Category Archives: Adult Learning

Excellent Global Knowledge Article: Six Certification Exam Mistakes to Avoid

Just a quick post for now, I wanted to pass along a link to an article from Global Knowledge that I really enjoyed, Six Certification Mistakes to Avoid, no registration or anything like that needed! My favorite point is definitely Number 3. I’ve sat in a number of interviews where the hiring manager has brought along a Subject Matter Expert for the very purpose of sniffing out what are sometimes referred to as paper tigers, people who have plenty of cert paper but no significant real word experience to back it up. If you’ve truly earned your certifications through the right mix of learning experiences then challenges like this shouldn’t sweat you too much. Anyways, there’s some good advice in this article, and if you aren’t already practicing the recommended principles in your studies, I highly recommend that you consider doing so.

Is Global Knowledge trying to sell you on one of their (sometimes quite pricey) training courses in this article? Of course, but they certainly are a valid cert study option for those that can stomach the cost.

A Look at CompTIA CertMaster

CertMaster Trial

In the summer of 2014, CompTIA launched a new learning system called CertMaster, which was a fairly large step for them. They have offered official training in the past, but it was always through the use of authorized third party vendors for live training or providing their stamp of approval for guides from publishing companies.

CompTIA’s information page for Network+ CertMaster

CertMaster is an interesting idea, you begin by taking a multiple choice test with clickable buttons for the answers. You indicate you are sure about an answer by clicking the selection twice to completely fill the circle. If you are unsure, you must select at two different answers (creating half circles) before you can submit your response. You can also simply choose the option that you do not know the answer. If you answer incorrectly, even partially, or that you do not know, the system will flag that question and you will eventually cycle back to those incomplete questions to re-attempt them. During this second (or third, or fourth…etc.) attempt, a “What You Need to Know” section with appear at the bottom, with a bite-sized blurb of information of a suitable length for a flash card about the question. An “Additional Learning” section is also available that delves deeper into the question’s subject matter.

I selected Network+ as my test unit, and it allows you to complete nine questions in the trial. In my limited exposure to the additional learning material I thought it was generally well done, expanding on the topic but still making sure to keep brevity in mind. I tried the course through a browser and the iOS app, and both worked extremely smooth. Once you have completed a module you can review your answer history, and it will show the complete log of how many times you answered for the questions that you did not get completely right on the first try. You can jump to the learning material for each question from this section as well. You can also refresh yourself by retaking the section as many times as you like.

CompTIA believes that the learning methods and theories used to construct CertMaster provide advantages to both the speed of reaching an understanding of the material and of the ability to retain information. Referring to Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle I believe that it focuses too heavily on Concrete Experience (useful for actual exam situations, to be sure) and Reflective Observation, while being weak on Abstract Conceptualization and offering basically no Active Experimentation at all. You’ll still need to supplement the course with practical hands-on work when possible. These criticisms can be applied to almost any online training, but I bring it up to highlight some of the issues I have with CompTIA’s “revolutionary learning tool.”

At the price of $139 US dollars, the cost of an individual CertMaster course feels a little steep. One of the issues that spring to mind is the question of how one would use this as an ongoing study resource. I can refer to a section of a paper study guide or go back to Professor Messer video at almost any time (with an internet connection, admittedly) without logging into anything, and without having to worry about a license expiring on me. I remain unconvinced about the value of the program in relation to other options out there. Really, is it more interactive than books or videos? I don’t mean to come across as too reductive, but what you are doing is taking a pre-assessment test that takes you directly to the written study material that deals with the question at hand. It’s definitely convenient, but the issues I have all come back to the current price.

It’s always good to have options when it comes to training material, and despite what I feel are the flaws in CertMaster, CompTIA has a competent offering here, if you can stomach the cost. I hope to revisit the product at a later time, perhaps I will consider buying a license if CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner becomes available through it so that I can provide a thorough review of a full course.

Commit to Cert Training in 2015!

Happy New Year 2015

We are only two days away from 2015, so let me propose a New Year’s resolution for everyone (yes, even me). Let’s all commit to obtaining at least one new certification in the calendar year. I’ve got a modest initial goal: Completing the Juniper Networks Certified Associate (JNCIA-Junos). From there, I’m hoping to complete at least one exam towards my CCNP Security and one or two exams for my Alcatel-Lucent NRS II. If possible, perhaps I’ll even obtain that ITIL Foundations cert I keep pushing to the sidelines!

