Build It, Break It, Restore It in the classroom

Feb. 1, 1999

`Build It, Break It, Restore It` in the classroom

Simulating the stress of real-world problems in the lab can save trouble on the job.


It`s fast approaching 11 p.m. Nobody is working except the custodians--and the network technician responsible for installing a dozen new PCs and a router in the new wing. Employees expect to be working on these PCs early the next morning. Everything`s plugged in, but it`s not working right. The problem could be with the router. Whatever it is, it`s not in the manual.

This is on-the-job training at its worst--and it`s an increasingly common scenario in information technology today. Demands on workers are escalating exponentially, but the supply of trained workers isn`t. Workers are moving up to jobs that can be over their heads.

A more effective alternative for learning to troubleshoot networks is hands-on problem-solving in a lab environment. It simulates the real stress and frustration technical workers encounter on the job, but offers them an educational setting where they can learn to solve problems without fear of real consequences.

The Build It, Break It, Restore It model is an increasingly popular version of this concept. It`s elegant and simple: Students arrive at the lab and find a collection of gear that looks like it just landed on the company loading dock. They assemble it into a network, configure it, and ensure it`s running smoothly. Then the instructor injects a problem into the mix--a bad line of code, a configuration error, or crossed wires. Students go to work solving the problem and restoring the network. Ideally, they learn something about technology and sound problem-solving methodology.

Unlike conventional lecture-based or computer-based training, this brand of training is learning by doing. Global Knowledge Network is a pioneer of the concept, and many recent students say these courses translated into success on the job. Now, several vendors are offering courses similar to this. Students can experience as many as two dozen scenarios in a three-day class. If you`re going to try this within your own organization, here are a few guidelines:

(1) Make it real. The real world rules. More often than not, the real world is a patchwork of hardware and software products by multiple vendors. Your lab should reflect this multi-vendor reality. The cause of the network failure should be authentic as well. For instance, a disgruntled ex-employee is seen leaving the building, and the network is showing twice as much traffic as usual--even though it`s after hours. What do you do? This unique scenario approach keeps interest high.

(2) Don`t stick to the manuals. In the real world, manuals go out the window. If a solution is in the manual, it`s not a problem that requires you to pay the big-time salaries information technology professionals are earning today. Real-world answers are in teamwork, creativity, and sound problem-solving practices.

(3) Make the lesson universal. The network crash should enlighten students about challenges they`ll encounter on the job. The failure should illustrate either a common technical topic or a common problem-solving methodology. Students should be able to imagine the problem occurring on their own network and envision themselves solving it.

(4) Start small. Don`t overwhelm students--at least not at the start. Chances are the students desperately need the training they`re taking. A few early successes make everyone feel good as they take on the thornier problems.

(5) But reach high. Once students have tasted success and restored a few "broken" networks, they`ll be full of confidence. That`s the time to give them a tough problem, one that requires them to exercise sound problem-solving methodology and higher technical thinking.

(6) Turn up the heat. No one really cares that the network is down when the network is in the lab. Uptime on the production network, however, is money. Put a little pressure on students. Some trainers make breaks and quitting time contingent on their success in bringing the network back up--just like in the real world. o

Richard Kristof is vice president of Worldwide Business Development for Global Knowledge Network (Cary, NC).

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