We all have a few favorite subjects that we love to teach, but there are also those dull, dry subjects that both trainers and students dread. Networking Essentials can be one of those classes.

In a recent article about teaching his first Networking Essentials class, Al Hedstrom wrote, “I was not prepared for the level of boredom my students and I experienced. I never wanted to see that again.”

Al rethought his approach and came up with several ways to make this class more interesting, including virtual field trips to ISPs by videotaping his own visit to the ISP offices and incorporating hands-on work with older equipment he had scavenged from IT labs and repair shops.

TechRepublic readers have obviously faced the same dilemma and offer several good solutions of their own.

A complete hands-on package
TechRepublic member Jim R. had just finished teaching a Network Essentials class when he read Al’s article. He said he had found the same boredom level with the material and offered these hands-on steps to liven up a class:

  1. “I scavenge three older machines and some NICs to build a network. I have three combo cards and have the students install them, configure them with the DOS configurater, and build a Thinnet network with Windows 95 on two machines and [an] NT server on the third. This gives them first-hand knowledge of Thinnet and NIC configuration.
  2. “Once the network is working, I have them reconfigure it to use CAT5 patch cords and a small, five-port hub. Now they have built two networks with two different cabling systems and Win95 and NT.
  3. “Now they dismantle it all and install Token Ring cards. I scavenged a bunch of NICs and an old IBM 8228 MAU from a company that updated to CAT5. I also have acquired a 16-port Token Ring hub in a bankruptcy sale for less than $100. Fortunately, the Token Ring cards are dual-port and can run on IBM Type 1 or CAT5, so we build the network using both. This means that we can build four networks for a total cost of $100.
  4. “Next step: [I have students put] two cards into the NT Server box and make it a router. Now we can link the Token Ring network of one machine and the server with the Ethernet network of the other machine and the server. By making the server a PDC, they can browse and share across the small network, which shows lots of neat things about networking and routing.
  5. “The network monitor on NT is a bit limited, so I tell them to search the Web and find another one. They found one called Analyzer, which runs on Windows 95, so we can now analyze the mini-network and see the different packet headers that represent the OSI layers. This was one of the best exercises, as it made the OSI real and viewable and the concept of packets being built with headers for each layer became crystal clear.
  6.  “SNMP was the same story. They found an SNMP MIB browser, and since the Token Ring hub is manageable, we were able to browse it with the MIB browser.
  7. “To keep things interesting, each student had to do a project on [some facet of] emerging technology and make a presentation to the class. Subjects ranged from Security and Firewalls to SONET. Good education for everyone (including me).
  8. “The final stroke of good fortune was when we all made a field trip to Comdex!”

Other hands-on projects
Two more TechRepublic members offered their suggestions for enlivening a networking class. Programmer/analyst Richard P., who taught an introductory course at a local college, suggested this activity:

“I had my students do an end-of-quarter report on a network where they worked [at a company] that would let them in to see their network and give them information about the network equipment.”

In his class, trainer Michael said that he has his students design networks based on customer needs and expectations.

“I give them old blueprints or written specifications. (I try and mix up the network needs from class to class.) I also have the students enter their design with a line-item price of what it would roughly cost to implement their design. The lowest price wins.

“I feel that this shows the students that there is more to networking than just memorizing a bunch of stuff.”

Students and trainers both often get bored with the traditional mode of training by lecture, especially when the subject matter is dull. Using these hands-on tips can boost the interest level for both trainer and student, keep students active, and offer them a more involved way to learn.
Where are the best places to look? How do you find the bargains or talk colleagues into giving you old equipment? Send us your tips for bargain hunting.