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A training pioneer

Tom Kelly, vice president, Internet Learning Solutions group, Cisco Systems, talks about his innovative program.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed Tom Kelly, head of training for Cisco Systems, about many of the innovative approaches Cisco has taken to training. Since that time, Cisco has expanded its lead in training methodologies and delivery options, making it a model for tech companies that want to upgrade their training materials. Recently, I caught up with Kelly to get an update on several of the programs he is fostering and to get a sense of where Cisco training is headed in 2003.

Q: Last time we talked, we spent a good deal of time talking about the Network Academies Program, in which hundreds of thousands of high school students get Cisco certified before graduation. How has that program grown in the last two years?

A: I can give you some numbers, but beyond that, I will refer you to Kevin Warner, who runs that program. We’ve got over 300,000 students in 10,200 schools in 149 countries getting certified and getting hands-on experience administering their school networks.

Q: One of the topics from our last talk was how you needed to be nimble in matching training to the way Cisco was growing through acquisition. As acquisitions have slowed, I suppose you can focus more on the training itself and less on integrating so many disparate components into your curriculum.

A: Yes, instead of spending so much time on new stuff, we can devote more resources to integrating the technology solutions we have into a whole and developing synergies among them. An example is in video. For some time, many of our clients have had an interest in using video for computer training, meetings, etc. As you might imagine, the rich media requirements for live video feeds present certain challenges to the network. Using a variety of technologies we have gained through acquisition, we created a technology solution to address this business driver. We use it internally here with great success and we plan to integrate video into more of our training modules in the future. Bottom line, we now train people about integrating technologies rather than learning a lot of different stuff that may or may not be related.

Q: One of our focus areas at ComputerUser is distance learning. What is Cisco’s approach to the distance learning concept?

A: Learning is a three-part process including knowledge, understanding, and skills. Once you gain the knowledge through a variety of means, simulation is the best way to develop understanding and skills in an environment where we can’t bring people to a live lab. But we don’t just concentrate on online interaction. We also combine more formal network design and network maintenance curriculum with network simulation.

Q: Cisco is noted as a pioneer in simulation as a way to teach hands-on lessons in a distance model. How did this come about?

A: It sort of happened by accident a couple of years ago when we created a “Jeopardy”-like game that became extremely popular. We are increasingly using games as a learning tool. Games aren’t just for play anymore. To me, games and simulation really are the same. In both cases, you’re talking about taking a student through a computing environment using 3D animation. So you can’t talk about simulation without reminding people about the concept of the role of games in acquiring knowledge. Simulation shouldn’t be all unfunny and games shouldn’t just be for the Playstation.

Q: Another hot topic in the training industry these days is blended learning. What’s Cisco’s approach to this concept?

A: Learning equals communication. The art of teaching is matching your presentation to the way students want to interact. We take the blended learning concept to new level by giving students what they need, not just blending online with offline learning, but also blending structured and loose models, and blending a lot of different media into the learning process. We don’t care if blended means live vs. classroom, live online vs. self-paced online, self-paced online vs. self-paced offline, etc. We try to provide whatever works best for a student to learn the material in the way that suits their learning styles, and time and space constraints.

Right now, we are using more of the live instructors online with chats and other collaboration techniques. Offline assignments can be blended with live instruction for self-paced study. And study groups–live online groups of students with similar aptitudes–can blend well with the self-paced stuff. Then there’s research and hands-on instruction, which students can experience in a variety of ways.

Q: It seems like you provide more flexibility to students than other blended learning models. How will Cisco expand on the flexible options it provides students?

A: We want to expand our use of three primary methods: video, games, and simulation. These three areas are really in their infancy at Cisco and we’re ahead of a lot of other companies in these areas. Our strategy will be to extend those themes first inside the company and then outside the company.

Q: So Cisco uses its own corporate training as a testing ground for the training materials and delivery methods it rolls out as products?

A: Yes.

Q: Where are Cisco’s interests growing in terms of the content of the new training materials you are producing?

A: We have an increasing interest and need in the security area–both at the PC and server level. Across the industry, there is a lot of focus on security at the server level. What isn’t happening and what we hope will happen is more integration of desktop and server security systems. We are not there as an industry and businesses need to push the issue. Another big area is in wireless networking. We are also growing our materials in storage networking, which is becoming more and more widespread. We believe Cisco will play a lead role in this area and we want to make sure there is solid product knowledge out there, which will be reflected in our certifications going forward.

Q: Because this Q&A will go into our annual IT Careers issue, I have to ask: Where do you see solid opportunities for networking professionals in the coming year?

A: In addition to security, wireless, and storage networking, we see Voice over IP and the whole IP telephony market being huge. Those are the areas in which we encourage our students to specialize.

In general, our approach to career development is a three-part process. It starts with human development: How can you improve on the personal side both in and away from the office? Then there’s position development: How can you make your current job better or better serve your current employer through skills development? Next comes career development: What would you like to see in your next job and what do you need to learn to get there? Certification and specialization help people extend themselves in the human, position, and career areas.

