreadsheet trainer doesn't need an indepth understanding of individual term binomial distribution probability.

"It's quite reassuring for learners to realise that the 'expert' doesn't have all the answers and it's incredibly empowering for them to learn how to find out."

It's much more important to have real-life experience of using the application, than detailed knowledge of all its areas. Knowing how something works and knowing why you would want it to are very different things!

Don't worry about not knowing the answer to a learner's question – help them to find the answer for themselves. It's quite reassuring for learners to realise that the 'expert' doesn't have all the answers and it's incredibly empowering for them to learn how to find out. It's all about facilitating their learning, not increasing your self-assurance.

Pre-course knowledge formula

Use the formula below to identify your knowledge prior to a learning event:

Knowledge = content x (content + real-life experience + (business understanding/2)) + additional content

Knowledge formula: K = C x (C + R + (B/2)) + A

B is divided by 2, because at this preparation stage, your maximum business experience knowledge is half of the actual business needs of the individuals on the course. This assumes that you have not done the same job as the learners for the same length of time and in the same depth – a likely assumption!

It's only while working with them on the course itself that you can even get close to gaining the other half of that business understanding.

This formula means that the mix of real-life and business experience are significantly more important than additional content knowledge. Equally, lack of real-life and business experience can have a dramatic effect on your knowledge. And of course, content knowledge is important too.
No one should attempt to teach a course without at least a 50% score. With the formula above, this can't be achieved without at least a seven in content, even with a 10 in real-life and business awareness.

Jooli Atkins is chair of the British Computer Society (BCS) information and technology training specialist group and author of 'The IT Trainer's Pocketbook'. She's also an IT training professional at Matrix FortyTwo. For more information, visit:

To read more features from Jooli click on the following titles:

Just-in-time or just-too-late training?

New software: Is the tail wagging the dog?

I'm an IT trainer and proud of it!

To read Jooli's spotlight click here!.


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