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Simulation software beats traditional approach in online course


Students in an online class who learned networking through a commercially available simulation scored higher and retained more course information than students taught with a traditional network-diagramming software package, says a Penn State researcher.

"Those students also demonstrated better understanding of the networking concepts and indicated they spent more time on course assignments," said Brian Cameron, instructor in Penn State’s School of Information Sciences and Technology (IST).

Cameron attributed the students’ performance to their building and testing network components and configurations through the simulation. His findings suggest simulations may counter the low student satisfaction and low student motivation that mark online education.

His conclusions are discussed in a paper, "Effectiveness of Simulation in a Hybrid and Online Networking Course" in the current Quarterly Review of Distance Education.

Historically, computer networking courses have been designed around hands-on interaction between instructors and students. Advancements in software that simulates real-world conditions offer instructors other options.

Cameron’s study data came from two sections of a Web-based introductory networking and telecommunications course he taught to 85 freshmen and sophomores. One section utilized a commercial network simulation package; the other, a popular network-diagramming software tool that depends upon instructor evaluation for feedback on the design feasibility.

Most instruction occurred online although Cameron had some face-to-face meetings with both groups. Cameron used multiple choice tests, project results and a survey to assess student learning.

The simulation software allowed students to build and test different components and different configurations of local area (LAN), metropolitan area (MAN) and wide area (WAN) networks.

"Students got immediate feedback because they were able to run data through the networks to see if they worked," Cameron said. However, students using the static package had no way to verify if their network designs worked other than after submitting them to Cameron for evaluation. As a result, those students didn’t experiment with different network configurations, he added.

"Simulations have the potential to be great learning tools in other areas of IT besides networking," Cameron said. "Systems integration and data base modeling are good candidates."

Margaret Hopkins | Penn State
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