How to Teach Tech in an Online Environment

Champlain College adult student
(Image credit: Champlain College)

Champlain College Online—one of the oldest U.S. online higher ed Institutions (also home to a robust traditional brick-and-mortar component)—is known for technology. Targeted toward adult learners, the college offers popular degree programs in cybersecurity, digital forensics, healthcare, and business accounting, among other areas.

At first glance, it might seem tech would be one area in which remote learning is a seamless transition. Kathleen Hyde, Chair of Cyber Securities, CIS and Web Design Development of Champlain College discusses the new challenges and offers tips to solve problems before any arise.

The Good, The Bad and The Bug’ly

First, the positive news: “We have absolutely seen an uptick in potential students asking for digital forensics and cybersecurity programs," says Hyde. "They are attending webinars and asking about Computer Information Science degrees."

In addition to students looking for a general information tech degree, the institution has seen a major uptick in the web design and development program in the last five to six months. 

"So much of what we do relies on web infrastructure and web technology," says Hyde. "With the pandemic, everything has moved online. In the work arena, there's an incredible need for qualified applicants for positions that are available now and are anticipated. If you weren't online before you are now."

Challenges to teaching technical skills online definitely exist, specifically in the adult learning sections. "We're talking about career changers, students coming from a variety of backgrounds, for example coming from a career in customer service and they now want to become a cyber security pro—there's a lot they have to learn," says Hyde. 

In that particular case, it's important to safeguard against frustration. If there is a course that isn't designed well to teach tech, it can cause a lot of issues. Educators have to work on introducing the concepts and then leading the students to apply those concepts, says Hyde. 

Bugs and hiccups can be overcome with a little foresight. For example, with the variety of backgrounds and geographical locations involved with remote learning, issues with bandwidth and available hardware are common. 

"One of the things we do is provide our students with minimum hardware specs so we know they have the tools," says Hyde. "Every six months we review those specs to make sure we are telling our students exactly what they need to be successful within our program, because of the requirements needed for the different software.”

Champlain College adult student

(Image credit: Champlain College)

Pro Tips

Know your students and know your industry. Everything starts here because teaching and learning is a relationship, says Hyde. Yes, it's a product, but it's critical to know what students will need in the future so that they are going to be experienced and have the skill sets required by industry. 

Design courses that provide value. When you are building programs, make sure to design courses that introduce key concepts and can take the students from learning the concept and the theory all the way through application. "Our students acquire skills they can use the real world," says Hyde. "Some students have those skills and they need to enhance them, others are career-changers who need to acquire those skills to apply for a position in a new field or require upskilling to maintain their current position. We allow them to apply what they learn and become familiar with software used in the industry, things such as Wire Shark, AXIOM, EnCase and also open source titles in our forensic BDI. We use a virtual environment to teach students how to actually use the software."

Test for effective course design. "In the rush to bring everything online this spring, many things were rolled out and then people went, 'Ooh, this isn't working, we didn't anticipate this,'" says Hyde, who adds it's important to leave time to test to make sure there isn't a gap. "I've seen students introduced, say on encryption—and then told they need to encrypt something, but aren't given the steps in between. Not every student will be able to make that jump or grasp it on their own, you need to teach that and not ask them to make that leap."

Ultimately, it comes down to effective course design, a skill similar to being a good technical writer. Hyde likes to have her labs tested by someone who is not tech savvy, so she can determine whether or not the instructions are going to work and be well understood by the majority of students. Anyone participating has to be able to follow those steps with no gaps. "There's nothing more frustrating for an adult learner working a full-time job to go on late at night to work on an assignment or a lab only to realize they can't get past step three," says Hyde.

Offer flexible learning options. Include a combination of real time, synchronous and asynchronous learning, says Hyde. And with all, still offer students the opportunity to have one-on-one meetings with their instructor. At Champlain, many educators have Open Hour and students can do a drop-in Zoom or Meet, or visit in-person to reduce frustration, get answers to questions, and further develop the relationship. Institutions should consider offering virtual infrastructure-supported courses for a different level of experience. Not every student has the ability to develop their own lab, so let them personally experience the learning instead of just reading about it in a textbook.

Foster true conversation. In an asynchronous setting, if you have a well designed discussion question, students are going to want to come to the classroom and participate, says Hyde. The students start responding and have an ongoing dialogue. "We require our instructors to be present, not just reading and grading at the end of week," she says. "There's an expectation our instructors can engage in that discussion, bringing their personal and work life experiences to add to it, which adds a richness and creates a true conversation—that's where a lot of the learning takes place. And when the answer comes from a peer it can be more well received and memorable."

Be agile. "We all were incredibly agile this spring, to suddenly shift from in-person to remote learning," says Hyde. "But we still need to think about that with respect to program and industry needs. In the midst of this we have actually changed some our programs and added certificates, blockchain and data science, to respond to the needs of the industry."

Tools They Use

Information Security/Cybersecurity 

  • OpenVas
  • Nessus
  • Nexpose
  • Nmap
  • Hydra
  • Burp Suite
  • Zabbix
  • Splunk
  • Recon-ng
  • Wpscan
  • Sysinternals Suite
  • AngryIP
  • Metasploitable
  • Logstash
  • Hping3
  • Python
  • Wireshark
  • Kali Linux

Digital Forensics

  • Autopsy
  • Magnet AXIOM
  • Cellebrite UFED Physical Analyzer
  • Cellebrite UFED Reader
  • EnCase
  • FTK Imager
  • NetworkMiner
  • OpenPuff
  • Python
  • RegRipper
  • Silent Eye
  • The Sleuth Kit
  • Volatility
  • Wireshark
  • X-Ways Forensics
Sascha Zuger

Sascha has nearly two decades of experience as a freelance journalist writing for national magazines, including The Washington Post, LA Times, Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, and others. She writes about education, travel and culinary topics.