The final version of this article was published as:
Calhoun, C. D., & Nichols, J. (2015). Developing a comprehensive cybersecurity curriculum in a collaborative learning environment. National Cybersecurity Institute Journal, 2(2), 5-14. http://publications.excelsior.edu/publications/NCI_Journal/2-2/offline/download.pdf
Partial funding for this project was provided by the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technical Education program. Award #1304342.
The primary goal of this NSF-funded project is to develop a comprehensive cybersecurity curriculum to be more appealing to women and other underrepresented groups. Based on previous research on effective engagement practices we redesigned our learning environments to be more inviting for students. We remodeled our classrooms to create collaborative learning spaces as warm, welcoming, and “non-techy” in appearance. We revised our curriculum, creating six new cybersecurity courses, which resulted in two new A.S. degree tracks and three college certificates. Finally, we included inquiry-based and collaborative learning in our face-to-face and online courses. Our curriculum now includes hands-on labs in a virtualized environment, collaborative wiki-style editing, gaming, ethics discussions, and competency-based, self-motivated learning modules. We will discuss the successes and challenges we encountered and how we addressed them. We conclude with recommendations for future study and practice.
Keywords: Cybersecurity, NSF, collaborative learning, STEM, IT Project Management
Research shows well-managed collaborative learning environments improve outcomes for all types of students (Barker & Cohoon, 2008b). For instance, collaborative learning environments improve retention for both men and women and make it easier for women to see how they compare to their peers (Eisenhart & Finkel, 1998). This comparison is especially important for women because they often misjudge their own abilities and opt-out of technology fields when they believe they are not as capable as others (Barker & Cohoon, 2008a).
Employers want to hire employees who have solid technical skills and good workplace skills. Industry research supports these recommendations. According to “Closing the IT Skills Gap” (McKendrick, 2011) employers are looking for critical thinking (70%), writing/communications (61%), interpersonal communications (59%), and project management (57%). Thirty-two percent (32%) of businesses surveyed said the business skills of new hires were unsatisfactory. Collaborative learning environments, which encourage students to work together on learning activities, contribute to the development of professional skills and help students learn practical work techniques, which are used in the Information Technology (IT) workforce (Cohoon, 2011).
The primary goal of the NSF funded “Cybersecurity Program Development at Santa Fe College” (Award #1304342) is to expand the cybersecurity curriculum, increase the recruitment and retention of female students, develop and strengthen career pathways and provide professional development opportunities for faculty. Santa Fe College (SF) provided additional resources to support the classroom renovations. SF is located in Gainesville, Florida and serves both Alachua County and rural Bradford County. SF is easily accessible with eight convenient campuses including the Northwest Campus, Blount Center, Center for Innovation and Economic Development, and Institute of Public Safety in Gainesville; the Perry Center for Emerging Technologies in the city of Alachua, and educational centers in the cities of Archer, Starke, and Keystone Heights. SF enrolls nearly 24,000 degree-seeking students annually from Florida, across the United States, and 54 countries. More than 40 percent of SF students come from outside of the two-county district. SF is a charter member of the League for Innovation in the Community College and the winner of the 2015 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.
After a brief overview of learning philosophies and collaborative learning, this article will provide details about the courses and learning components used in the cybersecurity curriculum. It will then discuss the classroom renovations and the addition of a NETLAB+ cloud-based learning environment. It concludes with the successes and challenges encountered along the way, and recommendations for future study and practice.
Why Collaborative learning?
The learning philosophy for this project is based on social cultural theory and collective cognition where two or more people working together can achieve insights neither could have reached on their own (Lund & Smørdal, 2006). Learning is developed through independent problem solving in collaboration with peers (Vygotsky, 1980). Collaborative learning is different from the more common “divide and conquer” style of group projects where students break up an assignment, individually complete their respective parts, and then compile their parts for group submission. Collaborative learning requires students to work together to accomplish a common goal, it encourages them to engage in intellectual talk with each other, thus improving critical thinking and increasing retention and the appreciation of diversity (Barker & Cohoon, 2008b).
Some of the collaborative assignments use collaborative writing using a wiki environment or Google Docs. Collaborative writing is an activity, which involves the production of a document by one or more authors (Meishar‐Tal & Gorsky, 2010). Learning with wikis provides students with the opportunity to construct their own knowledge (Lund & Smørdal, 2006) and to engage in reflection (Forte & Bruckman, 2007). According to Barker & Cahoon (2008b) collaborative learning should be introduced early in a program to avoid early socializing to perpetuate the stereotype computing is a career in which people work alone. This project provided the unique opportunity to conceptualize, from the ground up, how to include inquiry-based and collaborative learning in a comprehensive way across an entire curriculum.
