Ken Dewey, Director of Rose State College’s cybersecurity program, says it’s important for students to learn on the technology they’ll see in real-world settings.

May 16 2022

Robust Technology Supports Higher Education Cybersecurity Training Programs

Cybersecurity training programs seek to provide hands-on experience, both remotely and in person.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts jobs in information security will grow by 31 percent by 2029. To address both current and expected workforce shortages, higher education is ramping up its offerings, with cybersecurity exploding as an academic discipline. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology now recognizes more than 4,000 degree programs at more than 800 institutions.

It takes robust technology to support learning, both in person and remotely, in this tech-centric field of study.

“A lot of the training we do is to prepare students to get a job in the real world,” says Ken Dewey, director of the cybersecurity program at Oklahoma’s Rose State College and a professor in the program. “If we’re not using the correct tools, then when they get to the real world, they won’t have a clue.”

To give students that practical learning experience, colleges and universities are leveraging a range of technology tools. Chief among these is virtualization, running a virtual instance of a computer system in a layer abstracted from the actual hardware.

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Colleges and Universities Invest in Cybersecurity Training

In 2019, Rose State received an $880,000 grant from the Commerce Department’s U.S. Economic Development Administration to build a cybersecurity training center. This augments an already robust cyber infrastructure.

“We buy the higher-end equipment so that it works,” Dewey says. “I have a project going on right now where students are learning how to break passwords, and if you don’t have a powerful enough machine, you’ll never get the project completed. If you buy a $300 laptop, compared with a $2,000 laptop, it’s going to be a night-and-day difference in completing the projects we assign to them.”

The current IT deployment also supports a “cyber lounge” where students can tinker with different hardware components. “That includes things like the FRED, the Forensics Recovery of Evidence Device. It’s a super powerful machine that has every connection possible, and tons of memory,” Dewey says. The current lab has three FREDs, and the new lab will have six more.

In the new lab, “there will be a lot of new Cisco equipment, because we are expanding our networking and our Cisco course options. We’re going to have more wireless connectivity in there, not just for the students to use but also to teach it,” Dewey says. “We will have two points for network access in the lab, plus two that we will be using for the students to learn how to configure. It’s going to be a really hands-on lab environment.”

82%

The percentage of organizations that prefer to hire candidates with cybersecurity certifications

Source: Fortinet, “Fortinet Survey Finds Widespread Impact from Cybersecurity Skills Shortage,” March 2020

Remote Cybersecurity Learning Requires Virtual Infrastructure

Much of Rose State’s focus lately has been in support of remote learners in their pursuit of cyber studies. Remote students will be able to access the new lab using VPN concentrators to complete projects.

“We have something called a ‘flex’ course, where students can come into the class and I also livestream it with Zoom and record it,” Dewey says. “We have Wacom One tablets in all of our classrooms. I can just write on the Wacom and it appears on the screen, it appears in the remote session. It basically simulates having a touch-screen monitor.”

Massachusetts Bay Community College, meanwhile, recently opened its Center for Cybersecurity Education. Virtualization is key to bringing that cyber offering to life, especially in support of remote learners.

“Students using virtual machines can emulate what they would see in the classrooms,” says CIO Michael Lyons. “A distance student can actually play around, probing around with a firewall that’s being emulated. We started with Dell servers and VMware in the physical lab. Now we are moving to Amazon Web Services for that. For the interface, we have HP workstations.”

California State University, San Bernardino’s Cybersecurity Center is taking a similar approach.

“If you’re teaching cyber, one key thing is having a virtualized environment, having access to cloud resources,” says Vincent Nestler, director of the center and a professor at the school. “Then, you can deploy a full network to a single student, where they get to interact with all of the operating systems.”

Shamsi Moussavi and Michael Lyons of the Massachusetts Bay Community College’s Center for Cybersecurity Education

At Massachusetts Bay Community College’s Center for Cybersecurity Education, a secure virtual environment is vital for in-person and remote learning, say Shamsi Moussavi, Director of the center, and Michael Lyons, the university’s CIO. Photography by Shawn Henry. 

This approach is essential to supporting remote learners.

“They have the ability to work from anywhere. With the availability of the cloud, they can work on that network at anytime, day or night,” he says. The university uses VMware vSphere and students install VMware Workstation on their laptops.

This, in turn, enables all students to get hands-on experience with the tools and techniques of cyber defense.

“If I’m teaching pen testing, I’ll have the students create a little attack-offend network on their own personal computers,” he says. Using VMware, “they’ll have maybe three or four machines and a Windows server, and they can all be networked so that they can try and hack each other. If they blow anything up, they can always revert to a snapshot on the vSphere side.”

At Syracuse University too, virtualization supports remote learning. “We have open computer clusters for the virtual machines that are running on the cloud or on special servers in the university data center,” says Professor Shiu-Kai Chin.

“We have Dell Blade servers and Apple workstation clusters, and students work on approved laptops, usually high-end Dell machines with an operating system and CPU able to run virtual machines, with requisite memory, enough RAM and hard disc space — probably 12 gigs of RAM and at least 500 gigabytes of either solid-state or hard disk drive,” Chin says.

LEARN MORE: How can immersive learning be used in hybrid classrooms?

Updated Physical Lab Spaces Replicate Real-World Scenarios

While many schools are looking to support remote learners, in-person education continues, and when it comes to cyber, physical spaces matter. Rose State has its cybersecurity training center, and San Bernardino likewise has a physical lab.

MassBay’s program also includes a physical space that aims to re-create the technology students will encounter in the corporate environment.

“We might call it a switch, but when you look at it, there’s a system board, it’s got a hard drive, it’s got memory. It runs a really specific application. In the lab, they can break down some of the mysticism around technology. It breaks down those barriers,” Lyons says.

The school recently landed $1.2 million in National Science Foundation grants to support student learning. Nearly half of that funding “is helping us to create a cyber range, a virtual environment that is secure and that allows the students to practice cybersecurity exercises without impacting the other networks,” says professor Shamsi Moussavi, director of the Center for Cybersecurity Education at MassBay. Cisco switches and Dell servers support these exercises, she says.

Victor Nestler, Director, Cybersecurity Center, California State University, San Bernardino
They have the ability to work from anywhere. With the availability of the cloud, they can work on that network at anytime, day or night.”

Vincent Nestler Director, Cybersecurity Center, California State University, San Bernardino

Funding is an issue in resource-intensive academic cyber programs. Experts say choosing the right tools can help to make the numbers line up. Paying attention to pricing structures can help save money.

“We can have vSphere up and running for the students 24/7 throughout the semester at no added cost,” Nestler says. “The students ultimately get more educational time on task, and a really exploratory education.”

The right equipment can help close funding gaps and will ensure students have access to real-world cyber training. But the need goes even deeper: As the basis of cyber education, quality equipment is necessary for continued accreditation.

“We are rated on not only the quality of instruction but the quality of our labs and whether our equipment is up to date,” Chin says. “The university is getting feedback from accreditation agencies saying, ‘Hey, we’re finding that your equipment is a little dated or your lab facilities need to be spruced up a bit.’”

That means that when it comes to cybersecurity education programs, investing in technology is literally a make-or-break proposition.

Photography by Shane Bevel

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