It has always been a challenge when teaching Data Communications and Networking courses to give students a balanced exposure to both the theoretical aspects of the course as well as the associated hands-on technical skills needed to solve problems in an industrial or business setting. This paper discusses the methodology used in teaching the Data Communications and Networking courses to the students of the two-year Computer Information Systems (CISY) diploma program at Kwantlen University College. The paper provides an overview of the curriculum, discusses the strategies used in integrating the curriculum with laboratory experiments, outlines the challenges encountered in delivering the courses, and describes the successes that have been achieved.
Kwantlen University College designated the Computer Information Systems Laboratory (CISY Lab) for the exclusive use of students enrolled in the Computer Information Systems Diploma program, or the Bachelor of Technology in Information Technology degree program. Twenty-one new multimedia computers were purchased for the laboratory, which also inherited a number of older 486 machines. Since this laboratory would be primarily used by CISY students, it was proposed that they take responsibilities for designing and building the laboratory under the guidance of a CISY faculty member. It was also decided that this task be included within the purview of the Data Communications Course (CISY 2311), which all second year CISY students are required to take as a diploma requirement. The curriculum is designed to make academic theory relevant through exercises and projects normally encountered in a real world environment.
2. COURSE OVERVIEW
In the Data Communications course students learn the concepts, terminology, and capabilities of modern data communication networks. They study topics on communications hardware and software components, layered network architectures, protocols and standards, data security, network congestion and trouble shooting. They learn and apply principles of network design and management. They see how deregulation, convergence and technological advances are contributing to new and enhanced ways of transmitting voice and data.
3. TEACHING STRATEGY
Classes for the course consist of a series of lectures, assignments, a major laboratory project and class presentations on current topics in networking. There is a strong focus on reading, appraisal and assimilation of appropriate material in the textbook to provide further detail and context. Students are required to research relevant source data to provide additional in-depth information. For the laboratory project, students work in a group designing and implementing solutions for the assigned tasks. Students document their project results, present the results and conduct formal reviews with their peers
4. PROJECT DESCRIPTION
The students of the CISY 2311 class were asked to design and configure the computer laboratory, and to ensure that by the end of the semester, the laboratory be fully functional, and meet the following minimum requirements:
PCs be networked primarily as NT work stations and servers
Linux be available on one or more machines
User accounts be set up for CISY students and faculty members
Older machines be setup for students projects on hardware configuration (CISY 1105), and Novell NetWare (CISY1215). These machines are not be part of the main student network
Router equipment for Cisco Networking Academy training be installed in North East corner of the room
All wiring and organisation of computing equipment and furniture be set up
It was suggested that the class develop an expedient and rigorous approach to bringing the laboratory to operation using a standard project management approach. Working in teams, the lab network configuration was to be planned and implemented with designated software loaded and running within the predefined time period.
5. PROJECT ORGANISATION
The class was asked to form five teams, each led by a ‘management appointee’. Selecting an advanced student to lead each group was done to increase the learning experience, to roughly balance the strength of each group, and to increase the probability of success of the project. The team leaders were empowered to recruit students to work on their team or alternately, students could lobby to be included within a particular group. Each team of 5 to 7 members was responsible for producing all the deliverables including performing 20% of the implementation work involved in setting up the laboratory.
Each team was required to work on all phases of the project and to provide a progress report every week. Teams were asked to present their findings to the class as well as to submit written documentation.
Although faculty were available for consultation and advice, the creation and set up of the working network in the laboratory was the collaborative responsibility of the class.
6. PROJECT DELIVERABLES
The project included following deliverables, due approximately a week apart:
A Needs Analysis to outline the current physical and technical configuration, consider the anticipated use and the users, delineate the scope of the project and provide a clear statement of requirements which should include considerations for future expansion.
A Technology Design to include a detailed network configuration, an analysis of various options considered, evaluation criteria for success, and a recommendation for an appropriate networking and data sharing approach. The list of equipment and software required, their projected cost of procurement, and a site map detailing the equipment location were also to be provided.
An Implementation Plan to complete the project along with critical path of activities. Considerations were to be given to tasks such as training, documentation, and ongoing maintenance.
The Actual Implementation of the network solution agreed upon by the class resulting in an operational laboratory with all hardware and software performing as set out in the needs analysis.
A Project Manual to consolidate all the documentation generated during the course of the project.
7. PROJECT RESULTS
The students were able to bring the laboratory into full operation within the designated time frame. All 21 computers and a printer were networked with appropriate cabling and the required software is installed.
The site layout diagram was developed which provides the physical layout of the lab. The student groups analyzed a number of different configurations before agreeing on the final floorplan. They were able to reach a consensus about the room layout which reflected how they would use the lab. For example, a space of size three feet and nine inches was provided between two rows of desks to allow users to easily move between the rows.
A hardware training and setup area of six feet was allotted near the windows.
The layout with two rows of desks back to back resulted in more open spaces for hardware training areas and for internet computers. It also resulted in reducing the required cabling footage and the associated cost.