The project components include the development of a comprehensive cybersecurity curriculum, the renovation of our classroom labs and the addition of a NETLAB cloud-based learning environment. In designing the curriculum, we capitalized on work done by other community colleges, particularly those participating in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Technical Education (ATE) community of practice. Our goal was to learn from their experiences and expand upon that knowledge to further develop the practice of preparing information technology and cybersecurity technicians.
The curriculum revision began by identifying six new courses which, together with existing courses, created two new Associate of Science (AS) degree tracks (Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics as seen in Figure 1) and three college credit certificates (Cybersecurity, Digital Forensics, and Database & e-Commerce Security as seen in Figure 2). Most of the courses align to industry certifications allowing students the option of completing an industry certification in lieu of the course’s final exam. Students who have already completed industry certifications can apply for credit by experience for the courses aligned to those certifications. This structure provides students multiple entry and exit points allowing them to earn the degree or college credit certificate appropriate for their career goals.
Surveying the materials available meant obtaining curriculum from a variety of sources including textbooks, case studies, simulations, and hands-on assignments. Cyberwatch (http://www.nationalcyberwatch.org/) and CSSIA (http://cssia.org/) both provide NSF-funded repositories of cybersecurity curriculum. NDG (http://www.netdevgroup.com/products/) and Jones & Bartlett offer curriculum including cloud-based virtual hands-on labs. TestOut Software provides a Security Pro courseware, which includes video instruction, evaluation, and hands-on simulations. EngageCSEdu (https://www.engage-csedu.org/) provides a curriculum repository for computer science and information technology curriculum, which is peer-reviewed and designed to help faculty engage all of their students in computing.
All of the new courses use Instructure’s Canvas Learning Management System (Canvas) to support both online and blended/flipped classroom implementation. Canvas provides a convenient way to assemble all course components for student access and provides an organizational framework for curriculum content. It provides synchronous and asynchronous collaborative learning tools where students can work together to complete coursework.
The six new courses are Fundamentals of Information Security (CTS1120), Advanced Information Security (CTS2317), Ethical Hacking (CIS2352), Internet Security (CTS2858), Designing Secure Software (CIS2619), and IT Project Management (CTS2142). Below, the goals, curriculum, and learning elements of each course are discussed.
Fundamentals of Information Security (CTS1120). This course presents a comprehensive overview of the essential concepts of information security including information security standards, education, professional certifications, and compliance laws. It examines how business, government, and individuals operate in the digital world today. The course is designed to provide the beginning student with a comprehensive overview of information security. This course will be used in a variety of degree track programs including IT, Business, Health IT, and AA university transfer programs. The primary text for this class is Fundamentals of Information Security (Kim & Solomon, 2014), which comes with PowerPoint slides, test banks, and supplemental assignments. The course includes a Cybersecurity Canon book review, weekly quizzes, and collaborative case study. The content of this course aligns with ISC2 SSCP certification, but since this is the student’s first security course, it is not practical to assume they will be prepared for this exam after just this one course.
Advanced Information Security (CTS2317). This course provides practical hands-on experience necessary to become proficient in the field of systems security. Students gain practice in implementing intrusion detection and prevention systems, access controls, and file system encryption. The focus is on protecting the confidentiality, integrity, and accessibility of information systems (the triad of security). This course is competency-based and introduces the students to the process of preparing for industry certification exams. For study materials students can use the TestOut Security Pro curriculum, which includes instructional modules, quizzes and simulations, or they can use a variety of other materials such as certification study guides and Professor Messer’s (Messer, 2015) online course. This course includes a Cybersecurity Canon book review and hands-on labs using the NDG NETLAB+ system. The content of this course aligns to CompTIA’s Security+ and TestOut’s Security Pro industry certifications.
Ethical Hacking (CIS2352). This course provides the fundamental knowledge necessary for a student to become proficient in understanding the techniques of computer hacking and how to respond to hacking related incidents. Students are prepared to identify vulnerabilities and respond to attacks in an attempt to predict and prepare for tomorrow’s exploits. This is an advanced level course designed for cybersecurity and digital forensics students. This primary text for this class is Cyberethics: Morality and Law in Cyberspace (Spinello, 2010), The course includes ethics discussions, a Cybersecurity Canon book review, hands-on labs using the NDG NETLAB+ system and the NCL (http://www.nationalcyberleague.org/) challenge.
