We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Kelly Caudle, Program Head of the Cisco Networking Academy, VMware Academy, and IT Academy at Stanly Community College (SCC). In this interview, he discusses his experience using NETLAB+ to deliver IT courses to students and instructors across the Southeast.
Interviewer: Thank you, Kelly, for joining us today. We’re excited to learn how you’ve been able to take a small community college in rural North Carolina and build a world-class IT training center. Can you start by describing what you do at SCC?
Kelly: I’m the head of the Cisco Networking Academy, which includes an Academy Support Center and Instructor Training Center. I also run our Online IT Academy, which teaches Cisco, VMware, Palo Alto Networks, and we’re going to offer Red Hat here shortly. We use NDG’s NETLAB+ product to deliver online training to students around the world.
Interviewer: That’s great. Do you only use NETLAB+ for online training?
Kelly: No, we use it for seated too. We have a classroom with Cisco gear so students can put their hands on it, but the building is closed at night. We use NETLAB+ to make sure that the Cisco gear is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so students can do labs outside of the classroom.
That’s one of the big benefits that NETLAB+ delivers to us. Utilization. When you invest three-quarters of a million dollars in a room full of servers, you don’t want it sitting idle just because the building is closed. With NETLAB+, our students are able to access that gear from anywhere, simply by using a web browser.
Interviewer: I bet that’s really helpful for the students.
Kelly: It is. They really like the system. The ability to have access anytime when it is convenient for them is very nice. Plus, in the classroom you can do things with NETLAB+ systems that you can’t do with real gear. You can have an entire class, for example, on one piece of gear. There will be one router, and the whole classroom will be watching someone configuring one router—without having to crowd around a computer. They’ll all be logged in as a team and can do labs. So the students really like it.
Once a student gets into one of our classes, and sees how we can provide them hands-on experience in an online environment, they really tend to stick around. They’ll take one class and they’ll say, “This is amazing. Do you have anything else like this?” And we do. We have courses in Cisco, VMware, Palo Alto Networks, Microsoft, and Linux—all built using the same system.
Interviewer: Fantastic. How do your instructors like the system?
Kelly: NETLAB+ offers what I like to call a force multiplier. Going into it, you know that the equipment will be available 24/7, but until it’s actually available, you don’t realize how convenient that is. I can be sitting at home and need to check a lab, or access a couple of Cisco routers and switches to test something, and all I need is a web browser and an internet connection, and I’m able to jump in there and do it immediately. Once you have that ability to access these high-level technologies from just your web browser, it really changes things.
It also helps our instructors teach more effectively. You can see when students have logged in. It’s really amazing because when they do a Cisco lab, you can literally see every single command they’ve typed into the device. So you know if they’re learning the material and completing the labs. The system gives you a lot of flexibility in tracking student performance.
Interviewer: You’re also an Instructor Training Center (ITC). Can you talk about the how you’re using NETLAB+ there?
Kelly: As an ITC, we use NETLAB+ to train instructors at other Cisco academies to be able to teach the Cisco curriculum. We would not be an ITC if it wasn’t for NETLAB+, because we would not be able to offer those courses online. Instructors today just don’t have the money to travel to training and spend a week sitting in a classroom. But if you can get in them in an class that’s just eight weeks long and online, then they can take the course.
Interviewer: And take that training back to their classrooms?
Kelly: Exactly. And then they take that training and give it to their students. So that students in, say, the mountains of North Carolina can get high-tech skills in Cisco, and then be able to go get jobs in the IT field. It’s really neat.
At last count, we had 62 academies in North Carolina that we support: high schools, community colleges, and universities. And we have 140 academies total in the Southeast, comprising Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee.
Interviewer: That’s amazing. Can you tell me about your students? What are their backgrounds and where do they go after Stanly Community College?
Kelly: It really runs the gamut. We get the student who is already working in IT and wants to either move into a new position or be promoted. Or, honestly, they’re doing PC helpdesk support, and they want to move to another company doing more advanced IT work. We see kids straight out of high school. We see returning workers. I’ve had people that have been working in mills their entire lives, and then they come back and retrain.
Interviewer: What proportion of your students is online?
Kelly: It’s probably a 50-50 split between online and seated students. We divide our program between continuing education (mostly online) and curriculum (in-class). For continuing education, we have roughly 350 VMware students every eight weeks from around the world. Brazil, Australia, the UK—pretty much everywhere.
On the curriculum side, we’re not a big school. In fact, we’re a very rural school in North Carolina, so we’re not pulling huge numbers into our curriculum courses. But we’re able to offer those curriculum students much higher technology than we would be able to otherwise, because we’re also offering continuing education and using that to give our curriculum students access to the same advanced technology.
Interviewer: I’m constantly reading about the skills gap that we face as a nation. Can you talk about how Stanly Community College is addressing that?
Kelly: The job of a community college in North Carolina is to provide people with the training they need to get good jobs. And if you look at indeed.com and you search for Cisco or VMware or Linux or Microsoft, you will find job after job after job. And so we are preparing students with skills that directly relate to jobs that are out there right now.
We’re constantly looking at what skills are needed. That’s one of the reasons we made a big push with Palo Alto Networks for security and with VMware for virtualization, because those are the big players right now in those two areas. So we are definitely mapping what we teach to the skills gap.
Interviewer: Have your graduates been successful in obtaining new careers?
Kelly: Definitely. In the past two to three years, we’ve placed 46 students in jobs here locally. And that’s not counting all of the students online, all over the world. We’ve got several at Cisco, several at the city of Charlotte, we’ve got them all over place. I have one gentleman who was running a Go-Kart repair and Go-Kart supply store, saw the writing on the wall that it wasn’t going to make it, and got retrained. He now works for the city of Charlotte as a network engineer. And he works with a kid who came here straight out of high school. Now the two of them are working there together. We’ve had a lot of great success stories like that.
Interviewer: That must be tremendously rewarding. What’s next for your program there? Are you working on anything else to help prepare your students for tomorrow?
Kelly: One of the great things about NETLAB+ is the breadth of technologies it supports. Everything from cybersecurity to virtualization. You can teach just about any class you want on it, because you can build your own custom content.
This year we’re going to rollout the Red Hat Linux Academy using NETLAB+. We’re also going to take the Microsoft courses that we offer on the curriculum side and deliver them online to our continuing education students. Those are our two big projects.
Beyond that, we’re working on a project to provide access to smaller schools. We’ve always wanted to do what we call “NETLAB+ on Steroids,” where we build a NETLAB+ super center that can serve schools that could never afford to build their own Cisco labs. This is already being done in California by the Western Academy Support & Training Center. And we’d like to the same thing here, so that other schools can give their students the IT skills they need to obtain rewarding careers and make an impact on their communities.