The list of advantages for the delivery of a data communications course that contains the prevailing academic rigour of similar undergraduate courses delivered in the department, along with an emphasis of the acquirement of vocational hands-on skills that the Cisco Networking Academy Program desires, was sufficient to ensure the continuation of the program in its new form. It does however present the university with a number of challenges.
A set of challenges to the organization exists surrounding the centralized management of computing resources within the university. This function is provided by ITSS, which has been mentioned earlier and is a division of the university's central administration body, the Registry. Part of the Cisco Networking Academy Program requires students to become familiar with the operating system to the extent that they can configure a workstation for the proper settings in order to function on a network. This requires access and privileges that are not typically granted to either undergraduate or postgraduate students. A second problem relates to the requirement for the laboratories of approved Cisco training academies to provide a continuous and direct Internet connection. Students generally access the Internet as a controlled resource, whereupon they must pay funds into an account and the funds are deducted based on data volume accessed from the Internet. As the decision was made to allow all workstations in the lab unrestricted access to the Internet, it was necessary to manage access and usage of the lab. A final problem occurs based on the nature of some of the network equipment used in the Cisco Networking Academy Program labs. Specifically many of the labs from the second data communications course present tasks and activities that are derived from a simulated wide-area-network topology and this is facilitated through the interconnection of a number of routers. ITSS was clear in specifying that at no time could data from this network topology be allowed entry back onto the university network. This presents the problem of having a single lab that at times requires unrestricted access to the Internet through the university backbone and at other times needs to be isolated completely from the university backbone.
Another challenge is provided by parallel assessment information systems that result from the integration of the Cisco Networking Academy Program. Enrolment and assessment of university students are through a computerised facility with different levels of access for staff and students. Students can view the results of their assessment components as the course progresses. Enrolment and assessment of the Networking Academy Program are through the worldwide Cisco Network Academy Management System (CNAMS). Students see the immediate results from the standardized multi-choice testing system of the Cisco Networking Academy Program. As the Networking Academy Program contributes only 30% of the assessment to the course, it is possible for students to pass the Networking Academy Program and yet fail the total assessment requirement for the undergraduate data communications course. If a student fails a course, they might choose to sit it again in a subsequent semester. When the student resits the course, they are expected to complete the course as if it was their first attempt, and they are expected to repeat the assessment components as they are specified. A solution was required to address the fact that CNAMS does not allow a successful student to repeat stages.
An additional implementation issue deals with the way the Networking Academy Program in its original form becomes progressively more skills based. It is typical within the university to maintain a structure of three lecture hours and one tutorial hour per week per course. The problem of increased practical content delivery in the form of extra labs is representative of providing flexible components and units of content delivery. Examples of components include lectures, tutorials, laboratories and exams, and the unit for these is represented as time, which is often constrained to work with one-hour blocks.
Innovative approaches are required to balance the teaching and learning goals of the respective organizations. For the university (University of Auckland, 2002), selected strategies of teaching and learning (from the complete list) include:
"providing a student-focussed teaching and learning environment which encourages academic excellence, enjoyment of learning, critical reasoning and inquiry," and
"retaining a core commitment to research-based teaching and enhancing scholarship through clearly linking research, professional practice and teaching."
For the Networking Academy Program (Cisco Networking Academy Program, 1998), the teaching and learning goals are stated as follows:
To train knowledgeable students who can achieve the entry-level CCNA certification (which requires passing a multiple-choice exam) AND to produce empowered students who can design, install, and maintain networks typical of schools.
While it is not a direct intention to attempt to reengineer traditional tertiary education (Berge, 2000), the two goals combine to represent an example of a degree/certification competency-based alternate model (Hanna, 1998) to traditional tertiary education. At issue is the need to ensure that the philosophical level of education that is provided is one of "transforming" students into autonomously capable professionals rather than teaching students to "conform" to employer direction (Bentley, Lowry, & Sandy, 1999).
A further set of challenges occurs when dealing with the treatment of assessment. For the Cisco Networking Academy Program, given its dual teaching and learning goals, the assessment goals (Cisco Networking Academy Program, 1998) are articulated as:
Dual assessment philosophy—a psychometrically-validated standardized multiple-choice testing system, and a spectrum of skills-based, lab-based, hands-on, troubleshooting, "authentic," journal-and-portfolio-based assessments.
A decision was therefore required as to the contribution that skills exams make to a student's final grade. This is complicated by the fact that grading of skills exams within the traditional Cisco Networking Academy Program is conventionally set as either a pass or fail. An example is the successful construction of a CAT-5 data cable. In this environment, students must pass the skills exam as a prerequisite to completion of that stage of the program. Whatever the contribution that skills exams have in an undergraduate course, it is unlikely that it is significant. The current breakdown of assessment for both data communications courses is 50% for the external final exam, 20% for an internal midsemester course, and 30% that can be allocated to Cisco Networking Academy Program assessment components. The issue is that the skills can be perceived by students as an integral pathway to the attainment of employee-specific technical skills, and a balance is required between student perceptions of what employers want and what employers say they want in new graduates, which is often the ability of higher-order thinking. (Turner & Lowry, 1999)
It is difficult to find the proper balance between the introduction of general concepts and the teaching of more pragmatic skills that many students feel they need. This fact has been recognised for IT education (Banks, 2001; Bently et al., 1999; Turner & Lowry, 1999) and for tertiary students regardless of their discipline (Beyrouty, 2000; Shulman, 1997). It is equally challenging to pitch courses at a level that will keep students interested (Fallows & Ahmet, 1999). This paper presents a case where the combination of theoretical learning, lab experimentation, and group mini-projects (challenges) with traditional study techniques and testing was used with the goal of achieving a deeper level of understanding and learning.