Internet Security (CTS2858). This course teaches how to secure a home network from unauthorized activity. Security principles, such as establishing an effective security policy and the different types of hacker activities a practitioner is most likely to encounter are topics of interest. The primary text used in the class is the CIW Web Security Associate course workbook. This course includes class discussions, a Cybersecurity Canon book review, module quizzes, and certification practice exams. This course aligns with the industry certification standards evaluated in the Certification Partners CIW Web Security Associate exam. Students take the CIW Web Security Associate exam in class as their final exam.
Designing Secure Software (CIS2619). Students learn about security in the planning and delivery of software systems. This design of security in applications extends from the management of a project, to the implementation of projects primarily or partially comprised of software, from basic terminology to an understanding of the situation that security professionals and developers face in the current climate of cybercrime and rampant malicious. Students learn how to test code, perform code review, and identify weaknesses and threats to systems as well as inherent security flaws in programming languages. This course uses the Secure Software Design book (Richardson & Thies, 2012) and labs created by Debbie Reid, Professor, Information Technology Education, Santa Fe College. This course includes hands-on, written assignments, discussions, exams and a final exam.
IT Project Management (CTS2142). The primary objective for this course is to introduce IT students from across the disciplines of networking, programming, and cybersecurity to the fundamentals of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). Although popular software tools for project management were a topic, mastery of project management tools was not the focus of laboratory assignments. The primary textbook used was Information Technology Project Management (Schwalbe, 2013) along with related test banks. Students were also required to read How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age (Carnegie, 2011). Students discuss people skills proposed by the supplemental reading within the context of realistic problem solving in the work place. This course includes weekly quizzes, online discussions, and weekly group collaborations.
Each of the new cybersecurity courses includes inquiry-based, collaborative, and hands-on learning. Inquiry-based assignments require students to go beyond what is included in their course textbooks or materials. They must seek out additional resources and information, share knowledge with peers, or co-create solutions. Collaborative assignments require them to work together with other students to develop or create a solution to a project, task, or case. Hands-on assignments allow students to practice doing the technical skills needed to be successful in cybersecurity. Below we will discuss some of the assignments incorporated in this curriculum including the Cybersecurity Canon book report; online collaborative group assignment; face-to-face collaborative assignment; ethics discussions; competency-based self-motivated learning modules; and the integration of the National Cyber League challenge.
Collaborative Online Group Assignments. The collaborative online weekly group assignments are designed to provide students with experience in working in a collaborative group project. This assignment was piloted in CTS1120 Fundamentals of Information Security. The assignment utilizes a threaded case study provided with Foundations of Information Security (Kim & Solomon, 2014). The case studies are modified slightly to work with a group approach. Students work together using the group tools provided in Canvas. Groups consisted of three students. Students were allowed to self-select groups up until the starting date of the assignment, when the instructor randomly assigned all remaining students to groups. Students then use discussion forums to discuss the questions in the case and plan out how they will respond to the case. They use the wiki-style pages editor in Canvas to co-create a single response to each weekly case. The project was designed based on collaborative learning as demonstrated by using a wiki editor to co-create the group’s policy or procedure document. Students were graded individually on their group participation. The resulting group document was graded on the quality of the content.
Collaborative Face-to-face Assignments. Collaborative assignments in our face-to-face courses utilized the pod based classroom setup. The IT Project Management (CTS2142) piloted this project. The weekly laboratory assignments were team oriented and specifically designed to demonstrate an important aspect of the weekly reading. On-line reading quizzes were taken prior to class to ensure students were familiar with the textbook material to be reinforced during the laboratory period. The laboratory was a 2.5-hour class period. At the beginning of each class session there was a brief overview of the leading topics along with an opportunity for discussion. Following discussion, students broke out into their assigned teams. Team composition was designated and rotated by the instructor to ensure diverse composition of the teams and to avoid clustering by IT discipline or degree. Each assignment was unique, requiring students to reach out for innovative views, strategies, and solutions. One joint laboratory report was prepared by each team and submitted at the end of every class period for assessment. Students not attending the laboratory class session did not receive credit for the laboratory report, which was a significant portion of their course grade. This laboratory report emphasized to students the importance of the collaborative team sessions. One laboratory assignment included a guest speaker who was an IT Project Manager from a local technology firm. After the speaker left, each team wrote a letter of appreciation to the speaker’s CEO. At the end of all laboratory assignments, teams presented their work to the overall class.
