Thursday, June 20, 2024

IT Teachers Suck

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IT people get plunged into situations so often without proper preparation that we get used to it and grow accustomed to not having the opportunity to seek the right skills before we do things.A painfully common example is when we are called on to deliver training. Most IT teachers suck.

Or put another way, what many IT trainers are doing is not teaching. Amongst professional IT trainers there are a growing percentage of skilled educators, but there is a much bigger body of rank amateurs delivering in-house training within organizations. The majority of people delivering training in the IT industry are there because they know IT, not because they know how to teach.

In IT there is (finally) a rising tide of proper professional accreditation (MCSE, CCIE, CITP, CISA, ITIL Expert …). In general that is delivered by professional trainers who know at least something about how to teach (although it would seem there is still plenty of room for improvement – many are chosen for their subject matter expertise not their powers of education).

There is also a large industry delivering less formal IT training, with varying levels of teaching expertise.

Then there is the in-house training run by a training department, and finally the ad-hoc training delivered by colleagues within IT. Full-time trainers tend to have some teaching expertise but ad-hoc peer-tutors invariably have none.

As I said, there is a culture of amateurism within IT. We are accustomed to having a go.In so many areas of technology and process, there are no experts. We grab some resource materials and wade in. So when a group of staff need to learn something, we too often nominate someone, hand them whatever materials exist and tell them to get on with it.

Telling isn’t teaching

The cost to the industry of under-skilled trainers must be enormous. In general it is not that people learn the wrong things, they just don’t learn.

Telling isn’t teaching, but the bulk of what is labeled “training” in IT is just telling: “Death by PowerPoint”.

Practical exercises are few and far between. They are usually too brief to allow anything to sink in, and badly designed for adult learning.

I have yet to see any follow-up to an IT training course other than a couple I ran myself. We ought to plan and budget for after-course support, follow-up assessment (did it stick?), refresher courses, individual coaching, local experts and a host of other mechanisms to ensure we get a return on our training investment. Most of that is currently delivered by flying pigs.

The problem of poor training is compounded by typical IT management contempt for training. As a professional provider of training for many years, I was constantly battling with requests to do a course in four days instead of five, or one instead of three. Even when a course was already the abridged version we would get requests to cut it back further.

And we have all experienced people getting pulled from courses to deal with something “more important”. So even when you get the trained professional delivering the training, they are often operating under constraints of reduced time, interruptions or too many students. Just because your 5-year-old kid is in a class of 30 does not mean adults can be taught the same way. An absolute maximum is 10-12 students per instructor if there is to be effective interaction, assessment, or individual attention.

Subject matter expertise

That is another issue: assessment and evaluation. The great majority of training (especially “amateur” training) does not formally assess (read: test) the students, nor formally evaluate the effectiveness of the course and trainer. There may be a token multichoice test at the end (for which the instructor has often primed the students on the answers) and an equally token feedback form for the provider (which gets read and filed).

Lastly is the importance of subject matter expertise. The idea is for the teacher to have some knowledge to impart. In order for that to be effective, the scope of the course should be well within the instructor’s knowledge envelope. If the instructor is one chapter ahead of the students, then the instructor is reluctant to deal with questions, let alone with discussion or hands-on practice. Even if they do go there, they don’t know to use techniques that suit adult modes of learning. It has seemed to me on past courses that a nervous instructor’s objective was to get to the end, not to communicate information or impart a skill, let alone to make that information/skill stick long-term.

There is a considerable body of knowledge around adult education. We seek out good practice for operations, development, security, service, facilities and other IT disciplines. Do the same for adult learning. Please.

Rob England is an IT industry commentator and consultant on service management, cultural change and professional development, best known for his blog The IT Skeptic.

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