A successful model for large-scale virtual training

from The Rational Edge: Time and money are two stumbling blocks to conventional classroom training. Leveraging its Communities of Practice expertise, IBM Rational developed a successful online training model that incorporates hands-on collaboration. This article describes this new approach. This content is part of the The Rational Edge.


Tim Bohn, Certified IT Specialist and Worldwide Community of Practice Leader for Solutions Architecture, IBM

Tim Bohn is a leader within IBM's Systems and Software development process community. He leads and consults with clients on systems and software engineering solutions and development process strategies, considering the entire development life cycle and supporting toolsets, and he has expertise in the Rational Unified Process, as well as Requirements Development and Analysis. With 28 years in the field of software development, his industry experience includes real-time embedded applications, commercial applications, and project management and process implementation.

15 March 2009

Also available in Chinese

illustration"I wish I could take this class, but I can't take three days off or travel." "Can you run these workshops on-site or locally?" "Can you find a way to offer this course online?"

These are typical questions from busy people with regard to conventional, classroom training. Most appreciate the advantages of face-to-face classes, including hands-on engagement, a targeted curriculum, and group collaboration. Online learning by comparison is usually a solo experience, with largely static content and fewer opportunities for collaboration and teamwork.

This article describes a new kind of online class developed by the IBM® Rational® organization in response to the needs of our customers in the area of Model-Driven Systems Development (MDSD). This new training approach reflects our attempt to combine the learning advantages of expert instruction, customized content, and group collaboration with the convenience and cost savings of online delivery.

Why a new training model?

Model-Driven Systems Development (MDSD), formerly called IBM Rational Unified Process for Systems Engineering® (RUP®-SE), has been practiced by the Rational team for a number of years. MDSD is a method for managing the complexity of software-intensive systems, whether they be aircraft, satellites, IT networks, or complex software applications. The heart of this method is a technique for modeling systems-of-systems using use cases and use case flowdown, together with multiple models of the application architecture. These models provide a way to reason about important system concerns before the system is designed and built, and thus offer powerful tools for the systems engineer.

These techniques have proved to be effective and successful -- even revolutionary -- in large client engagements in aerospace and defense, automotive systems, and large-scale application development programs and projects.

In 2004 a course on MDSD was created to help with the initial training of interested clients. Since then the material has evolved and been updated to reflect new thoughts and ideas gained from actual practice with clients. By all accounts the course has worked well.

The format of this training is three fairly intense days of learning and exercises in a workshop setting. Customers like this because the workshops can be about their own projects and involve their own teams in hands-on collaboration exercises. But what about those who couldn’t attend in person for whatever reason? They were out-of-luck.

Meanwhile, over the last couple of years many in IBM have asked if the training could be run in their local area so they could attend. The problem was that only a few experts could deliver the course, and they were usually busy working with customers.

At the same time, IBM continues to face the realities of being a successful, competitive global business that must provide real solutions to its customers in response to market pressures. With regard to its face-to-face training courses, enablement challenges such as the following are increasingly relevant:

  • Effectiveness of enablement. Like all companies, IBM needs to do more with less -- such as building the right skills portfolio, maximizing our investments in relevant skills, and maximizing time spent with customers (as opposed to being off at a training).
  • Silos of intellectual capital development. We discovered numerous redundant or overlapping intellectual capital development efforts across our organization. Acquisitions have made this even more of a challenge as we integrate new organizations.
  • Expense pressures. Like most companies, we've experienced increased pressure to minimize expenses associated with travel and living costs for training. We also now need to show a higher return on investment than we had generally experienced from traditional training methods.1

A new master class

Given the factors just discussed, and with a new IBM Redbook2 coming out on MDSD, the time seemed right to develop a new training class also. We decided to formulate a Master Class that would accommodate a large number of students -- virtually. Done right, this type of class could accommodate busy schedules, leverage the experts, allow participation from anywhere, and support networking and collaboration. The challenge was that something like this had never been done before, that we knew of. Indeed, we had to deal with some detractors who said it would never work.

