Investigation into the use of a Virtual Lab Environment for IT and Cybersecurity Education by the South-Central Coast Regional Consortium (California Community Colleges)

By

Ron McFarland, Ph.D., PMP, CEH, CISSP

Introduction

There has been a growing demand for information technology (IT) and cybersecurity professionals throughout the United States. Colleges and Universities are seeking ways to, in a cost-effective and in an educationally effect manner, offer training and coursework to students and professionals seeking additional IT and Cybersecurity coursework and training. To this end, the use of cloud-based services along with virtualized IT and Cybersecurity lab environments offer educationally-effective and fiscal-responsible promise for expanding the course and training offerings that the community college can offer to its constituents. However, due to a paradigm shift from instructor-led courses to student-centered and network-centric mode of instruction, there is an on-going academic discussion particularly pertaining to the efficacy of offering coursework on tangible (“real” computer hardware) and virtual computing environments for students pursuing an IT or Cybersecurity education.

This paper discusses the fiscal justifications and educational efficacy for offering IT and Cybersecurity education in a cloud-based virtual lab environment. Further, the motivation for this paper is due to an on-going dialogue between the faculty of the South-Central Coast Regional Consortium (SCCRC), a group of eight colleges of the California Community Colleges, and SynEd, a non-profit organization, that is assisting SCCRC to effectively and efficiently implement a cloud-based virtualized lab environment for SCCRC to support learners interested in obtaining IT and Cybersecurity training and coursework.

Increased Demand

It is commonly known that there is an increased demand for highly trained professionals in the IT and cyber security space. As a major focus on IT resource-demand statistics, several years ago Cisco’s (2014) Annual Security Report ventured a widely popular IT and cybersecurity jobs forecast stating “It’s estimated that by 2014, the industry will still be short more than a million security professionals across the globe.” Symantic (2015) anticipated that the demand for cybersecurity talent, including IT demand, would rise to 6 million globally by 2019. Also, a skills gap analysis from ISACA (2016) estimated the global shortage will be around 2 million cybersecurity professionals by 2019 (a half-million more than Symantec’s prior estimate). In a more recent discussion regarding the impact of Artificial Intelligence (a growing component of IT) and its impact on cyber security training, Veiga (2018) estimated that 3.5 million cyber security positions will go unfilled by 2021 due to new IT innovations used by attackers. In terms of the financial estimates, another study stated that IT and cybersecurity jobs forecasts have been unable to keep pace with the dramatic rise in IT demand and cybercrime issues, which is predicted to cost the world $6 trillion annually by 2021 — up from $3 trillion in 2015 (Askari, 2018).

Whether measured by the lack of human resources or in swelling costs to industry, the near-term demand for IT and cybersecurity human capital indicates a resulting strong demand for viable and effective IT and cyber security coursework and training.

IT and Cyber Security Education and Training

Due to the increased demand for IT and cybersecurity professionals, IT and cybersecurity education and training has become of high interest and is a national concern. In the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) publication entitled “Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity,” the authors emphasize the need for cybersecurity education and training to specifically address “… threats (that) exploit the increased complexity and connectivity of critical infrastructure systems, placing the Nation’s security, economy, and public safety at risk” (Cybersecurity, C.I., 2014). In research published this year, CyberSeek (2018) noted the high wages for cyber security professionals, as one aspect of IT, is due to the increased demand for continued demand. CyberSeek (2018) noted the top six cyber-related average salaries, which includes:

1. Application Security Engineer: $100,000 to $210,000,

2. Network Security Analyst: $90,000 and $150,000,

3. IS Security Manager (CISO, CTO, and CDO): $120,00 and $180,000,

4. Cybersecurity Analyst: $90,000 and $185,000,

5. Penetration Tester: $90,000 to $180,000,

6. IS Security Engineer: $90,000 to $150,000.

Academic administrators and faculty at the college and university levels are working collaboratively in seeking new and effective ways to deliver IT and cybersecurity offerings, while keeping budgets manageable. As noted earlier, the SCCRC region, including faculty and administrators, along with the guidance and assistance of SynEd, is examining the use of virtual labs for IT and Cybersecurity training and coursework offered in a cloud-based environment. Cloud computing promising to be an effective tool towards this goal. Careful planning, however, is needed to ensure that cloud computing investments do not go to waste.

Definitions

For this paper, Cloud Computing and Virtualized Environments need to be defined, as there are slightly different definitions in the literature. The term ‘cloud computing’ is defined in this paper as the software application(s) and other resources that exist online and are available to multiple users through the Internet, as contrasted to software installed on a given student’s local computer. Further, as discussed in this paper, virtualized labs include the computer lab environments set-up in a cloud-based environment that have been designed for a particular Information Technology and/or Cybersecurity course that students will have ready access through the cloud computing environment (Stackpole, 2008).