The NT servers were placed across from NT workstations, and the Linux workstations were located close together. Both servers are in close proximity to the hubs and routers.
The hubs and routers are placed on the south east corner of the room, away from major work area housing the user stations. Two Internet stations were placed in the same vicinity away from main work area to ensure that stations are only to be used for Internet access. Since the LAN was intended to be experimental and to be taken down and rebuilt by subsequent classes, it was intentionally kept internal and not connected to either the Kwantlen backbone or the Internet.
All stations could print to a network printer.
Category 5 UTP cable was run through the raceways within each desk and into interconnected hubs at each end of the rows. All wiring was hidden inside the desks and run flush along the wall for safety reasons.
The LAN configuration selected by the students was two interconnected star topologies. They researched and specified two 16-port 10-base-T hubs to allow for flexibility and future expansion. NT was selected as the Network Operating System with NT servers acting as Primary and Backup Domain Controllers. A third server was subsequently added to host the Cisco Networking course work on the intranet. TCP/IP and NetBEUI were installed as the network protocols.
Designated students, chosen by vote, acted as network administrators. These students managed the network and were accountable for its performance. One of the duties accepted by the administrators was to train new administrators for the following term.
The administrators of the NT and Linux systems assumed responsible for administering and managing the network. A trouble log used to record any problems encountered by users was kept in the lab and regularly reviewed by the administrators. The administrators were responsible for resolving these problems, for enforcing lab policies and for acting as user support. All network accounts for the students were created by the administrators. Individual accounts permit the students to carry out their respective tasks without jeopardizing the integrity of the system. Each student established a roaming profile so that their desktop would be the same at whatever station they logged in.
The following software was installed:
Windows NT workstation
Windows NT server
Apache Web Server
The administrators were responsible for installing all software. If a user wanted a specific application to be installed, he/she has to ask the appropriate administrator to install this software. The class agreed that only licensed software would be installed.
A student conduct policy was developed based on the inputs of the various project groups. The policy was posted in the lab and all students were asked to familiarize themselves with and adhere to these guidelines.
The project provided many benefits to the students as they:
gained hands on experience at setting up an entire NT network
learned to configure and maintain a network on their own
became conversant with network hardware and physical media
gained experience in installing and configuring various software required for their studies
were able to set up and learn different Operating Systems
were able to use the lab even when the Kwantlen University College network was down
gained experience in working in groups on network issues
acquired knowledge that could be used effectively in their future Co-operative Education placements and employment
have access to a lab that meets the specific requirements of CISY and B.Tech students as it was designed by and for the students.
The faculty faced many challenges in adapting the course to incorporate a project that required participation, and contributions from all students registered for the course. Students were grouped into teams, and each team was required to find information relevant to the specific tasks assigned to it. Each team had to do selective reading to enable them do their tasks adequately. With this approach, it was felt that students would find it easier to perform similar work later in their professional careers. As most of the students did not have experience in working in a project of this magnitude, many lacked confidence, and felt they were inadequately prepared for such a significant undertaking for a course they were learning at the same time. Moreover, as the project had a restricted time frame of fourteen weeks for completion, any slippage of schedule for a single group had a detrimental effect on the overall completion of the project. The selection, ordering and delivery of equipment, parts and components for the project also proved to be more time consuming, than the students had anticipated.
A project of this magnitude, involving the students with minimal experiences in networking and communications, needs careful planning. As far as possible, each group should consist of people with different skill sets: analytical, technical, and business and communications. Each group needs to be assigned well-defined tasks, and required regular monitoring and guidance. Periodic review meetings with the class need to be scheduled to provide an ongoing status of the overall project. With so many people involved, implementation, installation, and testing tasks for different groups have to be scheduled appropriately, keeping in mind that these students are taking many other courses during the semester.
The use of a hands-on, experimentation-oriented approach has proved to be more effective in teaching the Data Communications and Networking courses. Our students did not just use the laboratory; they built it and utilised it as a part of their overall education. The students complemented their theoretical knowledge with skills based on reality. For example, students designed the layout of the laboratory, wired the computers, laid the cables, installed the peripherals and software. At the same time, in lectures, students were taught the design, installation, and configuration principles, with real life examples emphasising the motivating factors for these principles. In this way, we hope to convey to students not only the theoretical principles of Data Communications and Networking, but also its potential practical manifestations. The knowledge and training acquired through the project of building a complete networking laboratory will provide the students skills and valuable experiences for business environment. The project proved to be a truly unique and practical means of learning network and communications, complementing theory taught in the class.
The projects would not have been possible without support from numerous people. We especially acknowledge our thanks to Gordon Lee, Dean School of Business, Paula Franz, Manager IET, and Peter Thesiger, Chair of Computer Business Systems for their support during all phases of the project. We would like to thank our students who literally spent hours to make this project a success.
Dr. Abhijit Sen
Department of Information Technology and Computer Information Systems
Kwantlen University College
Department of Information Technology and Computer Information Systems
Kwantlen University College
Last Modified: 12/04/2000