So let’s all wish ourselves luck over the next twelve months. Remember that it doesn’t matter if you are going for your A+, your MCSE, or your CCIE R&S, the important thing is to work on improving your skills and knowledge, empowering yourself to take your career where you want it to go!

Certmail arrives at CertManiacs!

Sept 2014 CertMail

You might find it a little odd that I actually look forward to receiving new certification guides in the mail. What I’m actually looking forward to is the opportunity (and since money was paid for the books, a bit more motivation) to expand my IT skills and possibly obtain new certs. When it comes to educational guides and textbooks I still prefer paper versions as opposed to eBooks. The main reason is that in my job I stare at monitors all day long, and I often find myself staring at them when I get home, which is pretty common nowadays for most people. It is nice, however, to take a break from a backlit screen now and then and these paper guides help me do that. In fact, you see that I purchased a CCNA Security command guide, that will be a companion to the electronic CCNA Security study guide that I’ve been reading through, with my intention being to basically lab through all the commands via GNS3 following my complete reading of the study guide. Truth be told, it’s been painful trying to read through what’s really just a big PDF and I’m looking forward to being done with it, and that is not at all because I find the subject matter dis-interesting.

I also picked up an ITIL Foundations study guide, that purchase was motivated solely because it is something that HR representatives for technical jobs love to see it in your resume, I’m really unsure how I feel about the ITIL principles in general. Perhaps I’ll become a believer, we shall see. And the last thing to note, that Alcatel-Lucent NRS II guide is over 1400 pages! It will definitely keep me busy.

Whatever certs you pursue and whatever guides you buy, the most important thing is to keep pushing forward: learning new skills and obtain new credentials! It will only net positive results!

A+ Training Lab Recommendations – Focusing on Software

My last article looked at a few simple recommendations for putting together a low cost hardware solution for your A+ lab activities, so now I’ll take a look at software. By software I generally am referring to operating systems, youe studies will mostly focus on maintenance and administrative functions that are built into operating systems, but will also look at general questions regarding things like anti-virus, anti-malware, and virtualization software. My hardware recommendation was to buy or build a system that would run Windows 7, the newest version of Windows listed in the A+ exam objectives. So, we’ll look at installing Windows on a physical PC first, and then a virtual one.

If you have built a lab PC, then you’ll need to have your Windows installation ISO on a DVD or USB drive. If it’s your first time installing an operating system from scratch, here is a guide for Windows 7, and one for Windows 8 (this one includes instructions on getting a USB drive prepped). Since I recommend that you do not attempt this (at least as a first timer) on your main personal computer and most definitely not on any kind of work production system, you might even want to just wing it without a guide, jump in! The Windows installation process is pretty refined at this point, and you should be able to get through it with relative ease.

An even safer way to experiment with Windows installation, and certainly any of the other administrative tasks that the A+ exams want you to know, is via a virtual machine. My personal recommendation is to use VirtualBox, remember that to run an OS like Windows well on a virtual machine, you’ll need a decent PC. Here’s a good walkthrough on installing Windows 8 to a virtual machine in Virtual Box. I recommend learning VirtualBox or another virtualization tool, not only because it’s a handy lab tool, but IT is trending towards virtualization and you should take any experience, however far removed from commercial use it may be, that you can.

Virtualbox Windows 7
Windows 7 running on Virtualbox

The resource I was hoping to refer you to use for evaluation operating systems was Microsoft Technet, but I was disappointed, though not surprised, to see that Windows 7 is no longer available for download there, instead they have a 90-day trial of Windows 8.1 Enterprise. Now, you can make Windows 8.1 work for you, most of the tested functions lie with the same System and Control Panel paths. An example would be that you might need to use Ctrl+Q to bring up the search for your Command Prompt instead of simply navigating from the Start Menu to Accessories to the Command Prompt as you would in Windows 7. Windows 8.1’s menu that appears when you right-click on the Start button contains a lot of shortcuts that will be useful to you in your A+ labbing.

I did find a Windows 7 trial link, but I recommend to use extreme caution if you choose to download from the site, and make sure that you do not install any “helpful” add-ons they might offer you: Softpedia

Now that you’ve got Windows installed, what’s next? Well, start working through activities related to the A+ exam objectives. Some things that stand out to me to try include: partitioning a hard drive, creating new user/group accounts, tinkering with file and folder permissions, driver/firmware updates, and learning the command line interface. Only you know when you feel comfortable with a topic, so begin with walking through what you see in a training video or read in your guide, and then just try to experiment with different settings from there!

