20 Jul MATC boot camp keeps IT instructors up to date
Madison, Wis. – The remarkable rate of development in the information technology industry occasionally outpaces the skills of even the top experts in the field. Staying astride the flow of technological advances makes adaptability an imperative for veteran IT professionals and students alike.
That is why IT experts must quickly assimilate advanced IT tools with training and mutual assistance, especially when the goal is educating the next generation of industry professionals on a limited budget.
To accomplish these goals, Madison Area Technical College is offering its third annual boot camp-style train-the-trainer courses this month, providing accelerated professional development training primarily designed for IT faculty from the Wisconsin Technical College System.
The training explores some of the most cutting-edge tools of the trade. Some courses instruct teachers on high-level digital forensics technologies for gathering evidence of wrongdoing or recovering lost files. Others tackle the newest computer programming languages.
“It is a problem for technical colleges to keep up with IT,” said Ken McCullough, lead instructor for MATC’s information technology department. “But what we offer here is a cost-effective way to pool resources.”
The classes have drawn not only Wisconsin technical college instructors, but also representatives from high schools, a middle school, and the private sector. In all, 58 individuals from 31 organizations enrolled for accelerated training courses in computer programming, networking, digital forensics, and more.
The reciprocity advantage
McCullough said the classrooms create good synergy in an exciting atmosphere. Several participants in the program, both instructors and their professional students, concurred.
This fall, Eric Knapp, a computer information systems instructor at MATC, will be teaching a course on a new computer programming language called Ruby on Rails, but during his summer train-the-trainer session, he gears his instruction toward other teachers. These teachers are helpful to have in a classroom, he said, because they often provide candid responses to his teaching when ordinary students might not.
“The feedback that I, as an instructor, have been getting from instructors in my class has been invaluable,” Knapp said. “Having them tell me the things that were confusing to them has been gold.”
Judy Richardson, an IT programmer/analyst instructor at Chippewa Valley Technical College, is one of the trainers-in-training. She said teachers bring purposeful engagement to the instruction because they need to absorb as much understanding as possible for their own students.
“A lot of students are passive learners. If they can’t follow the flow, they just don’t say anything,” Richardson said. “But we need to know. We need to know how this is supposed to work because we have to turn around and do the same thing. If it’s not working in class, the instructor will know. We’ll figure out how it’s going to work.”
Knapp pointed out that the advice that teachers exchange catalyzes learning on both sides. “Frankly, teachers don’t actually interact with each other very often. We’re in classrooms all the time,” he said. “It is great for us to share the things we’re curious about learning.”
Craig Newman teaches IT security to MATC students and teachers at the institute. He identified other reasons that make teaching instructors enjoyable.
“Teachers catch on so fast,” he said, adding that he essentially condenses two months of material into two weeks. Newman also said he enjoys teaching the courses because the seriousness his teachers bring allows him to dispense with formalities like tests and quizzes. The real exam, he said, will come when those teachers have to satisfy the expectations of paying students in their own classrooms.
“I think the most beneficial part of this is that its 99.9 percent hands-on,” Richardson said. “We’re constantly working with the tools that we’re going to be training with. We’re spending so much time immersed in what we’re actually going to be teaching that it’s virtually impossible not to figure out how to use it.”
Tools for teachers
The train-the-trainer institute distributes free open-source Web-based software, allowing teachers to download programs for classroom instruction with minimal hardware requirements.
MATC instructors supply custom installation discs that give teachers access to tools without requiring them to pay licensing fees, which can become highly expensive for institutions purchasing multiple licenses.
Mike Masino, an IT security instructor at MATC, said that some of the digital forensics programs he offers were developed in the U.S. armed forces and represent advanced, reliable technology.
“Everything we provide is industry standard and relevant today,” Masino said. “We understand a lot of the realities of what budgets will allow you to do. Implementation is free or extremely cheap.”
Dave Dalsveen, an IT programmer/analyst instructor at Chippewa Valley Technical College, said he benefited from this feature of the program.
“That’s the one thing I really like about this – we can take curriculum back with us,” Dalsveen said. “I took Eric’s `Java II’ class last year, and I was able to take that curriculum and just plug it right in to my classroom. It’s just fantastic, it saved an enormous amount of time, and it worked.”
“It’s nice that they’re conscious of the fact that budgets are being cut, and that we have to be able to use tools that we can afford,” Richardson said. “Being able to use open-source software that our students can download – they can use it at home, they can use it at school, wherever they’re at, they can apply what they’re learning. It’s extremely helpful.”
Data mining and digital forensics
McCullough said that the most popular course this year was the one on digital forensics. A glance into the classroom confirmed that capacity for that course had been reached, at least for that day. IT professionals were stationed at every available computer screen.
When a crime has been committed, or inappropriate workplace conduct takes place on a computer, digital forensics can supply evidence for convictions and dismissals. But digital forensics presents a unique challenge, Newman said, because IT professionals must clearly articulate to law enforcement officials or human resources managers exactly how information was retrieved. The collection of digital evidence behind the scenes must be explained in a way that a juries and lawyers can understand.
“I was a systems programmer for a long time and when you get something resolved, nobody wants to know how it happened – nobody wants to know what you did. In fact, they’ll pay you to shut up if you do start telling them what you did,” Newman said. “But in forensics, now, you have to explain in detail to a non-technical person what just happened. Nowhere else are you going to ever do that in IT.”
Newman said that approximately 70 percent of all crime involves some sort of digital evidence, but police often are slow to catch on to the potential of digital forensics as a crime-fighting tool.
“It’s like people who try to erase a crime scene,” Knapp said. “People will do all kinds of things to try to get rid of that data on the hard-drive, and they don’t, really.”
Newman pointed out that the best digital forensics experts “can get anything.” Unless the hard-drive in question is physically destroyed, data can be retrieved from it.
“I’ve found e-mail on systems where the e-mail had been deleted years ago, the drive had been reformatted, and a new operating system had been put on there, and I’m still pulling e-mail off like three years later,” Newman said.
“Anything that holds data, you can forensically go in and scour it,” Richardson added.
Making it possible
Financial support from the National Science Foundation has been important in funding instructor security training through MATC’s partnership with seven other colleges in the Center for System Security and Information Assurance (CSSIA), McCullough said.
CSSIA is an NSF funded advanced technology education center charged with expanding the number and faculty trained in IT security.
Thanks to the funding, MATC was able to provide Masino and Newman with high-level information security training and certification at the SANS (system administration, audit, network, security) Institute, an internationally recognized cooperative research and education organization.
“Most of their instructors come from high-end security positions,” Masino said, citing the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and Carnegie Mellon University as examples of places the instructors worked in IT. “Most of them have written books on the subject.”
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