Companies with sophisticated software products often rely on hands-on labs to get customers to experiment with the product and learn how to use it effectively. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, companies were forced to quickly move to a virtual paradigm. This approach is likely to persist even as vaccinations increase, as many technology companies have switched to permanent remote work or hybrid models.
Fortunately, virtual machines and the cloud have made it possible to offer practical training laboratories in virtual formats simulating real experiences. Like any online learning, virtual labs can be either under the guidance of an instructor or provided on request without an instructor. Virtual training labs offer benefits that go beyond COVID recovery, but to be successful, vendors must consider four basic requirements: delay management, providing labs, changing configurations at the last minute, and delivering additional lab materials.
First, let’s discuss the benefits of virtual labs. Training labs offer several advantages over personal training, especially for companies with a large number of geographically distributed users. Virtual learning is easier to scale to support more students at a lower cost. With full on-demand virtual labs, companies can completely eliminate the need for instructors and make it easier for students to complete the curriculum on their own schedule, regardless of their time zone.
Companies can also integrate on-demand training labs in a Learning Management System (LMS) so students can take a lesson about the product and then go directly to the lab to practice what they have learned. Even virtual instructor-led learning labs are more convenient than face-to-face labs because students can participate in them anywhere. By offering greater access to training, companies can increase the number of potential customers they serve and, if they charge tuition fees, create new revenue opportunities.
But the transition to the virtual creates new challenges that organizations will need to address to reap these benefits. Here are the most important ones to consider:
1. Delay management worldwide
If an organization conducts training worldwide from a single data center, latency will be a significant problem for some students. For example, if your data center is located in California, students trying to access a lab environment from Europe or Africa will have a long delay and a horrible experience.
If your organization doesn’t have multiple data centers, migrating a training lab to the cloud is the best way to fix this problem. One solution is to use a cloud provider with multiple regions and locate the lab in a region closest to the student’s location. Depending on your cloud provider, there may even be automated tools that can help with this process.
2. Providing laboratories
For applications with a relatively simple environment, such as a single virtual machine (VM) with a standard network configuration, there are many options for virtual labs based on cloud solution providers or cloud vendors. On the other hand, a more complex environment may require considerable time and experience to defend and destroy some cloud solutions, providing little improvement over the configuration of physical machines. Here are some of the factors that make providing a lab more difficult:
- Laboratory environments with two or more virtual machines due to multiple product modules or solution prerequisites.
- Multiple network configurations, such as connecting to external or local resources over private network connections or virtual private networks (VPNs).
- Applications that change or update frequently.
Once you’ve set up your labs, some clients inevitably break their environment – which, given the time it takes to create a new environment, can effectively end a lab session. For solvent customers, this can be a serious problem.
As a result, faster provision is needed for virtual learning. Many virtual lab service providers and cloud vendors allow you to use templates that can automatically create and replicate lab environments. This approach allows the information technology (IT) team to create a master template that can be quickly and easily (and possibly automatically) duplicated for each student.
3. Last minute change management
There will always be students who want to join labs or have to cancel them at the last minute, mistakes in providing labs that you need to fix on the fly, problems with VPNs or connections, or other last minute issues. If your IT team does not respond immediately, the instructor (or student, in the case of on-demand training labs) should be able to address these issues on their own.
To manage these changes without causing unpleasant delays for students, you will need a virtual lab provider that offers tools for faculty that can easily extend, transfer, or cancel access to the lab; restore the laboratory to the specified state at any time; and add new participants to the course. Giving instructors better control helps them solve most of these pop-up problems without having to trigger IT.
4. Delivery of additional laboratory materials
In most scenarios, the training lab will be accompanied by other training content. Students may need access to a lab manual, manual, or textbooks to successfully complete their studies. In some cases, an organization may deliver these resources as attachments to emails or through file-sharing tools, but delivering this content to the lab itself often makes learning easier. The next-generation virtual lab platform can even provide interactivity between additional content such as manuals and the lab environment for a more immersive experience.
Most organizations can handle these four challenges when they are dealing with simple environments and relatively small numbers of students. But as the number of lab visitors and the complexity of the lab configuration increase, the problems increase exponentially. Organizations with large training programs need to think carefully about whether they have the bandwidth and technical capabilities to manage their own virtual labs, or whether they better work with a solution provider.