CSU eases distance access to lab work

Students of Charles Sturt University's (CSU) information technology industry Masters degree are taking advantage of an Australian university "first".

The computer networking team within the School of Information Studies has developed a remote router lab (RRL), which students can access anywhere in the world via an Internet connection.

"The problem existed that it was difficult for distance students to conduct the same lab work as those taking classes on campus," CSU associate lecturer, School of Information Studies Jason Howarth said.

“It is vital that those who study computer networks understand the basics of router and switch configuration; unfortunately this equipment is expensive and not easily obtainable by students – so it was necessary to devise a solution that lets students interact with these devices remotely.”

The team developed the RRL for only $5000 and has allowed distance students to access more than $80,000 worth of network equipment in place at the university.

The project started in December last year, and the lab has been running for about six weeks now.

“Students are able to operate on hardware such as routers and switches as if physically located alongside the equipment," Howarth said.

"Although commercial software similar in style to the RRL is available, this is the first time such a service has been used by an Australian university for teaching purposes."

Each student is able to book a two-hour time slot to use the lab for their practical sessions in network engineering subjects, allowing everyone equal access.

"There are 94 students, including 80 percent of distance students enrolled in the IT masters program at CSU, have accounts with the system, and are completing their lab assessment tasks via the RRL," CSU Head of School of Information Studies associate professor Ken Dillon said.

Although the project is running smoothly now, there were some minor teething problems to start with, including different time zones confusing interstate students trying to book a session on the lab, and problems with those students trying to access the lab from work.

According to Dillon, CSU has been in the distance education game for a long time, providing innovation and flexibility for its distance students.

"We pride ourselves on leading distance learning by providing flexibility to students, and the RRL provides this flexibility by allowing students to pick a time and place that suits them to complete course work," Dillon said.

"It's an equity thing, we're trying to provide access to a higher degree for busy people; students have access to the lab 24 hours a day, and therefore can fulfil the requirements of their course."

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