Free and cheap ways to study for IT certifications

By Eric Geier (Our Owner & Lead Wi-Fi Consultant)

Originally published on NetworkWorld

For as long as there have been technology certifications, IT pros have debated their value. Some believe they're the key to a fatter paycheck, while others contend that they're often not worth the paper they're printed on. Others take the middle road and say they can be valuable in the right circumstances, but experience is king.

The aim of this story is not to add to that debate. This story is for technology professionals who have already decided to pursue a certification, and who are looking for ways to do so without breaking the bank.

Because there's no denying it: Studying for and taking certification exams can be costly. Instructor-led classes often cost in "the thousands of dollars," notes Tim Warner, a 15-year IT veteran, author and tech evangelist at Pluralsight, which specializes in online professional technology training. Even computer-based classes, which generally don't offer direct contact with the instructor, typically cost "in the hundreds of dollars," he adds.

And once the studying is done you still have to pay for the exams. "On average, exam prices range between $150 and $350 per attempt," Warner says. "Some IT cert vendors, such as Microsoft, offer 2-for-1 promotions that effectively halve the registration cost. Either way, it's expensive."

Fortunately, there are plenty of free and low-cost resources that can help you study for certification exams, and depending on your circumstances, there may be other ways you can cut expenses. You might even be able to save some dough on the exam fees themselves. Later in the story I'll discuss some inexpensive ways to gain hands-on experience in the subjects you're studying.

Pool resources from your own sources

Take advantage of sources you might already have that can provide some study resources:

Check with your current employer. If you're in an IT position already, your company might pay for a training course or study materials, or offer other resources for pursuing certifications. Even if your employer doesn't pay for training, it might be able to get you discounted exam fees and other resources if it's a member of an organization that offers such benefits. Also look for ways at work to gain more hands-on experience with the technology you're studying.

Military members, consider government programs. If you're currently serving or retired, check out the resources that military and government organizations are offering. Most of the GI Bill programs and other educational resource programs contribute to certification expenses.

Check your school resources. If you're currently enrolled in an IT track at a college or university, check with your academic department and/or websites such as OnTheHub for available resources. You'll likely find free access or reduced pricing for software development tools, operating systems and office software, and perhaps discounts for computers and hardware as well.

Take advantage of student editions of software at a local or online college store. And don't forget about the school library, where you might find certification study guides or other resources to help.

Check your public library. Don't forget about the good ol' local library. You might not find updated books for all IT certifications or topics, but it doesn't hurt to check. Also check the library's website for digital resources and library partnerships that might offer a larger content selection.

Discover free or cheap online content

There are many sites out there providing free or cheap content that can help you discover new technologies and study for certification exams:

Check the Microsoft Virtual Academy. Microsoft provides a collection of simple video courses on a variety of IT topics from various IT professionals. Many of the courses discuss specific Microsoft products, but they also offer some general content and training.

Watch Professor Messer. If you're studying for the CompTIA A+, Network+, Security+ or Microsoft exams, check out his free online videos and quizzes. You'll also find some books, online live labs, and course notes available for purchase.

Download the iTunes U app. If you have an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, download the iTunes U app. It offers more than one million free lectures, videos, books and other resources on all types of subjects. You can also use the app for completing schoolwork for schools that use the iTunes U platform.

Check out online discussion forums. Who better to get advice from on studying for and passing a certification exam than others who have done it already? Participants often share exactly what they found useful when studying and provide some general feedback about the exam(s).

But do remember that the exact questions will likely differ at every exam, since you're usually presented with only a portion of a pool of questions. And always remember, obtaining or publishing verbatim questions from exams is usually strictly prohibited by exam vendors.

Check for resources from the certification vendor. Most certification vendors provide at least some free basic resources on their website that you can use when studying. Though you likely won't find free in-depth courses, you might find articles, blogs, videos, webinars, discussion forums and other content that can help.

For instance, Cisco provides the Cisco Learning Network, Microsoft offers the TechNet and Microsoft Developer Network sites, ISACA offers a Knowledge Center and CWNP provides free Wi-Fi learning resources.

Subscribe to Safari Books Online. This on-demand digital library offers a collection of more than 20,000 technology, digital media and professional development books and videos from O'Reilly Media, Addison-Wesley, Peachpit Press, Microsoft Press and more.