Educational Methods and Issues

Whenever discussing new educational methods and delivery modes for training and course content, the discussion of educational issues and methods is a key factor that will determine the best fit for the use of a given technology mode. It is known that education and training for IT and cybersecurity requires a diversity of technical skills, which emphasizes the need to focus on educational methods and instructional modes of delivery. In support of this broad statement, researchers noted that the IT and cybersecurity fields necessitate strong analytical skills and the ability to solve problems using both creativity and critical thinking (Kam, Gogolin & Emerick, 2014).

To make progress with IT/Cybersecurity education and training, there is a strong suggestion to provide skills training and coursework that includes scenario-based skills practice, as a key educational method (Kam, et. al, 2014). Given the high-availability of online learning environments, which include cloud-based and virtual environment modes, training environments that are informal allow learners to engage in real-life scenarios and activities (Kam, et. al, 2014). For more effective learning to occur, IT and cybersecurity education and training requires learners to acquire knowledge through the methods of hands-on activities and authentic learning, which can be achieved using virtualized real-life scenarios that allow the student/learner to investigate and act upon the scenario to achieve a desired outcome (Kam, et. al, 2014).

The case study method provides virtualized scenario-based learning opportunities that are a particularly viable strategy for authentic learning. Authentic learning allows learners to discover both the “how” and “why” for given IT or cyber security task. Importantly, researchers concluded that motivation for learning was high for students that use case studies because the real-life events invokes interest, due to relevance (Kam, et. al, 2014). The scenario case method of instruction, as noted by research, further suggests the use of discussion threads within the course delivery system to support effective learning. However, researchers identified two key challenges with setting up authentic learning environments. The challenges include (a) the time-consuming process for faculty in setting up a given course and (b) effectively addressing the potential student bias and emotional attachment because of prior learning

Educational Benefits of Virtualized Labs

In research to identify and address the viability for implementing could-based services, as an instructional mode, to support and offer courses to Information Technology students in a virtual environment at a community colleges, the researchers, Behrend, Wiebe, London, and Johnson (2011) summarized that, due to the efficacy of teaching IT students, cloud computing and the virtualization of related computing labs will continue to increase in popularity as a way to deliver technology to secondary and post-secondary education environments. In another study to address the use of Cloud-computing and virtualized lab for community college students who were registered in IT coursework, the research results demonstrated that students who had difficulty in travelling to/from a given campus or could not take a particular IT/Cybersecurity course due to low-enrollment cancelation found cloud-based virtualized course labs to be highly useful (Behrend, et. al, 2011), due to (a) virtual access and (b) the ability of typically low-enrolled courses the ability to garner more students from the college’s service area. Further, the researchers noted that community colleges can expect to have a higher proportion of students travelling a long distance and, by extension, more students may be interested in using courses that offer cloud computing and virtual lab access. The research by Behrend, et. al (2011) offers a stark note and indicates that students will not use these tools unless they have a positive in-class or mixed-mode (online and in-class) introduction to the use of cloud-based and virtual lab environments with an instructor who is able to explain the benefits and demonstrate its use. To this end, students must continue to feel that they are supported in the use of cloud computing and virtual environments by continued help-desk support or they will not use it and, hence the college will not be benefited (Behrend, et. al, 2011).

In summary, the ideal situation for offering IT/Cybersecurity courses and training is to provide a virtual environment that provides authentic learning scenarios, is supported accessible help-desk support, is scalable across and between colleges, provides a sustainable and flexible hardware/software platform that provides flexible service/environmental options (Behrend, et. al, 2011).

Fiscal and Institutional Benefits of Virtualized Labs

The traditional campus Information Technology and network environment, which includes instructional hardware and software labs for information technology and cybersecurity courses and program, face (a) escalating costs and increasing poor performance (cost to performance ratio) and (b) high consumption of energy — electricity for the lab and cooling for the lab environment — and additional use of the campus network infrastructure (Huang, December, 2017). Haung (2017) further denotes in his research that the issues with hosting services on-campus is due to the inconsistent and disparate hardware and software environments needed for the college network, including the classroom laboratory environment, which yields to a low-cost performance.

Chandra and Borah (2012) discussed the cost-benefit analysis of hosting campus Information Technology services in the cloud, which included the use of computer laboratory environments that were hosted in a cloud-based environment. Even as far back as six years ago, Chandra and Borah went further to discuss the growing need for quality education and the on-going pressure to deliver more from less. Research by Nayar and Kumar (2018) summarized their research findings, which noted that cloud computing, in educational and computer lab environments, not only relieves the educational institutions from the burden of handling the complex IT infrastructure management, it lessens the infrastructure and lab maintenance activities, which leads to huge cost savings. Further, as it pertains to cloud computing and the potential for the virtualization of educational lab resources, Nayar and Kumar (2018) further stated that not only does this approach relieve the educational institution(s) from the burden of handling the morass of IT infrastructure management and on-going maintenance activities, it leads to huge cost savings. This is a key economic driver of virtualization for information technology and cybersecurity labs within a region of colleges.

