The requirements for the Cybersecurity program at Palomar College consists of the completion of nine information technology courses. Five of the courses had been taught in a face-to-face format, constituting a gap in the program that precluded a pathway for completing the program completely online. The CVC-OEI Improving Online CTE Pathways Grant became a catalyst for a collaborative effort at Palomar College to provide students an opportunity to earn their cybersecurity degree completely online. This program prepares students for a career in cybersecurity as a Cybersecurity Analyst. The program emphasizes competency in computer, network, and application security for ensuring the security, confidentiality, integrity, and availability of enterprise computing and information systems infrastructure. The completion of this project illustrates Palomar College’s commitment to its mission further serving students of various educational attainment, employment status, and personal challenges. A fully-online Cybersecurity degree program minimizes most barriers that would prohibit prospective students from earning this degree.
The primary goal for this project was to develop five online courses that were previously only being taught in a face-to-face format:
- CSNT 181 Hacker Prevention & Security
- CSNT 280 Computer Forensic Fundamentals
- CSCI 130 Linux Fundamentals
- CSNT 250 Cyber Defense & Analysis
- CSNT 255 Ethical Hacking Principles
Completion of these courses would fill gaps in a fully-online pathway toward an Associate of Science Degree or Certificate in Cybersecurity. Part of the course development included constructing, testing, and preparing documentation for a virtual lab environment.
Lessons Learned and/or Obstacles Encountered
In moving from face-to-face to an online format, financial inequalities among students led to a marked technology gap. Many possible solutions were evaluated to minimize these inequities and a cloud-based computing solution was selected to further improve the Cybersecurity online program. The core cybersecurity courses (CSNT 181, CSNT 250, and CSNT 255) were modified to provide cybersecurity lab environments in the cloud rather than relying on the students’ personal computers using virtual hypervisor software such as Oracle VirtualBox or VMware’s Workstation Player. Lab environments in the U.S. Cyber Range (Virginia Tech) and NICE Challenge Project (California State University San Bernardino) provide an alternative environment requiring less computing resources.
Another lesson learned was derived from working with the instructional designer to develop the pedagogical concepts of inclusive online course delivery into the course shells developed in this project. These pedagogical strategies included fostering an online environment that encouraged student-to-student interaction and mirrored on-ground student networking as much as possible. Example strategies include the use of student video introductions, group discussions and online study group discussion boards. Further work was completed to ensure that assignment instructions were duplicated in multiple locations so as to not be presumptuous of how students navigated the course content.
During the transformation process of these courses, an instructional designer was utilized to help facilitate the online pedagogical strategies that were going to be used for these courses. A few of these strategies are worthy of noting. First, in traditional face-to-face courses, the instructor utilizes student introductions as a way to not only break the ice on the first day of class, but also provides students a way to get to know their classmates and share outside knowledge and experiences. The instructor also uses this process to assess where the students are at technically and their interests in the content of the course.
In order to facilitate this process in an online format, FlipGrid was chosen to provide a way for the instructor and students to introduce themselves. This gives students reassurance that they are not in the course alone and that creates a bond or a level of accountability to increase the likeness of student success in the course.
Flipgrid is linked to directly from the Canvas navigation menu and is a graded assignment to increase the probability that the student introductions will be completed. One caveat to this tool is that there isn’t an automated way to ensure that students watch every classmate’s video. This is a process that still needs to be worked out to ensure its successfulness.
The biggest challenge of moving these courses over to an online format was ensuring that the lab activities could be completed by students outside of the physical lab computers on campus. In the physical computer labs, the computers are configured to handle heavy loads such as running multiple virtual machines so that students can set up small virtual networks. However, it became evident in the first semester of moving these cybersecurity courses that some students were having difficulty setting up these virtual networks on their personal computers, especially in the introduction to cybersecurity course (CSNT 181 Hacker Prevention & Security).
In an effort to mitigate this technical difficulty that could potentially be affecting disadvantaged students, an effort to find a cloud-based solution was initiated. During the extensive research process of finding a solution, three separate possibilities were identified as potentially great options for different reasons. First, the U.S. Cyber Range, a project initiated at Virginia Tech (https://uscyberrange.org) was chosen to provide online lab activities for the three core cybersecurity courses. Second, the NICE Challenge Project from California State University, San Bernardino (https://nice-challenge.com) was utilized in the CSNT 250 Cyber Defense and Analysis course due to its real-life challenge scenarios for cyber defense analysts. In this platform, challenge scenarios are presented to students for them to complete a series of tasks that simulate real scenarios cybersecurity analysts may face. Finally, an additional cyber range was selected for both the CSNT 250 Cyber Defense and Analysis course as well as the CSNT 255 Ethical Hacking Principles course. This third cyber range is the University of Texas San Antonio Cyber Range (https://business.utsa.edu/cyber-range/) based on the Cyberbit platform. This cyber range is going to be used as a semester capstone project providing students with real-world attack scenarios that they must identify and defend against a simulated threat. These capstone projects will include a synchronous group exercise emulating their role in an actual security operations center (SOC).
While these cloud-based solutions still require students to have access to computers and the Internet, they don’t require as much computing power (e.g. CPU, RAM) as running multiple virtual machines. Palomar College has implemented this lab strategy for their cybersecurity courses for the 2020/2021 academic year and will monitor its effectiveness.
The following video illustrates some of the features presented in this blog: https://palomar.us-west-2.instructuremedia.com/embed/830e1cea-161a-4cc3-af18-d630070b0b3e
David Meske, DPA
Professor, Computer Science & Information Technology
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District or those of the California Community College Chancellor’s Office.