Cybersecurity Canon. The Cybersecurity Canon assignment was designed using Rick Howard’s Cybersecurity Canon blog post (Howard, 2014b). In this post, Rick Howard, Palo Alto Networks’ Chief Security Officer, identifies a list of must-read books for all cybersecurity professionals. In addition, he challenges professionals in the field to identify and suggest additional titles that provide accurate information about the history of cybersecurity or provide important technical or background information about the field. The Cybersecurity Canon assignment is included in four of the cybersecurity courses, allowing students to read and report on several of the books in the canon throughout their program.
This assignment will provide students with exposure to good professional development habits and encourage deeper dialog about the field of cybersecurity. Students choose a book from the Cybersecurity Canon to read. They then post a message on the assignment discussion board identifying their book and the rationale for why they have selected this book. This post helps the instructors to know the student is on track with the assignment, and creates a great interaction point among students as they share their book interests. After reading their book, students write a book review styled similar to those posted on the original “Books You Should Have Read By Now” post on Terebrate.blogspot.com (Howard, 2014a). Students share their book reviews with their classmates via a Canvas discussion. Many students comment about how they are interested in reading more of the books after they have read another student’s review. They will often share tips about related movies or other titles they feel will be of interest to classmates.
Ethics Discussions. The CIS2352 Ethical Hacking course includes a series of six ethics discussions. These discussions, which are guided by readings from Spinello (2010), allow students to explore a variety of topics with regard to legal and security aspects of the Internet such as intellectual property, free speech vs. content controls, regulation vs. governance, and the differences between self-governance, and ethical vs. legal actions. Students initially post answers to four discussion questions based on the chapter readings and their perceptions on one of the cases presented at the end of the chapter.
The ethics discussion assignment uses the Canvas discussion forum, which allows the option of restricting a student’s access to other students’ posts until after they have submitted their own initial post. Once students have posted their individual answers and perceptions of the case, the discussion board will open up and reveal any posts previously submitted by other students. Students then read and discuss the merits of each other’s perspectives on these issues. The grading rubric addresses both quality of content and discussion. Students who stimulate the most discussion about their original post can earn extra credit points.
National Cyber League Challenge (NCL). This capture-the-flag style competition allows students to challenge themselves both individually and as a team. The NCL provides students both with a gymnasium-tutorial system where they can learn new cybersecurity skills as well as a multi-round competition in which they are challenged to use their skills to accomplish both individual and team related tasks. Currently the NCL is held annually in the Fall semester. It is a virtual competition, which allows students to compete using just a browser with Internet access. All tools and resources required are available within the virtual system. Eight students participated in the NCL challenge during the Fall 2014 event. All students who participated stated that their participation both challenged them and excited them about learning more about cybersecurity.
The classroom renovation included four Networking Systems Technology (NST) classrooms, which house the cybersecurity program. The classroom design replicates a modern workspace for IT professionals and with the purpose of exposing students to problem solving in a team setting. The remodeled classroom labs include learning spaces, which are warm, welcoming, and “non-techy.” These spaces allow students to work together on group projects or just support each other during hands-on learning labs.
Each of the four classrooms facilitates a different learning implementation that encourages student collaboration and hands-on learning. See Figure 3 for a diagram of the classrooms. Three of the classrooms use laptop computers instead of desktop computers. When not in use, the laptops are stored in a lockable charging cabinet. This cabinet keeps the classrooms looking clean and inviting. One of the classrooms is outfitted with Node Chairs (Steelcase) and portable white boards, which allow students to work together in various configurations. A second classroom is outfitted with Techworks workbenches (Mayline, 2015) where students work in pairs in computer architecture and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) Routing & Switching classes. A third classroom uses collaborative pods. Each pod includes a wide desktop surface configured for five laptops, five swivel chairs, and a large screen monitor with an HDMI connection. All five students can connect to the large screen monitor, but only one student at a time has the capability to display their results on the team monitor. The fourth classroom is a more traditional style lab where students have access to dual-boot iMacs stationed around the perimeter of the room allowing for easy mobility throughout the room.
NETLAB+ Hands-on Learning Labs. The NETLAB+ system (Network Development Group, 2015) has allowed us to move our hands-on learning labs to a virtualized cloud based system. Using NETLAB+ students can schedule and complete hands-on assignments from a computer with a browser, java, and internet access. The hands-on assignments provide real world experience in securing networked systems. This system utilizes a VMWare vSphere server configuration to manage device images in a learning pod. Each pod is isolated in a sandbox network so the devices can communicate to each other over a virtual network link, but they are not able to access the Internet directly. The NETLAB+ system serves as a proxy server, which manages the scheduling and loading of lab resources as needed for students to complete their lab assignments.
