Building a World-Class Distance Learning Program at Open University

By / January 31, 2018 / , / 0 Comments

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Andrew Smith, Senior Lecturer in the STEM School of Computing and Communications at Open University. In this interview, he discusses how Open University solved its distance learning challenges and now delivers IT training to students all over the world.

Interviewer:  Thank you, Andrew, for joining us today. We’re excited to learn about the program you’ve built at Open University, and how you’re helping students all over the world get the IT training they need to advance their careers. Can you start by describing what you do there?

Andrew: I’m a senior academic. My main role is to run the Cisco Networking Academy for Open University, where our traditional cohort is teaching CCNA and CCNP students. But with that I do a lot of work around Linux, around forensics, around security, and around vendor engagement. So I do a lot of work with LPI, CompTIA, VMware, Cisco, Microsoft, and many others.

Interviewer: Can you tell us a little about the students you serve?

Andrew: Open University was created in the 1960s to be the university that could offer everybody a chance to get a degree. Today, we have over 150,000 students. It’s completely distance learning and adult based. Anybody under the age of 25 is unusual for us. Typically our main population — if you think about a histogram — is in the 25 to 45 population, and then it drops off, because that’s the prime time when people are looking for a degree or a master’s degree. They’re looking for that degree opportunity they didn’t have or didn’t want when they were younger. Currently, we do not typically have many 18 to 25 year olds, but we do have some. And after about the age of 45 it goes on a long tail out into retirement.

Interviewer: Got it. Where do your students go after Open University?

Andrew: We find that a lot of our students, especially at the postgraduate level, are already in the industry or in an area of the industry. They’re using it for personal development or personal progression. Some of our students are serving in the Armed Forces, because Cisco technology is a NATO-approved technology, so that is an advantage. And we’ve got some going off all over the world to do both mundane and fantastic things. One of my students who is doing the security module is traveling around Thailand fixing systems. I had another student on a mobile oil drilling platform in the South China Sea. It’s quite entertaining to keep track of where they work.

Interviewer: Does Open University primarily focus on degrees?

Andrew: Yes, we’re a full degree-awarding university. That’s where we get our money and reputation. We offer certification courses as a bonus. The Cisco and Linux certifications that we offer are part of our degree program. It’s a great benefit for students to be able to get their degree and these certifications as well. It’s powerful when they’re able to leave saying, “I’ve got a master’s degree in advanced networking, and I have the full CCNP, CCNA, and security certifications.” It’s about creating a win-win situation. We’re seeing that same thing with NDG’s Linux Essentials content. We’ve got a number of alumni who want to go and get that extra certification, either for their personal development and interest, or to help them move forward in their careers. So they’re seeing a double win in it.

Interviewer: Absolutely. Certifications can be a powerful differentiator on the job market. You mentioned that you’re using NDG’s Linux Essential course. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Andrew: We run what we call a non-accredited course, which is our terminology for any professional development course, and we use NDG’s Linux Essentials content for that. And that runs like a dream. Because we’re a Cisco ASC (Academy Support Center) as well, I’ve got a couple of academies that are very big on Linux. I’ve got a university in Hertfordshire and a school in Bedfordshire, which are counties near us, who are just big fans of Linux, and they are using the content to underpin their qualifications, whether it’s tech qualifications for schoolchildren or part of an undergraduate program. NDG’s Linux courses have made it really easy for us to support these other academic institutions and reach a wider community of students.

Interviewer: I understand that you’re also using NDG’s NETLAB+ platform to deliver online IT training. Can you tell us about that?

Andrew: We’ve had the NETLAB+ Academy Edition since 2005, and we’ve been using the Professional Edition since about 2010. We heavily use the NETLAB+ for our Cisco networking students, predominantly our CCNP students. But we also use it for our CCNA, because when we distance teach, we’ve got about 400 to 600 students learning networking, and a number of them cannot attend our day school classes because they’re serving in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, or are disabled, or caring for family members. So to ensure that they have the right hands-on skills, we use NETLAB+. But otherwise we make them go to centers around the UK and get hands-on with live equipment in front of them.

Interviewer: Why did you choose NETLAB+? What were you using before that?

Andrew: NETLAB+ was one of the keys that solved our distance learning problem. Before NETLAB+ was available, we were still going to do the day schools, but we weren’t going to have any time for the students to develop practical skills. The challenge is they have to learn all the technical skills, they have to learn how to configure, and they have to learn how to cable. The content is good, but it can be very dry and theory-based without the practical. So, we were going to do the day schools, but we had to compress a lot of stuff into the day schools, and we were going to have to turn them into long weekend sessions, which were going to be very expensive to run and a huge logistical problem to solve.

But, of course, as soon as NETLAB+  came along, we were able to reduce it down to one day. The students are able to do all the practice remotely on NETLAB+, so then we can just bring them in for a day to work on condensed activities, and then do the assessment.

And the bookable interface on NETLAB+ is an absolute bonus, because I can create community rules and I can control how much time students get on the equipment, and then they can manage their own time accordingly. So they get to choose, but within the constraints we give them.

Interviewer: Wonderful. It sounds like you identified some clear benefits to NETLAB+ at the very beginning. Are there any other advantages that you discovered after using it more regularly?

Andrew: Yes. For the alternative learning students, they have to complete some practical activities, and we have to be able to see that they’re doing it. NETLAB+ has a feature that lets you go into all the accounts and look at the logs of what they’re doing. At the moment we’re in the window of the final day school. We have a technician that goes in and just checks. So students say, “Oh, I’ve done that.” And you go and look and you just go, “Oh, dear, no you haven’t,” or, “That looks like a lot of commands for one line.” Most of our students are very honest individuals, but every once in a while you’ll get one or two that will try to see what they can get away with.

Also the students might make mistakes, and we’re able to go in and just look and say, “Aha, you did that.” So even though it’s a totally asynchronous experience, we can email them and say, “Next time just don’t do that. Do this.” And they have their personal “aha” moments. For TSHOOT it’s fantastic. (The TSHOOT is the CCNP troubleshooting certification.) The fact that NETLAB+ loads the trouble ticket, prepares it, and then students can save it and move that save through to another booking—it’s very powerful. We limit the amount of time our students can spend on the system to stop individuals from “camping” and let others use it too. But because of that feature, we’re able to let students save their work and push it through to the next session, where it will boot up and let them pick up where they left off. It’s simple, but it’s very good.

Interviewer: What does the future hold for NETLAB+ at Open University?

Andrew: We’re actually quite keen to explore how to use NETLAB+ to connect other technology. We have an open STEM lab where we have robotics equipment and National Instruments equipment. We have a telescope in Tenerife. We have a Mars Rover, because we do a lot of work with NASA. And we’re looking at how we can use the NETLAB+ bookable interface with all of that technology. As well as looking at routine networking scenarios, because it’s quite a straightforward platform to use. Basically it’s sending control signals. It’s got good bookable interface. And now that the Virtual Edition also has a HTML5 applet, it will actually become more friendly to things like this. It’s shiny, shiny friendly, which I do like.

Interviewer: Do you have any advice for other institutions who might be considering using NETLAB+?

Andrew: Yeah, buy it! Know what you want it for and why you’re going to use it. Once you understand that, it is an incredibly powerful and agile tool. I have a server room filled with lots of routing and switching equipment and NETLAB+ systems, and I do a lot of show-and-tell activities, taking senior management and other notables alone. Because everything is in the cloud, until I take them in the server room and they see it. And suddenly it starts making sense, even if they’re not technical. They get to see inside our server, and see the NETLAB+ system, and see all the flashing lights, and see that there are students on there at all sorts of weird and wonderful times.