University computer science education programs have historically focused on the fundamentals of wired networks. Basic wireless LAN topics are usually covered from a theoretical approach, but IT professionals don't learn about Wi-Fi's unpredictable nature and unique configuration challenges until they get their first job. Now that Wi-Fi is a mainstream access medium for many organizations, networking students need more practical education in wireless and mobility topics.
Aruba Networks has introduced a wireless and mobility education program -- the Aruba Mobility Academy -- which universities and colleges can integrate into their computer science degree programs. Aruba has designed the global program to teach students the fundamentals required to build, maintain and advance wireless LANs.
I have a great background with physical networks, but going into any situation with wireless, I'm on my own.
"A lot of these computer science programs were designed years ago when wired networks were the norm, but there is a need to get networking engineers to think Wi-Fi first as it is becoming the more dominant network," said Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst at ZK Research in Westminster, Massachusetts.
Wireless networking classes essential for computer science education
The Aruba Mobility Academy offers both lecture and lab programs and Aruba only charges schools for ArubaCare, its end customer support program for the lab equipment. The coursework assumes the student understands wired networking -- a standard part of any computer science education, said Chris Leach, director of education services for Aruba. The semester-long program will teach students about wireless standards and fundamentals, Radio-Frequency design and setting up a network for mobility -- including configuring a wireless LAN to handle voice and video applications. Aruba provides the schools with equipment for hands-on training, including access points and controllers, Leach said. While the lecture portion of the program is vendor-agnostic, the Mobility Academy also prepares students to take the Aruba Certified Mobility Associate Exam.
"We've looked around in the market, but there really isn't anyone teaching wireless effectively, so [Aruba] saw an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a new generation of networking professionals who are going to be grounded in mobility and bring them out of their [higher education] settings with [the] practical skills necessary to implement these networks," he said.
"Wireless and mobility topics were not covered [in my computer science education] other than as part of a more general networking course about protocols and there were definitely not specific classes focused on Wi-Fi," said a Boston-based IT consultant who recently graduated from the ITT Technical Institute's computer networking systems program. "I have a great background with physical networks, but going into any situation with wireless, I'm on my own." The consultant, who requested anonymity, said most of his wireless and mobility knowledge comes from configuring his home Wi-Fi network and from learning on the job.
ITT Technical Institute does update its curriculum very quickly and its approach to instruction includes "real-world teaching," including using textbooks from real vendor certification classes, the consultant said. But wireless topics were presented as a small part of the networking curriculum. "I don't think people [thought] it [was] going to be as big as it really is. Wireless and mobility is very real now," he said.
Texas A&M University, Tafe South Australia and Princess Sumaya University in Jordan and several computer science technical training schools have added the Aruba Mobility Academy curriculum already, Aruba said.
Computer science education: A combination of learning, hands-on experience
The variable nature of Wi-Fi is part of the reason why there is a gap in wireless LAN education, but preparing students for some of the general wireless constraints they'll face -- like interference and coverage issues -- will better arm IT professionals before they enter the workforce, ZK Research's Kerravala said. "Every wireless environment is somewhat unique, but [IT] students need to be taught how to troubleshoot these kinds of environmental problems," he said.
These constraints also apply to learning about wireless LANs, said the IT consultant.
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"You can't really have 30 people in a class tinkering with their own wireless router, they'll all be interfering with each other," he said. But a stronger focus on Wi-Fi and mobility fundamentals -- like configuring commands on an access point -- should be a critical part of computer science education, he said. "Wireless should be focused on because of how easily it can be tampered with … there are some realties of Wi-Fi that you aren't going to know about until you play with the equipment," he said.
Texas A&M University implemented some of Aruba's Mobility Academy curriculum into three different undergraduate computer science networking classes last fall. Two of the three classes that include the Aruba program are senior-level wireless and security courses that cover topics like access point provisioning and mobile device security, said Dr. Ana Goulart, assistant professor for Texas A&M University.
"These students are learning very practical aspects of wireless and mobility -- like about how to set up guest networks and how to secure both small and large networks for businesses," she said.
In the lab, students are working with Aruba access points and controllers -- assets that were missing from the education experience prior to the implementation of the program, Goulart said. "Many students know how to work with routers or access points because they've done it before, but controllers are one of those pieces of Wi-Fi that many students haven't come into contact with before."
And while the students will go on to learn more while on the job after graduation and throughout their careers, they are appreciating the chance to become familiar with networking gear now, she said. "They love the labs and how the equipment is giving them some real-life experience."