You’ll notice that in the 220-802 objectives that iOS and Android are mentioned, these questions should hopefully be very general (Note: I have sat the 220-701 and 220-702, not the current exams), hopefully your familiarity with whatever mobile devices you happen to own currently can see you through. There is a general trend I’ve noticed regarding A+ that they are attempting to make it more relevant in the dying age of the desktop PC by covering more mobile computing topics. If you experience a large number of smartphone or tablet computing related questions I would sure like to hear from you in the comments section!

A+ Training Lab Recommendations – Focusing on Hardware

An important part of any technical certification is completing practical lab work, whether it’s a lab you design yourself or access to a professionally maintained training lab that you have purchased. Lab work falls strongly into the Experience quadrant of the Adult Learning cycle, and for many people, it’s the most productive part of the learning process. Even if you do nothing but simply parrot a step-by-step Windows process that you see in your study guide, you are increasing your engagement in the study process. How much this hands-on work benefits you depends on what kind of adult learner you are (this is a big topic, but some reading can be found at this link) , some people can pretty much just internalize what they see or read and translate that into a successful exam attempt. For the rest of us, lab early and lab often.

Now, a lot of people who attempt the A+ exams already have a lot of experience in building PCs, installing operating systems, and troubleshooting components. If that describes you, you’re in great shape for the exams already. This advice is for mainly for those people that may not have dabbled in those topics as much. I would still recommend that veterans scan the A+ exam objectives and consider labbing any subjects that they may feel a little weak on.

So how do you “lab” (from this point on I will simply use lab as a verb) for A+? Well, to start I would recommend getting your hands on a cheap used computer that you don’t mind potentially being sacrificed if some of your hardware and software experimentation goes irreversibly wrong. Check for cheap machines on Craigslist, Kijiji, or whatever popular used goods site is in your area. Another option to consider is a PC retailer that sells cheap off-lease PCs that have been returned and refurbished from businesses. Try to spend as little as possible, but make sure the system you pick up can at least run the current versions of Windows that you will be tested on. For the current 220-801 and 220-802 exams you can potentially be tested on Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7. Additionally, the more cards (video, sound, or network) and drives (SSD, hard disk, and CD or DVD ROM) the system has, or spare ones that you have to attempt to install, the better. I would not recommend buying new components for a lab if you can avoid it, there is no need to spend excessive amounts of money to lab for the A+ exams.

For a person that has not assembled a PC before, I recommend a complete teardown and rebuild of your lab PC as a start. If you still feel a little hesitant about the process, Youtube has both disassembly and reassembly videos. This practical work will help you gain much needed confidence in handling hardware, which may not necessarily benefit you on the exam, but will benefit you in entry level IT jobs (if that is your goal after obtaining your A+).

Now, will these activities cover all of the hardware that you will potentially be tested on? Sadly, they will not, but I believe if you attempt to seek out old CRT monitors, printers, and tablets that you will begin to experience diminishing returns. I did not attempt to get hands-on with the more obscure hardware and I don’t believe it was a significant hindrance when it came to test time.

Here is one of the machines that I used to lab for my A+, it was a simple refurbished unit that was purchased cheaply used from a private seller. It’s nothing fancy, but it was something to rip apart, reassemble, and install operating systems on:

Lab PC Complete

Next time, I’ll take a look at what software you can use to prepare you for the A+ exams.

A+ Video Training Resources

Two posts ago, I took a look at three CompTIA A+ study guides for the current 220-801 and 220-802 exams. A study guide makes a good foundation for your exam preparation, but adults learn in a variety of ways and hacking away at a thick text book isn’t for everyone. One alternative to consider is training videos, but to be clear, I believe videos works best as a supplement to a study guide and not as a complete replacement. If you find the multimedia presentation alone serves you better, you should play to your own strengths. However, reading, watching videos both serve the same essential function in the adult learning cycle, and even if you both read a study guide and watch a full video course it’s not likely to be enough to achieve success when writing a cert exam. I’m going to drop my first mention of the adult learning principles that I follow, and these are principles that I plan on becoming quite important on CertManiacs going forward. While I don’t want to stray too far from the titular topic, consider this, studying a guide or passively watching training videos qualify as Experiences in this four stage process:

Experience – Something happens.
Reflection – What happened?
Generalization – Why did it happen?
Application – Make that thing happen yourself.

