Wednesday, February 11, 2015

High-End Hardware Gives Colleges an Edge in IT Education

Colleges build sophisticated demo labs to give students hands-on I.T. skills.
byTommy Peterson  EdTech

Tommy Peterson is a freelance journalist who specializes in business and technology and is a frequent contributor to the CDW family of technology magazines.

Information technology attracts more students than any other major at Georgia Gwinnett College’s School of Science and Technology.

That’s despite the fact that an IT program wasn’t included in the catalog when the school opened in 2006. To meet the surge in demand for IT skills and provide hands-on training in networking and network management, Georgia Gwinnett recently built a new laboratory that features enterprise-level technologies such as rack-mounted Lenovo servers and Cisco Systems switches.

IT Lab Supervisor Scott Clausnitzer says students at the Lawrenceville, Ga.-based public liberal arts college now have the opportunity to “work with the high-end equipment they’ll see in their workplaces.”
From Cabling to Virtualization
Before the new networking facility and a digital media lab came online, Georgia Gwinnett already had two technology labs: one for general-purpose computing and a computational lab primarily used for programming courses. The new networking training lab, designed as part of a new campus building, features eight interconnected racks, each containing four Lenovo servers, a RAID array, redundant power supply, a Cisco switch, a Cisco ASA security appliance and a wireless router. Students receive training in virtualization, troubleshooting and security, and also learn skills in network configuration and management, Clausnitzer says.

“Most people who walk by the lab think it’s our data center — our faculty use it as a way to encourage beginning students,” he says. “If they continue in IT, they’ll be able to come to this lab and see what it would be like to manage a corporate network.”

Director of Enterprise Services Toby Chappell says his team chose equipment that was cost-effective while meeting the many high-end specifications defined by Clausnitzer and the faculty. The IT team also worked to develop policies that would ensure the security of the college’s broader wired and wireless networks as students experimented and solved problems in the lab.

As an IT hiring manager, Chappell says he is encouraged by the expansion of the scope of college IT labs. In the past, computer science programs focused on programming, and only a few institutions taught skills such as systems administration or networking, he says. “Now we have specializations like security, data processing and networking that we teach in labs, and that’s important. You don’t work out a networking problem on paper. You work it out by seeing what’s on the switch and tracing the cables and connections.”

Percentage of CIOs who say learning new skills to stay current with technology is the most important advice they would give to new college grads in technology fields

SOURCE: Robert Half Technology, “Best Career Advice for New Tech Grads from CIOs,” July 2014
Building Career Skills
The tools and systems deployed in modern IT environments are so complex and sophisticated that hands-on education has become essential to a successful IT career, says Dan Dainton, instructor and former head of the Computer Information Technology Department at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Ill. The department’s program prepares CLC students to move quickly into the workforce by offering associate degrees and courses that map directly to industry certification, he says.

“Practical exercises are how our students build their skills,” Dainton says. “We’re a career program that’s oriented toward applying knowledge.”

On each of its three campuses, CLC operates multipurpose computer labs equipped with high-end hardware and a wide variety of software. Dainton uses 17 different programs for his computer forensics class, for example. In the Cisco Networking Academy, CLC students have a chance to work on current generation Cisco routers and switches, says instructor and CLC Senior Network Engineer Nels Ekornaas. Cisco provides a virtual workspace with network simulators that allow students to work remotely. Still, that falls a bit short of hands-on experience, Ekornaas says.

“They’re not actually wiring the connections,” he says. “When you work with the actual equipment, you make errors and have to fix them, which are lessons students tend to remember better than those in a virtual environment. Students need to know what the equipment looks like, how it works and how to configure it in situations like those they’ll encounter later.”
Balancing Concepts and Experience
At Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pa., IT courses are designed to balance conceptual and applied learning, says Associate Professor and IT Department Director Jacob Miller. Penn Tech’s 6,000 students are enrolled in programs leading to bachelor’s or associate degrees, or industry certifications. The college boasts a variety of computer labs, with several designed specifically for IT majors, including a systems lab, two networking labs, two gaming labs, a security lab and more.

“Experiential learning is a core tool in teaching information technology,” Miller says. “These labs support the curriculum by providing the students an environment where they can practice and experiment with the concepts and skills they learn in class.”

Similar to many corporate data centers, Penn Tech’s labs are equipped with leading-edge (but not necessarily “bleeding edge”) technologies, Miller says. Students should be aware of the latest hardware and software, but adopting unproven technologies for the labs occasionally has impeded programs, he says.

“Waiting a little while for bugs to get ironed out enables us to adopt technology while it is still fresh, without the frustration of having it only partially work,” Miller says. “We are still usually adopting technology in advance of the corporate world.”

Georgia Gwinnett’s Clausnitzer also notes that, over time, the equipment in his school’s new lab will be refreshed on a staggered schedule and students will be trained on a few different generations of tools — a scenario most are likely to encounter in modern business data centers.

“When our students go out into the real world, they’ll see mixed environments with some older and some leading-edge equipment,” he says. “As our lab evolves it will emulate how an environment like that works.”
Secure Learning
As both lab equipment and students become more sophisticated, colleges also must ensure that their demo labs don’t jeopardize the security of other campus networks and infrastructure, Clausnitzer says.

“When students learn troubleshooting and security and how to identify packets across the network, we need to be isolated to ensure safety,” he says.

At Penn Tech, a security lab houses its own server and storage cluster, separate from the main campus networks, Miller says. The lab there is set up primarily as a virtual environment, in which systems and networks are created as targets for student attacks.

Georgia Gwinnett’s team took a hard look at security issues related to the college’s latest networking lab as all of the new equipment was installed: “We had to be sure that while they’re teaching students how to set up networks, no one was accidentally stepping on the network used by everyone else.”

The New Norm
Hands-on experience should be a central part of any IT student’s curricula, says Matthew Bourdeau, Miami regional vice president of Robert Half Technology, a national IT staffing firm. In a recent Robert Half survey, 71 percent of CIOs said that they prioritize proven skills and hands-on experience over formal education when evaluating job candidates, which obliges new grads to demonstrate real-world competence if they want to compete with veteran IT workers, Bourdeau says.

“Ramp-up time is so important to hiring managers,” he says. “They’re looking for people who can add value to their organizations immediately. New grads should acquire and then highlight all the hands-on skills they can.”

Bourdeau advises students to augment college lab work with internships and to take college programs that lead to certifications. The good news for grads, he says, is that IT workers of almost all types are now in demand. “Web developers and app developers are hot, but so are network administrators and network engineers,” he says. “Candidates that have hands-on experience and skills are in great shape.”

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