Spice up networking class with movies and show-and-tell

If you're working with MCSE students, networking essentials is just that, so the topic can get a little dry. Al Hedstrom has several ideas about how to make class more interesting and include some hands-on work.

Teaching classes for MCSE candidates (or students working on any technical certification) involves more than just knowledge and preparation. A good instructor also will develop a large dose of loyalty for the students' efforts. Why? Because student successes feed the instructor's success. And the feeling of accomplishment after mentoring these "apprentices” is good for the soul.

This article explores some tools for teaching the Networking Essentials course as part of the Windows NT 4 MCSE requirement. The first time I taught Networking Essentials, I was not prepared for the level of boredom my students and I experienced. I never wanted to see that again. The ideas I discuss here are not part of any courseware that I've seen; however, going the extra mile for your students will pay big dividends for them as well as you.

When to teach what
I don’t know about you, but I used to think the Networking Essentials course should be the first in the series leading toward the MCSE. Indeed, the name of the course is nonspecific and almost generic. Most of the other courses, such as NT 4 Workstation, TCP/IP, and Internet Information Server, are focused on one aspect of a system. So it makes sense to start with a course that covers the bigger picture, right? Well, it seems right until you have to teach it as the first course.

The students are fresh, often with little experience, and you’re going to teach them user accounts, rights, and permissions on the second day. And you’re going to explain SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) and performance monitor, too. But doing so means using the tools provided by Windows NT. Your students may have a difficult time understanding these tools and the concepts behind them without prior exposure to NT Server—the kind of exposure that a solid week of hands-on NT Server training can provide.

The same approach makes sense for Server Enterprise when studying the ideas of wide area networks (WANs) and metropolitan area networks (MANs). So consider scheduling Networking Essentials as the fourth course in the Core Four, or maybe even as the fifth after TCP/IP or Server Enterprise. The students will see Networking Essentials as a refresher on many aspects, and they won’t be stumbling about. (“How do I get to group permissions again?”) Things will start to fall into place for them as you present the big picture that Networking Essentials is all about.

Making it interesting with advance preparation
Like any other course, you need to know your material beforehand. That means, for at least the first and second time you teach it, you’ve got to read that book—line by line.

As you do so, you may remember how bored you were as a student in this course. So, being the excellent instructor that you are, you realize that maybe you should take a different approach to teaching this one if you’re going to keep the students (and yourself) awake. My suggestions require a type of course preparation unlike preparation for the others in the MCSE series. But I hope these suggestions prove to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

This course can be challenging because the presentation involves little hands-on work. This is where truly good instructors can shine by exploring “outside the box.” Consider these auxiliary teaching tools.

Home movies and field trips
Slide shows can be augmented, you know. Specifically, use that new whiz-bang digital camera in a manner that can justify a tax write-off. Visit a PC repair shop and snap some good pictures of the new hardware and cabling.

Visit a large Internet service provider, hospital, bank, or a similar large organization. Ask the IT manager for a tour so that you can use examples of their gear to include in the slide show. Digital routing panels, a T-1 setup, or OC3 demarc panels, routers, and phone patch panels are often found in server rooms. Large Internet streaming organizations or content providers such,, and have “server farms” with uninterruptible power supplies the size of small cars.

Get to know your local phone guys and get a tour of the central office switch. Pictures of cell phone towers and wireless networking transmitters generate lots of discussion. What else is within driving distance? And take copious notes during the tours—you won’t remember it all later when you’re assembling the slide show.

All these pictures can be added to any slide presentation. They illustrate far better than clip art how the concepts are translated into today’s business. And they keep the attention of the students.

Gather samples of older technology from various IT labs and repair shops. Get the stuff they don’t use any more, such as a length of coaxial cabling with a BNC (Bayonet Neil-Concelman) and T-connector or a terminator. Network interface cards (NICs) seem to gather in shops and labs, orphaned without a motherboard. Unusable parts from the phone company, including fiber optic cable samples, which get in their way, can be a treasure trove for the classroom. This is “hands-on” unlike the other courses.

Special guests
Ask one of those phone guys or the network administrator for a large IT organization to come in and talk about their equipment. Don’t talk to the public relations or marketing departments; get the people who actually handle this stuff.

Schedule two or three guests for the last half hour of class on different days. That way, expanded discussions can spill over the allotted time without causing problems with the other students or the schedule. Since field trips are usually out of the question, these last two ideas are a great alternative.

Exam preparation
Exam preparation, whether it’s for Novell’s Networking Fundamentals or for Microsoft’s Networking Essentials, involves memorization. There’s no way around it. Mnemonic techniques may help, but the plain truth is that certain parts of the course, such as the OSI (open systems interconnection) model and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802 series, are on the high side of boring.

The confusion factor arises at several points in the course, such as understanding that the seven levels of the OSI model do not fit every situation involving transmitting and receiving information, or comparing the different bandwidths within different media. It’s confusing because we don’t have an interface to configure them like we do everything else. How many IT departments use oscilloscopes to measure signal voltage in network cabling, eh?

Use examples of real-life situations: Use the spreadsheet file that is created on a workstation but saved on a driver volume to examine the flow through the OSI layers. Configuring gateways that handle several protocols between routers (maybe within your own organization) is a situation many of your fledgling MCSEs will face, so show them the configuration.

Use humorous analogies: A connectionless mode is like listening to your boss; you don’t interrupt—just let him ramble. (Maybe you understand him, maybe not.)

If your students have completed other courses, such as TCP/IP, other obtuse topics should be relatively easy to grasp.

The bottom line
Don’t take the courseware at face value. Add some life to it. These few ideas I’ve suggested are not the complete solution; your ideas will add to your professional repertoire as well. Adding some life to your classes will expand your horizons as well as those of your students. You will have an opportunity to do some professional business networking that can pay big dividends later in your career. And you’ll become a better instructor all around.
Send me some feedback on what you’ve done to make this or other courses more interesting. I’m always looking for different viewpoints to pass on through TechRepublic in another article.

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