Businesses with complex, highly technical software offerings often depend on hands-on learning courses that let customers try out their products. In-person training hit "Pause" in the wake of COVID-19, forcing organizations to either abandon their programs or find a way to offer them remotely. The trend shows no sign of slowing down even as the number of vaccinations continues to increase, thanks to permanent remote or hybrid work.

Thankfully, the cloud and virtual machines (VMs) have made it easy to provide immersive, hands-on training labs virtually, either led by an instructor and patterned after in-person learning environments or on-demand. Virtual training labs offer unique benefits and I believe many providers will continue to offer them long after COVID-19 subsides. But to ensure success, providers must meet four crucial benchmarks:

  • Provisioning labs
  • Changing configurations at the last minute
  • Delivering supplemental lab materials
  • Managing latency

Let’s go through each of these in more detail.

Outfitting labs

It’s inevitable: at some point a customer is going to break their lab environment. Given how much time and energy is put into provisioning a new lab, mistakes such as these can bring a training course to an abrupt halt, potentially losing paying customers.

As such, organizations must prioritize faster provisioning for virtual instruction. Many virtual training lab and cloud providers provide templates that allow IT teams to configure a master template that can be quickly copied and delivered to every student.

When planning how to provision virtual training labs, consider how complex the environment in question is. Setting up a simple environment with a single virtual machine and a standard networking structure is likely manageable. More sophisticated environments require more time and knowledge and will take as much time or more than configuring a physical machine. Provisioning becomes exponentially more complex when you factor in potential hiccups, such as applications that frequently change or update, learning platforms with multiple product modules, or network configurations connected to off- or on-premises resources through virtual private networks (VPNs) or other private connections. Think hard about whether your IT team has the time and expertise to provision these environments quickly and reliably.

Dealing with eleventh-hour changes

Last-minute changes are nothing new in any learning environment, virtual or in-person. Teachers and students must be able to troubleshoot technical issues with a virtual lab without the help of an IT team (or IT must be incredibly responsive). To manage this quickly and effectively, be sure to find a virtual lab provider offering tools to reschedule, extend, or cancel access to the lab, restore it to a previous state, and add more students to the lab. These controls can help users solve most tech issues on their own.

Sharing supplemental educational resources

Students will most likely need access to supplemental lab materials such as manuals, demonstrations, or guides to complete their course. While sending materials via email or tools such as Dropbox is sufficient in some situations, organizations should look into sharing resources within the lab itself, in turn creating a smoother, more streamlined user experience. Some next-generation virtual learning environments offer an even more immersive learning experience by allowing for interactivity between the lab platform and additional content.

Working with global latency

Companies offering training labs to all corners of the world need a way of managing latency, or students could experience significant delays. Imagine you’re a student in Thailand trying to access a learning platform whose data center is in Boise. They would face major latency issues, have a horrible experience, and probably not return for additional lessons. Companies without multiple data centers can avoid this by migrating classroom environments to the cloud—find a provider with data centers in several regions, then host the platform from the center closest to a student’s location. Some cloud providers offer tools to help with this scenario.

Virtual training labs benefits

Why go to the trouble of offering virtual labs, if they’re so much trouble? The answer to that question is that virtual training is superior to in-person training in several scenarios and can help organizations grow their customer base and increase revenue. Employees or customers spread across the globe can benefit from virtual training even if they can’t be together in the same classroom. With less overhead and little in the way of instructor fee, on-demand courses scale well at a low cost. This also makes it easier for students to set their own pace. Not only that, incorporating on-demand courses with a learning management system allows students to make their way through a product lesson, then head straight to the lab to practice what they just learned.

Time and resource requirements

To enjoy these benefits, organizations will need to make sure they’ve accounted for the four issues explained above. Dealing with simple environments or a small group of students is something most organizations can handle themselves. However, businesses with larger training programs must decide whether they have the time and resources to solve these problems themselves, or if they’re better off partnering with a solutions provider.