I’ll be returning to that process quite a bit in the coming months, but back to training videos. Today, I will take a look at two excellent A+ training video sources today, one free and one that can be a little pricey, depending on your point of view.

Professor Messer

I discovered Professor Messer when I first began searching for A+ training material during the very start of my certification career. I was thrilled to find FREE video training to complement my study guide (see my A+ study guide reviews here). As it turns out, it turned out to be quality content, Professor (James) Messer has created a comprehensive course that he updates for each new revision of the A+ exams, when I first used his content it was still for the 220-701 and 220-702 versions. He keeps each video segment fairly short (most are under 15 minutes) and very on point for the target concept, which helps keep the content digestable. The videos follow a fairly simple format, a camera records a full face shot of him speaking, which plays in a small window in the corner over his presentation, which is often a slideshow but he does live capture processes in action when it’s appropriate. At a total video run time of 19 hours, there’s a fair bit of content to be watched, but if you do, it will go a long way to preparing you for the exams. In addition to the videos, Messer will run A+ pop quizzes and study groups. I noticed there was a lull in his site updates over the past few months, but it appears he’s back in full swing. I should note that he seems to be working on updating his Network+ and Security+ content at the time of this writing. You are able to view replays of old study groups, and I recommend that you check out at least one to see if they will be of any benefit to you.

The only issue is that the videos must be accessed online (via Youtube), which depending on your mobile data capability, may be something of an issue. The site does offer a solution to this problem in the form of a downloadable training course for $200 that includes: the video training on DVDs, MP3s of the audio from them, and his slides in PDF format. The price seems a bit steep compared to the cost of one of the printed study guides I’ve previously review, however, Messer does offer PDF study guides of his own for $10 each, certainly a reasonable price and likely a good supplement to the video course. I cannot say how the guides stand on their merit (or for that matter as a companion to the videos) based on the small sampling provided, but they appeared to be formatted in a “quick study” manner to concisely review exam topics. If you’ve purchased them then please feel free to comment and add your opinion.

CBT Nuggets

We go from a free resource to one that has a subscription fee. CBT Nuggets is a reputable video IT training provider that covers a large number of vendors. I’ve been lucky to enough to get access to a subscription through my workplace, but the first thing we should discuss is the cost for their training. For individual learners who don’t believe they’ll need ongoing access to the catalogue, the cost is $99/month for the Basic plan, and while what “expensive” is for everyone is relative, it’s not an insignificant cost if you’re paying out of pocket. For that fee you get access to the complete video catalogue (must be viewed online (mobile apps are available) and their NuggetLab supplementary materials. I signed up for the 7 day trial to take a look at the A+ videos and unfortunately they do not make the NuggetLab material for the course available for trial so I cannot comment on the quality of that content. There is a higher tier plan available that requires a 12 month commitment that is actually cheaper per month and includes extra features such as offline video viewings (allowing you to download up to 20) and practice exams.

CBT Nuggets puts something of a focus on their trainers as personalities, and I will say for IT trainers, the CBT Nuggets instructors are pretty good. Jeremy Ciora is perhaps the most famous (or is it infamous?) instructor from the site, but James Conrad, the instructor for the A+ material, is a well spoken and engaging guide through the material. I’d give him the edge in presentation skills over Professor Messer. The video course, as with Messer’s, is comprehensive but between the two I’ll give the free course the nod in terms of layout. Its videos are shorter and dedicated to more focused topics than the CBT videos, which often exceed 25 minutes in length. The formatting of the videos for CBT is largely the same Messer’s, the instructor has a slide deck or whiteboard running as they lecture and will bring up pictures or live screen captures as necessary. Nothing revolutionary, but it works. I tested out the CBT Nuggets mobile app for iOS on my iPhone and it synced up my video progression from my PC to the mobile device perfectly, the app is simple to use and seems to work quite well.

So why bring up CBT Nuggets as the pay option? Well, it’s the one that I am most familiar with. Do not take my review of it or Professor Messer’s site as any kind of endorsement over any other free or paid option, my goal is to simply make you aware of training resources that are available for your A+ studies. While I’m not thrilled that you have to supply a credit card for their free 7 day trial, which does NOT automatically start a subscription when it lapses, I understand the barrier exists to stop people from repeatedly abusing the trial period.

You might ask, “Between these two options, which should I use?” For the A+ exams, I believe Professor Messer’s free video training will serve you quite well, and I can’t recommend paying the subscription fee solely for just the A+ material on CBT Nuggets.