You can read and watch from your computer, with an iPad app, with an Android app, or on any mobile device via the company's mobile site. After a free trial of 10 days, rates start at $39 per month or $399 per year.

Join the IEEE Computer Society. Dedicated to technical education and collaboration, this arm of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers offers numerous resources you can use when studying, including online books via Safari Books, discounts at Books 24x7 and thousands of online courses, videos and books for many certifications via Skillsoft.

Memberships are yearly, running January through December; the dues depend on when you join. A full year's Preferred Plus membership runs $126. Student membership costs $40 and includes membership to both the IEEE and the Computer Society. If you join mid-year, rates are half price -- $63 for the Preferred Plus membership or $20 for students. (There are other membership options as well; check the fine print to be sure the membership you're choosing includes access to the resources above.)

Attend online university courses. A growing trend for universities, including MIT and Stanford, is to offer free or affordable a la carte online classes in high-tech topics. While most of these courses are not focused specifically on technology certifications, they could help with background learning in an array of IT topics. There are also third-party sites, such as edXCoursera and Udacity, that offer economical university-level online courses, with some providing certificates of completion.

Assess your knowledge with practice tests. There's no point in wasting money taking an exam before you're ready. Take advantage of practice tests to assess what you know and what you need to study more. Though the questions won't be those from the actual exam, they should cover similar topics based upon the exam objectives. If you get a question wrong, try to fully understand why your answer is wrong and the reasoning behind the correct answer.

A quick Google search (try both "[certification name] practice test" as well as a more general search like "IT certifications practice tests") will reveal many sites offering these tests, and you may also find them in your study guides.

Resources and tips for getting hands-on experience

While traditional methods of study are certainly an important part of preparing for a certification exam, having hands-on experience with the technology you're studying is essential to give you a deeper understanding of it. As you're working with a technology, don't just perform the required or usual tasks; experiment a bit so you can get a full understanding.

While getting such experience might be relatively easy for those who work for an enterprise IT shop or who are students in a large university IT program, it can seem daunting for others. The following tips can help.

Cloud tools: To obtain hands-on experience without having to obtain and set up costly hardware, consider using cloud services. For instance, the Free Tier of the Amazon EC2 Cloud gives you free remote access to Linux and Windows platforms so you can practice Linux commands or Windows Server administration. Microsoft Azure offers a $200 credit that you can use toward implementing virtual machines, web application development and databases. Microsoft also offers a free trial of Office 365 Enterprise; getting hands-on experience with the full Office suite could perhaps help you provide better user support in the future.

Virtualization, Linux live discs, partitioning: When you need to work with another OS, free desktop virtualization software such as Windows Virtual PCVirtualBox or VMware Workstation Player (free for noncommercial use) lets you run another OS -- and its apps -- right inside Windows. VirtualBox also lets you run other OSes on a Mac, or try Mac virtualization software such as Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion, both of which offer 30-day free trials. For Linux-based OSes, you can also boot from a live CD, which doesn't require disk installation. If you prefer to do a full install of an OS, you can always partition your computer's hard disk and set up a dual-boot.

Here are some additional tips for inexpensive ways to gain some hands-on experience, categorized by IT specialty.

Networking

  • Consider setting up open-source or free routers like RouterOSZeroshell or Endian for some general networking experience.

  • If you're studying for a network certification -- from Cisco or Juniper, for instance -- use emulators for practicing commands and simulating network configurations. The open-source GNS3 Graphical Network Simulator, for example, supports Cisco IOS/IPS/PIX/ASA and Juniper JunOS.

  • To gain experience with 802.1X authentication or for other RADIUS needs, try the open-source FreeRADIUS or freeware TekRADIUS.

  • For network security, consider doing some penetration testing on your own network with Kali Linux.

Windows administration

  • In addition to the cloud-based tools noted earlier, Microsoft offers free trials of Windows Server, SharePoint Server and many other products.

Databases

Software development

  • Consider downloading the Community edition of Microsoft Visual Studio or set up a web server like the open-source Apache for web-based languages.

  • Learn to code interactively at free learning site Codecademy. It can step you through coding a website, web application and database with HTML, CSS, Java, PHP and other languages.

  • Students, educators and institutions, also keep in mind the Microsoft Imagine program (formerly DreamSpark), which provides many development tools free of charge.

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