The Tom Kelly personnel file

Appointed to his current position in December 1997, Kelly launched the Cisco Career Certification Program in April 1998, resulting in the certification of over 390,000 Cisco certified professionals as of January 2002. In 1999, he established the Field E-learning Connection, a specialized Web site for sales engineers and account managers, which offers 80 percent of the training needed by the field and has over 22,000 employee subscribers. Other initiatives included the launch of Cisco’s e-learning Web site, aimed at evangelizing for the coming major Internet trends and applications; co-sponsoring of the global video-on-demand pilot and deployment; and implementation of virtual classroom technology for meetings and training. The training business at Cisco is expected to generate $500 million in fiscal 2002, educating over 200,000 students through the 140 training partners around the world.

Kelly has more than 20 years of experience in the education and training industry, holding positions at Oracle Corporation, Sun Microsystems, NeXT Corporation, and Control Data Corporation.

Kelly sits on the boards of several companies including KnowledgeNet, Intellinex, and 401Konnect. He is an active member of the Computer Education Managers Association, and the Chief Learning Officer Xchange.

Small world

The Tom Kelly/James Mathewson connection

— Tom Kelly grew up in south Minneapolis. I grew up two miles up the Minnehaha Creek from him.

— Kelly received B.S. and M.B.A. degrees from St. Cloud State University. I received my B.A. degree from St. Cloud State.

— Kelly’s dad (also named Tom) was Metro editor for the Minneapolis Star. I delivered the Star when the elder Kelly was Metro editor.

— Though Kelly never managed the Minnesota Twins, he is an avid fan (even though he rooted for the A’s and Giants in 2002 from his home in Palo Alto). And his father still gets calls for the former manager of the Twins. My honeymoon was at a Twins game.

Q&A: Kevin Warner — head of the Network Academies Program for Cisco

As of this writing, the program boasts 10,200 students in 149 countries.

Q: How did the program start?

A: In 1996, we began networking a lot of schools. In the process, we found that those investments were not well maintained and there was insufficient funds from the schools to maintain them. George Ward, co-founder of the program, and I started holding workshops for school administrators, which were occasionally attended by interested students. Those workshops, in turn, led to our development of a full curriculum that could be taught in schools and for which students could get credit towards their degrees.

Q: One of the things I marvel at is the sheer quantity of tests administered. Tom Kelly said you administer more than 35,000 tests a day. How do you do this?

A: Some days, it’s more like 40,000. We’ve built a robust Internet assessment program. Tests are graded automatically and the results are processed almost immediately. They’re logged into a central server that can be accessed by student and teacher alike.

The assessment gives students real-time personalized feedback that points them back to areas of the curriculum where they might need help. Our new system has live links on the feedback page to individual servers at their locations.

Q: It must be tremendously liberating for the teacher to take the assessment off their shoulders so they can concentrate on preparing for instruction and giving individualized help.

A: Yes. The personalized system is optional for instructors. But if they’ve chosen to turn on the system, it makes for a more egalitarian relationship. Instructors are more like mentors. Students go through some base-level curriculum and, after taking the chapter exam, they can fill in gaps in prior understanding. For example, it may become clear from the exam that though the student understands the material from the chapter, he or she is having problems with binary math. The instructor can point the student towards a little binary math module to help the student get caught up in role binary math plays in IP addressing.

Also, when you have a system like this, you can get immediate feedback on what works and what doesn’t from a curriculum perspective. We can constantly modify and update curriculum based on its effectiveness with a very large set of tests.

Another aspect we’ve learned is if you have a system like this, assessment can be tied into the learning process. What benefit is a high-stakes exam at the end of the course, especially among those who fail? We think it’s better to have a lot of low-stakes exams that ensure students are keeping up and have the necessary understanding to go to the next level. If you use assessment like we do, you can still have a high-stakes exam at the end, and students will be more ready for it.

Q: Another aspect that intrigues me is the number of languages and cultures your program reaches. How do you manage that?

A: The academies play a crucial role at the local level to customize materials for their cultures and customs. We translate the materials into nine languages. This is very expensive. It costs something like $200,000 per course per language. But a couple of factors make the language issue easier. First, whereas most American programs are taught in high schools, most international programs are taught at the higher education level, where English is prevalent. Second, the other languages tend to lag behind English by a few months. This provides some incentive for some schools to offer the program in English in order to teach the latest and greatest. In some places like China, students who take the English version also get credit for English as a second language while getting credit for Cisco networking.

Q: So Cisco can be a driver of not only networking skills, but more basic language and math.

A: Right. We find that our students’ grades in other courses tend to improve after they’re enrolled in our programs. An example is in writing. We require students to keep engineering and network design journals. Because of this, we see vast improvements in their writing skills over time.

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