Online Training has the Opportunity to Finally Replace the Bootcamp Learning Model
By Jung Lee
Disappearance, Not Death
Certifications and training are important career development opportunities for IT and cybersecurity professionals. Passing certifications exams or gaining new knowledge and skills requires hours of studying and practice. Many IT or cybersecurity professionals who hold a certification or have attempted to sharpen their skills likely used a five-day bootcamp course, which refers to a multi-day, in-person training session.
Seems hard to imagine now, in the age of pandemic protections: a large group of students, all traveling from disparate locations to crowd into a room with desks and shared screens, all breathing the same recirculated air for a full work week. But the most unhealthy part of this bootcamp model is not the risk to respiratory systems. It’s the unrealistic proposition that students can learn and retain weeks worth of content in 40 hours.
As public health measures have dispersed large groups and have turned most gatherings virtual, it’s forced the education and cybersecurity industry to reflect on the bootcamp learning model. This has exposed learning and logistical shortcomings, making us question why it took so long for the bootcamp to disappear, and why it required a pandemic. And now it’s up to online training alternatives to ensure the bootcamp model isn’t just in the midst of a short-term absence, but rather has suffered a permanent, justified death.
Issues with the Bootcamp Model
So why do bootcamps deserve the death penalty? It has to do with their lack of effectiveness. They are designed to teach and help students learn. Exam preparation bootcamps, more specifically, are designed to help students learn just enough cybersecurity content to pass an exam immediately following the conclusion of the five-day bootcamp. The issue is that the content (exam content included) rarely fits neatly into five days, which leads to cramming.
Academic research and experiments highlight that cramming (studying material for the first time a few days before an exam) is not an effective study method (when the amount of content exceeds one chapter or domain-worth of content). Moreover, academic studies conclude that cramming leads to poor long-term knowledge retention.
So even if a student passes the exam after the bootcamp-most likely due to coming in with preexisting knowledge-they won’t retain the information for the long-term, meaning knowledge is not transferred to on the job skill improvement. In short, the format of a bootcamp undermines the main purpose of a bootcamp.
Attractiveness of the Bootcamp Model
Even though bootcamps don’t achieve their main goal, there are reasons, good ones in fact, that the bootcamp model was so popular.
- “Paid Vacation”. These employer-sponsored trips sometimes served as a reward to high-performing employees, giving them (and their families) an opportunity to travel to popular destinations, feeling like a sponsored vacation rather than a focused study environment.
- Networking. Most in-person training were open to the public or hosted at a conference. This gave attendees the opportunity to meet fellow professionals in the field outside of their own organization, grow their network, and potentially new job opportunities.
- Teacher-student interaction. Training companies often send their star trainers to large, in-person conferences. In addition to the natural energy of an in-person class, the chance to meet and network with high profile teachers in the cybersecurity field was appealing.
- Accountability. The bootcamp label paralleled the use of the term in fitness where a person was forced to exercise to extremes in a short period of time, similar to a military basic training experience. The forced accountability is no doubt appealing to both individuals, who don’t necessarily feel self-motivated enough to earn a credential over time, and their employers, who appreciate the short turnaround and inherent pressure bootcamps place on their employees.
- No better alternative. Many test preppers had a bad experience with online training. From technical issues to soporific voice-over-PowerPoint pre-recorded content by unprepared instructors, students tainted by one bad online training experience gravitate toward in-person training.
No Better Alternative
The final reason in the above list, poor online training experiences, is the single most important issue that has extended the life of bootcamps. The industry won’t move from the norm until there exists a better, established option. Even after the worst of the pandemic passes, bootcamps will remain resilient, and most online training hasn’t yet proved to be a strong enough force to move the industry away from bootcamps. Online training gets a bad sometimes accurate reputation, suffering from issues such as:
- Poor teaching. As I’ve written previously, successfully teaching online takes different strategies and approaches than in-person, and good brick-and-mortar classroom teaching does not automatically translate to good online presentation. Teachers unaware or unprepared for these changes in environment struggle to connect and engage with their virtual class, which is less patient and more easily disengaged.
- Curriculum and course structure was not set up for online teaching. The new medium must be a consideration for curriculum as well. For example, in the cybersecurity industry, courses often include labs or hands-on-keyboard training. In in-person settings, over-the-shoulder lab instruction is common and effective, allowing the instructor to intervene and support in real time. This interaction is much harder to replicate virtually, and students get left behind if they are lost in a lab environment without proper step-by-step scaffolding or support.