In line with solving the various technical and other challenges associated with holding this newly-conceived class, we also had to get people to sign up to take it. Our motto was "Advertise and Market" -- and do it a lot. The "unique opportunity" to take this course was marketed to the Worldwide Systems Engineering Community of Practice (SECoP), IBM Rational's Worldwide Systems Development Community of Practice (SysDev), and IBM Rational's Worldwide Solution Architecture Community of Practice (SolAr).

The CoP infrastructure was likewise leveraged to take sign-ups, and a wiki site devoted to the class was created on the SECoP site. We also evaluated IBM's different types of online Web conferencing, and investigated many different conference call services. All this was to make sure the technology could accommodate the anticipated mass of people. With IBM making a push into the systems development market there were now many would-be attendees wanting to understand techniques for dealing with requirements and analysis of complex systems.

Class structure and content

After allowing a number of weeks for sign-ups, the class was ready to roll. It would be run much like a graduate seminar at a university, but with conference call and Web conferencing technologies replacing the traditional classroom environment. Attendees would meet for lecture and discussion, and assignments would be worked on in between the classes. It would be structured into six 2-hour sessions, one session per week over six weeks. The kinds of assignments usually done face-to-face in conventional workshops would be done as homework. The participants were encouraged to team up with others in the class to do the homework, and the entire team would get credit.

While attending the course live online at the class meeting times is the best way to participate, we realized that many people wouldn’t be able to do that for various reasons. We provided access to recordings of each session so everyone could stay caught-up and do the assignments.

Results and feedback

The results were everything that could be hoped for. Among the key points from the survey taken after the class:

  • Over 330 people signed up for the course. Over 180 participated live in the first session, with approximately 80 participating live in the subsequent sessions.
  • Playbacks are important. The recordings were downloaded by over 200 in some cases. People are downloading and watching them and writing to me even as I write this.
  • 60% of the participants did more than half the homework
  • The online Master Class ranks higher than any other mode of training when the categories of "effectiveness" and "practicality" are combined!

Now, everything didn't go perfectly. Connections were lost, the Web conference froze at important times, people got dropped from the conference call, and so on. But the team was prepared. For example, a second person was ready to share the slides if the presenter somehow lost connection, and a backup Web conference was ready if the one to be used had a problem. I think we ended up using all of our various backup contingencies at some point. But people went with the flow, and no one let those issues disrupt the class.

Given this success, the possibilities are now opened up for more such classes. We're making use of something called the Learning Portal within IBM to facilitate better production and reuse of these types of classes. In fact, several classes like the MDSD virtual Master Class are going on right now and are making use of the Learning Portal and other captured experience.

Some "Best Practices" were captured, both from ideas going into the course as well as lessons learned during the execution of the course. Practices such as having a lively and engaging instructor become more important in this format -- even having a couple of instructors can be useful for making things more interesting. Other practices include taking participation seriously and keeping track of those who actually participate, as well as using technology to "engage" the participants so that they're not distracted. Using a tablet PC and drawing on the slides or whiteboard while lecturing helps lend a feeling of interaction compared to simply seeing a series of slides. Web conference technologies can and should be taken advantage of to capture students' attention and help them be involved in the course.

Mainly due to the fact that the initial class was considered successful by the participants, we have another methodology that can be offered within the spectrum of different types of enablement. Does it "replace" face-to-face training? No. But it can be used to perform types of training that many times are traditionally done face-to-face. It can be used for Certification training, for example. And once a virtual class is finished, it can be reused in an on-demand fashion. The only additional thing needed is the ability to collaborate with a Subject Matter Expert on the exercises between the different modules.

So what about those questions/comments like: "I wish I could take this class, but I can't take three days off or travel." and so on? Now we have a positive response and a viable option to offer in return.


  1. For information please read "The Rational Approach to Technical Enablement", by Darrel Rader and John McDonald, in the November 2008 edition of The Rational Edge: http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/rational/library/edge/08/oct08/rader_mcdonald/index.html
  2. http://www.redbooks.ibm.com/redpieces/abstracts/sg247368.html



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