The National Information, Security & Geospatial Technologies Consortium (NISGTC) under the Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCT) grant has developed hands-on labs for the NETLAB+ system that support Ethical Hacking, Security+, Digital Forensics and a variety of other networking a security related curriculums. These labs are made available for use under the Creative Commons License and are available through CSSIA (http://cssia.org/; http://www.netdevgroup.com/products/). An additional side effect of using the NETLAB+ system was that it contributed to the goal of remodeling our classrooms. Because students can now access their learning labs through a cloud-based environment, we are able to streamline the technology located in the classroom. We have maintained one classroom that has rack-mounted servers, routers & switches so students gain familiarity with the look and feel of working with physical equipment.
Successes, Challenges & Recommendations
A challenging part of this curriculum revision was working with students in collaborative learning environments. At first students were resistant in both online and classroom collaborative environments. Many students would not engage, which created frustration among the students who did engage. Others were reluctant to edit each other’s work, and wanted to divide work for individual completion. In the two courses focusing most heavily on collaborative work (CTS1120 and CTS2142), the faculty worked to refine the assignments by providing additional scaffolding to help students learn how to work together collaboratively. Some students expressed the opinion that collaborations skills were not needed for an IT or cybersecurity field. They were of the opinion, we should only be teaching them technical skills.
An additional challenge of instructing in a collaborative environment was the development of laboratory assignments, which were 1) team oriented by nature and 2) with technical issues, which were recognizable, by all IT disciplines represented. Informal student feedback indicated that changing activities and alternating the format of assignments was what kept the collaboration fresh and alive. Students indicated a preference for the collaborative learning style with one caveat: they would not want all IT courses presented in this style. As we continue to evaluate this curriculum, we will need to work to better refine the collaborative assignments and help students develop skills for collaborative work.
Hadjerrouit (2014) and Meishar-Tal and Gorsky’s (2010) findings were very similar to those experienced at Santa Fe College. In both of these studies, students were resistance or reluctant to edit each other’s work, late participation by students prevented real collaboration, and students exhibited a lack of collaborative writing skills. Both Hadjerrouit (2014) and Meishar-Tal and Gorsky’s (2010) cite a need for more research, including inquiry into how to help students to develop collaborative editing skills.
Redesigning the classrooms to be neat as well as collaborative has already produced visible results. Previously, students would come into the first class and wait quietly until the instructor started the class and over the course of the semester, students would talk with other students. Now on the first day of class, students begin talking with each other because they are facing each other and likely feel a social responsibility to converse. One instructor even noted that she used to work hard to get students to interact. Now they are interacting naturally, sharing Facebook and social networking information, and connecting with each other outside of class. Additionally, having the shared monitors for collaboration has assisted in activities such as gamification or game-mechanics. For example, students are now able to pose questions for other groups as well as display their own answers. This creates a more of a game-like feel and invites students to be more immersed into the game zone.
The NETLAB+ system has been a wonderful success. Students have been able to improve their core technical skills through these labs. Current implementation includes ethical hacking labs and CompTIA Security+ aligned labs. For future expansion, it is desirable to use the NETLAB system to develop secure programming labs and digital forensics curriculum.
Future study should include expanding upon student participation evaluations to get a better sense of where students are struggling with the collaborative assignments. Additional scaffolding should be developed to help students learn how to work in collaborative environments and to tie student’s perception of skills needed to be successful in an IT field and collaborative work. The collaborative learning assignments in CTS1120 Fundamentals of Information Security have only been offered in an online environment. That course will be offered in a face-to-face classroom in Fall 2016, which will afford the opportunity to evaluate and compare the results of the collaborative assignments in the classroom as compared to the results achieved in an online environment.
Our special thanks to Debbie Reid, Professor, Information Technology Education, and Susan Warshaw, Adjunct Professor, Information Technology Education for their work on this project. Debbie Reid was the original developer for CIS2619 Secure Programming and Susan Warshaw was the original developer on CTS2142 IT Project Management. Debbie Reid provided detailed information on the Secure Programming course for this article. Susan Warshaw also provided documentation and input on the IT Project Management portion of this article.
Funding for this project was provided partially from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Advanced Technical Education (ATE) program, Award #1304342. In addition, Santa Fe College (SF) provided resources for renovating the four primary classrooms utilized by the Networking Systems Technology (NST) program where the new cybersecurity curriculum will be offered.
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