Portal opens all access for online learners

New Canadian online education software is making it possible for IT students to learn hands-on with direct access to real machines over the Internet.

Turning simulation into the real thing, Calgary-based startup Hatsize Learning Corp. recently unveiled its TrueLab 3.0 software, aimed at technology companies training their partners and customers on new products.

The software consists of a Java applet that sets up a client interface. Students log in online and a separate browser window is launched that contains a desktop of the lab machine hosted at the TrueLab site. A student is then able to remotely control a machine that’s been pre-configured with a master image, allowing the learner direct access to the software or hardware on a live computer.

Having direct access to the application has proved invaluable to Avis Beiden, president of Adept Minds Learning Corp. in Cupertino, Calif. Beiden uses TrueLab with virtual classroom software, but she says the real benefit from learning is derived from the live, physical interaction enabled by the TrueLab environment.

Beiden, who counts among her clients Borland Software Corp., notes that most of the learning and education that’s done online tends to be no more than information dissemination.

“Showing slides or presenting demonstrations of how the software works isn’t learning,” she says. “Learning is an active process and it really happens with hands-on activities”

Technical professionals, especially developers and architects, might question what they can and can’t do in a simulation environment, as opposed to working with the real application. “Instead, we give them the opportunity to discover for themselves what they need to learn,” says Beiden. “We put them in immersive mode by creating a fictitious environment for doing all of the activities.”

Simulators cannot accommodate the needs of high-end technical training, where students are learning complex tasks in an elaborate environment, says Guy Hummel, CEO of Hatsize. “Students really need to be able to explore and go around these complex tasks in different ways. They need the freedom to play around on the system.”

The way forward for Hatsize was to give live access to these systems over the Internet, so that anything students could do in a physical classroom on a lab machine, they would be able to do online.

“The big thing we saw that was missing in the online training industry was hands-on interaction with the system,” says Hummel, who co-founded the company five years ago with Dean Hardy, the firm’s president.

Products like TrueLab are able to take online learning to a higher level because the traditional simulation capability can be richly configured to deal with specific kinds of problems, says Cushing Anderson, a research director at IDC in Framingham, Mass. “And because the environment is perfectly matched, it’s not artificial. There’s no gap between the way you learned it and the way you actually do it.”

The TrueLab back-end acts as an automated provisioning system that sets up a master lab environment, with the required memory, operating system and software. The master image is replicated to fit the number of students and how many machines are needed. Once the class is scheduled, the TrueLab management system starts up the virtual machines and sets up the user authentication so students get routed to the appropriate machines.

One of the bigger challenges in developing the product was dealing with firewalls and Internet proxies, says Hummel. “Up to half the students were being blocked by their firewalls. So we imbedded code in the java applet that checks for proxies and negotiates authentication.”

Now if the firewall is blocking traffic on a particular port, the applet tunnels through the SSL port.

Among Hatsize’s other clients are BMC Software, Juniper Networks, Siemens, Symantec and Verizon. Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Juniper Networks Inc., for example, uses TrueLab to train its partners on its network devices.

Juniper ships its hardware up to Hatsize’s data centre, where it’s connected to the lab machines created by the TrueLab management system. Students gain direct access through these virtual machines to control and configure the Juniper router.

An instructor can also virtually look over a student’s shoulder and see what they’re doing on the desktop. As the student manipulates and configures the router, the instructor can help them out as necessary.

Beiden says she chose Hatsize over similar products from U.S.-based vendors Surgient and Toolwire for the functionality offered by TrueLab, such as full instructor participation and the ability to save each lab session.

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