Microsoft Hands-On Lab Room – a view to the future?

At the SQL PASS Summit conference last month, Microsoft hosted a lab room so that attendees could test out the latest version of SQL Server 2008 for themselves. There were mixed reviews on the setup for this room but I gave it a big thumbs up. If you are anything like me, then you never learn something unless you actually do it, so hands-on is the key to any training in my book. Overall, I enjoyed the lab room experience but I later heard from others who were less than happy. 

Let’s take a look at the setup since that was a big positive. The Lab Room consisted of over 50 machines, each with dual flat screen monitors. The monitors allowed the attendee to follow the lab instructions line by line without having to have a printed copy. This was part of the conference going “green” by saving some trees and it worked well using Windows Multiple Monitor technology. The hardware was from co-sponsor Dell and consisted of Optiplex 740’s, each with 4GB RAM and a dual-core AMD Athlon 64-bit processor running at 2.6GHz. The software was, of course, from Microsoft running Windows Server 2008 EE SP1 or as us old folk like to call it: NT 6.0. The labs used Virtual PC to launch a virtual machine specifically for the task at hand. There were around 20 labs available and I chose “Synchronizing a Portable Database” to start with. This lab used SQL Server 2008 Compact Edition (version 3.5) to replicate to multiple devices using ADO.NET Sync Services. It interested me as I work with my Palm Treo 800w running Windows Mobile 6.1. From a hardware setup point of view, the lab room was excellent. How I would love this type of setup in my classroom.  

Now to the negatives. First of all, logging onto the machines caused some issues due to confusion over passwords. In true Microsoft style, some of the labs, for instance, had a password of Pass@word1, some had a password of Pa$$w0rd (note the zero), some P@ssw0rd and the instructions were not always accurate. As you can imagine this could cause some aggravation, falling at the first hurdle. As a Microsoft Certified Trainer, I was completely familiar with this type of issue but the staff hosting the room seemed completely blindsided by this and were unable to help out immediately. Later in the conference, some bright spark had produced a Powerpoint slide with a list of possible passwords with the strategy “if one doesn’t work then try another”.

The staff assigned to the room also did not appear to have any subject matter expertise, so when the lab instructions strayed from reality, many people were stumped and gave up with no real assistance available. Again, I am completely used to this level of accuracy during labs and somehow I must have developed the patience to try different routes before giving in to frustration. My lab instructions had various errors but somehow I was able to navigate the lab to completion, either through luck or a flexible attitude. As an experienced technical course developer, I know the value of “deadly” accurate lab instructions and how a course is rated on the success of the hands-on labs above anything else. In the absence of accurate instructions, certified trainers should have been available to assist the attendees or at the very least, the people staffing the room should have taken the time to go through each of the labs making note of the discrepancies. As I always say, the 3 secrets to success in training are preparation, preparation and most importantly, preparation.

 Agreed, there is a significant time commitment, but I prefer playing the hero rather than the fool.

Happy New Year!


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