Wireless Networking in a Remote Classroom: A Solution
Kyle Cronin Dakota State University
Shawn Zwach Dakota State University
Abstract Virtualization offers many solutions to the issue of scaling teaching of technologies to students at a distance. Yet year over year, one particular technology still resists this implementation: wireless. While a great deal of curriculum exists which leverages a constructionist approach—students must read, memorize, and interpret the content. While this approach may be effective for those beginning their educational experience, gaining real world experience requires hands-on learning experiences. Due to the nature of wireless networking protocols, this poses a challenge.
Our solution we have created involves remotely accessible virtual machines with 802.11 physical hardware implemented. The physical infrastructure involves several rackmount servers with individual small PCI/USB cards installed. With a provisioned hypervisor on the system, the PCI cards may be configured to connect into each individual virtual machine. Once this step is completed, students that remotely leverage the virtual machine environment are able to interact with any physical hardware connected to the PCI card.
When ready to begin the 802.11 units in the course, the instructor simply connects USB 802.11 wireless adapters to the system in question. Students are able to then access the physical 802.11 network environment around the physical servers, only from a distance. This allows students to investigate real world networking situations, configure their own access points, and conduct 802.11 network monitoring. Students are able to explore AP management on an individual basis through Aps that are connected/provisioned through each students unique VLAN, enabling them to see the process of applying systemwide configurations and observing the impacts on client connectivity and performance.
Technical challenges do exist in this implementation: mainly lack of official vendor support for the PCI/USB/host hardware combinations. Additionally, enterprise or server grade USB/PCI interfaces are challenging to source, so consumer hardware is implemented in our environment. While this offers an inexpensive solution, the test environment does suffer from occasional hardware failures that must be addressed. Typically an excess inventory of inexpensive PCI cards are available and a changeover may be quickly facilitated.
Overall impacts of the implementation of this environment have been transformative for students learning at a distance. The primary challenge that has been observed was inconsistent student performance for on-campus/in-person courses when compared to the same course being delivered at a distance. Through initial rounds of student outcome comparison, it has been observed that the gap in student performance metrics has begun to close. We look forward to continuing to evolve this program to better suit the needs of our students and hope the concept may help others!