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CIS Department Develops Virtual Networking Lab

CIS Virtual World - Powered by VMWare

Tarleton State University’s Computer Information Systems (CIS) Department has rolled out a new online innovation called the “CIS Virtual World.” The idea came about while trying to determine a viable method for hands-on network classes in the online environment. A student taking a standard networking course normally has to work with multiple server and client computers in order to implement and test network configurations. The physical computer lab (COBA 211) was able to provide access for students in Stephenville, but the department had been unable to provide online students with a comparable environment. The chance of making an error and causing major problems with you home computer system while learning these skills usually means the student is encouraged NOT to use their day-to-day production computer. The requirement for students to purchase, borrow, or rent additional computers to take classes seemed cost-prohibitive for most college students.

Working hand-in-hand with the TSU IT department and Sequel Data Systems we have designed CIS Virtual World. Through the purchase of high end Dell© servers and VMWare© we have created an environment where online students can access and perform network administration duties on as many virtual computers as may be necessary for the course in a cloud-computing environment. This innovative approach allows online students to participate in hands-on courses involving multiple computers and multiple operating systems that are normally limited to face-to-face lab environments. This idea is rare enough that during the fall 2009 installation and proof-of-concept phase, the Sequel Data Systems consultants said they had experience with many VMWare© deployments in higher education but they had never seen or heard of one for use by students in the distance learning and online environments.

Beginning in the 2010 Spring Semester, CIS Virtual World will be used in online classes for the first time. The CIS 347 Data Communications class will provide each online student with administrator privileges to one server computer running the Windows 2008 Server operating system and one client computer running Windows 7 operating system. After performing certain security steps, each Virtual computer will be accessible to the online student and their administrative access will allow them to perform whatever lab or assignments necessary for the completion of the class. This particular class includes making connectivity checks, basic security, configuration changes, adding accounts, enabling Active Directory, logging in to the server from the client machine, and network troubleshooting.

Planning for the near future includes the addition of online versions of other hands-on courses traditionally taught in face-to-face lab environments, to include CIS 305 Operating Systems (using multiple operating systems), CIS 445 Systems and Network Security, CIS 476 Network Administration (using Windows operating systems), CIS 478 (using Linux/UNIX operating systems). We will also be providing this to our graduate students in the Master of Information Systems program via CIS 576 (Network Administration and Design), CIS 578 (Network Design & Administration).

The use of CIS Virtual World is not limited to any single class or configuration. The virtual computers allow courses where the lab complexity can range from operating system installation to login control, to authentication control, to web services, all the way to establishing trusted agent connectivity with other student networks on the system. CIS Virtual World can operate machines in Windows, Linux and UNIX operating systems and can run business applications on each system, allowing its use in application development, systems analysis and design, and database focused courses. Virtual computers can be easily added or deleted each semester to allow a wide variety of courses to be offered.