- Ill-defined expectations. Learners, too, must be prepared for the new medium. Online training is more independent and therefore requires more self-discipline. Learners must re-learn how to hold themselves accountable and study in the same setting in which they, and their families, eat, sleep, play, and live. If these new challenges aren’t communicated upfront, a learner can easily grow disenchanted and fall behind.
These issues are exacerbated by the rise of ad-hoc online classes. Especially in recent months, schools and training companies that typically teach in-person have been forced to move online without proper planning or expertise. The forced migration at such a break-neck pace does not make for a graceful transition for instructors or students.
The Fate of Bootcamps Depends on Online Training
The online learning experience must be good enough to draw educators and students away from dated bootcamps. We’ve seen recently too many painful examples of poor online implementation. The online alternative can’t be your father’s online training nor your kid’s current COVID driven online training. Both miss the mark because educators new to the online medium assume that online teaching is just an instructor teaching online.
But good online training is more than just the delivery platform. When done properly, with a thoughtful curriculum, robust system, and good content, the benefits of online learning solutions surpass those of in-person training. Online training benefits include:
- A better schedule and pace. This addresses the major issue with bootcamp training: the compressed schedule. Online courses, structured around on-demand or live classes that meet weekly or bi-weekly, allow for instruction to be spread out and taken in chunks, allowing for better comprehension and retention.
- More customization. An exemplary online course has the flexibility to begin with an initial assessment (or diagnostic exam) to identify strengths and knowledge gaps. This affords a more efficient and customized study plan. Unlike in-person bootcamps with pre-set agendas, on-demand, modular content encourages learners to jump around to focus on weaker areas and avoid sitting through topics they already know.
- Learner-driven experience. With an online system, learners have more control over how they study and learn. For example, there is a rigid learning cadence with in-person training. To get through all of the material, teachers typically have to lecture for the entirety of class (typically multiple hours) and then send students home with post-work to reinforce and check for knowledge retention. But an online system creates a more flexible learning path, allowing students to not only control the duration of didactic content, but also when they perform knowledge checks. Meaning, a student can digest 30 minutes of content then pause to complete a knowledge check specifically covering the content they just learned. This creates more learning moments more often, which is especially important for weak content areas, and allows students a more customized and flexible experience.
- The best teachers are always available. Geographic hurdles and canceled flights are no longer a barrier for accessing the best instructors. An online setting allows any teacher to teach any class, from the comfort of their spare bedroom. And these teachers are specially trained for the online environment. They are comfortable with remote meeting technology and how to engage online learners through polls, questions, and other engagement moments designed for online learners.
- Peer study model. Online learning does not mean total independence. Indeed, online learning affords students the opportunity to connect with peers and colleagues with whom they may not normally interact. A cohort model that spends weeks together (not just five days) has more time to bond, share, and hold each other accountable in studying and following through on the exam.
- Getting more learners involved. A live online environment and interaction, especially typed responses or polls that don’t require the use of a webcam, is an easier option for those who may be too shy to speak up in class. The option of a private, direct line to the instructor or Teaching Assistant (TA) provides an additional avenue to those who wouldn’t normally have the temerity to participate during an in-person class.
Ensuring Certain Death
Without the pandemic we might not have stopped to question bootcamps. Somehow something so absurd, so ineffective, and so wasteful went unquestioned just because it was so established. Bootcamps will be categorized in history books alongside Yellow Pages, thick, printed directories that found their way into most homes despite being expensive, hard to use, even harder to update, and the yellow print smelled musty. Once a better solution presented itself, the Yellow Pages’ flaws were exposed and quickly became obsolete.
But without an impetus, something that ought to be questioned can remain unquestioned for a long time. Fortunately, the opportunity to question has presented itself, albeit in the unfortunate form of a global pandemic. And the most prudent thing the industry can do now is question and reevaluate.
As Francis Bacon, the 16th century English philosopher, explained, “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” We have stopped to question bootcamps and we know the answer: They are outdated. The second half of wisdom is to replace them. Online training alternatives must rise with the occasion and be good enough to serve as the replacement.
A well-implemented replacement can expose the bootcamp for what it is: training dressed in the borrowed robes of an employer-funded vacation. Better still, the online alternative, when implemented properly by an experienced training partner, can save resources wasted by bootcamps. With all those saved resources, once the pandemic passes, we can send IT and cybersecurity practitioners on a proper vacation. They’re going to need it because, for the first time in a while, they will be actually studying and learning.