imPower Technologies Embraces Switch to Online Learning
April 8, 2020 Alex Woodie
Traditional schools around the world are in turmoil as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown and the sudden switch to online learning. For Jim Buck and his new IBM i training venture, imPower Technologies, the sudden popularity of virtual education validates the work he and his colleagues have done to build an Internet-based IBM i education operation.
“We’ve been preparing for this unknowingly for years now,” imPower Technologies Chief Operating Officer Michelle Lyons says. “Had we known, we couldn’t have prepared better.”
Buck and Lyons started building imPower Technologies nearly three years ago to provide an online vehicle to deliver the time-tested IBM i and RPG educational material that Buck has developed as a midrange educator and author. Prior to shifting into education, Buck was a senior system analyst for Maytag’s AS/400 systems back in the mid-1990s.
imPower Technologies is modeled on a college-level program, something that Buck is imminently familiar with, since he taught IBM i and RPG skills and concepts at Gateway Technical College for 15 years. Instead of continuing to walk the grounds of the Kenosha, Wisconsin, college, Buck decided to give online learning a chance.
There was steep learning curve, at first. The pair spent most of the first two years preparing Buck’s content to be delivered in Moodle, the learning management system that imPower hosts on Amazon Web Services. But now that the system has been built, Buck is ready to ramp up the delivery of new content and crank up the imPower production line to train folks with the IBM i skills that the community demands.
While content is key to what imPower does, it’s really the surrounding methodology – such as how the classes are structured and how lab work is graded – that really separates imPower from the rest, Buck says.
“One of the things that we do that most of the time you don’t see in corporate training is the accountability part of it,” Buck says. “We don’t care if you’re a seasoned developer or the director retraining himself or the college student who just came into the business. You have quizzes, you have programing assignments, and you’re held accountable to being able to pass the quizzes and writing programs that work.”
imPower students are free to peruse the course material — including written material and pre-recorded video lectures — at their own leisure. This part of the class is delivered via the Moodle LMS. For lab assignments, students switch over to imPower’s IBM i environment, where they use IBM tools like ACS and RDi to access the IBM i server and develop programs for it. When students complete their lab work on the IBM i server, they switch back over to the LMS.
In this manner, imPower blends the accountability of a college-level class with the work-at-your-own pace of massively open online courses (MOOCs) and corporate training programs. That gives “Buck University” an advantage that’s hard to match, he says.
“I don’t want to grade other groups’ efforts, but what we’re doing is unique and it would be very difficult to duplicate,” Buck says. “How we differentiate from colleges is you don’t have all the entrance fees, all the college-type stuff. Our goal is to get you in, get you trained, get you out. It’s a different environment.”
imPower Technologies currently offers two main courses, including “IBM i Concepts and Operations” and “Programming in ILE RPG.” Before the coronavirus, Buck would deliver a three-day advanced-level RPG and IBM i course in person. But now that travel has been curtailed, imPower is working to convert that advanced session into an online course. That new class — developed at the behest of one of imPower’s top customers — could be ready within a month, Buck says.
Buck and Lyons say they’re open to working with other IBM i educators to convert their in-person training sessions into an online format. The content is the key, they say, but it does take work to present that content online in a manner that students expect and can be productive with. That’s the hard part, and that’s what they spent two years mastering.
“We have the infrastructure all in place,” Buck says. “We have hundreds of hours of videos and are creating more all the time.”
imPower’s business model was gaining traction before COVID-19. A number of its clients have praised the company’s education in testimonials posted to imPower’s website, and some are pushing Buck and Lyon to expand the IBM i curriculum even more.
But now that the spring conference season has been canceled and the entire world is moving in the direction of distance learning, imPower could be on the cusp of surge that puts it over the top.
The only barrier at this point appears to be uncertainty.
“We’re all sitting on a cliff, thinking ‘What are we going to do?'” Buck says. “Once things straighten out a little bit, it’s going to change the way work is done. It’s going to change the way education is done. I think we’re going down the right road.”