Importantly, Huang (2017) emphasized that the use of cloud-services, which incorporates virtual computer laboratories, will have a positive impact on the participating campuses by:

Integration and Reduction of Capital Investment. With this aspect, costs are levelized throughout a system of colleges, since funds spent in purchasing hardware and software can be optimized, the maintenance and management of the hardware and software can be shared between colleges, and access by the student or campus-user can be simplified to a consistent set of interfaces that use an internet browser to access the shared services.

Reduction of Energy Consumption. A realization towards a larger objective of a green network, one that consumes significantly less power due to facility and equipment power costs, can be achieved through the consolidation of many network nodes taken off the campus and hosted on either an internal organizational hosting environment at one location or through a managed service provider.

Improvement of Information Security. The hosted environment can be managed more succinctly for security risks, in contrast to having many college nodes with disparate security practices.

Openness and Sharing. By the use of a shared environment between multiple campuses, a managed lab environment, when properly setup and supported, can support openness and sharing of critical course resources. For example, lab modules developed by one campus could be shared between all participating campuses on the shared virtual environment, providing no-cost to low-cost implementation of additional course offerings between and among campuses.

For many school systems and for many students, cloud computing and the virtualization of IT labs allows schools to offer and students the ability to access software and instructional labs that were previously unavailable due to either (student or institutional) cost, distance limitations, or limited capability (fiscal or infrastructure) of the local community college (Behrend, et. al, 2011).

In a summary of their research, the cost-benefit analysis of deploying IT services, including instructional lab environment to a cloud computing environment demonstrated (a) better delivery services to students and campus users and (b) allowed more system flexibility and management to be done to the cloud-based computing environment with fewer resources, which provided an improvement in the quality of services while reducing the overall cost of IT services.

Efficacy

Virtualitization can provide the opportunity for educational efficacy through the use of the theory of situated cognition theory that includes, “the problem’s physical and conceptual structure as well as the purpose of the activity and the social milieu in which it is embedded.” More specifically, situated cognition theory focuses on the cognitive ability for students to transfer learned knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) to real-life scenarios through problem solving, which was noted in seminal research by Rogoff (1984). Moreover, Rogoff (1984) noted that situated cognition theory defines the details for thinking and how thinking evolves, which impacts the understanding of real-life contexts, as it can be applied in a virtualized environment.

When providing training and education for cybersecurity education using a scenario-based virtual environment, efficacy (or the requirements for learning), which is based on Tomeis’ (2001) and Gardner’s (1993) theory of multiple intelligences is of key concern. Efficacy necessitates the following:

1. Accessibility: The virtual lab must provide seamless access to the virtual remote learner. The authors recommend that students will not have to reserve time and will have access to a 24x7x365 virtual lab environment (Son, Irrechukwu, & Fitzgibbons, 2012).

2. Reliability: The remote virtual server(s) must support a significant number of concurrent users with limited dedicated resources. In addition, there should be no significant delay with a large number of concurrent users (Son, Irrechukwu, & Fitzgibbons, 2012).

3. Virtual Machine (VM) configuration: The appropriate operating systems(s) and related system images that support the cyber security labs must be ready and available for students. To further support student course requirements, the researchers dissuaded the additional time and effort necessary to configure or install software, unless that task was necessary for the given lab (Son, Irrechukwu, & Fitzgibbons, 2012).

4. Privilege rights: Both privilege rights and access rights on virtual machines must be significantly open to students so that they can accomplish network and security modifications without restrictions on the virtual machines, as related to the given lab assignment(s) (Son, Irrechukwu, & Fitzgibbons, 2012).

Concerns with Virtual Environments

As the background context for online course and lab delivery methods, Darago and Jenkins (2001) discussed the distinction of delivering courses over the network in two primary modes including delivery systems that share content between multiple users synchronously or those that support asynchronously sharing of course content. Synchronous sharing allows users and instructors to share information in a real-time or interactive/collaborative way. Synchronous can be considered a one-to-many approach (one instructor to many students). In synchronous content sharing, the course instructor acts as the “sage on the stage” whereby learning of the content is managed by the instructor to the many students in a given course section. In contrast, asynchronous sharing of course content is also a one-to-many approach, but instead of the course instructor having many students, one course is distributed (replicated) to many students, allowing the course instructor to act as a “guide on the side” whereby the instructor manages and monitors student success while students work through the module content (labs) on their own unless additional support from the faculty is needed by the student.

Emphasizing the dramatic shift in education, as a derivative of the educational technology delivery modes, Koutsopoulos and Papoutsis (2016) recognized the earlier paradigm shift in universities and colleges to a “Student Centered Learning” (or Guide on the Side) approach that replaced traditional “Teacher Centered Instructing” approach. Further, Koutsopoulos and Papoutsis (2016) emphasized that the shift from a Student-Centered approach to a more collaborative approach that is building for learning has impacted the technical delivery mode of instruction towards an “integrating holistic approach”, bringing educational delivery into the new “Net-Centered Knowing” paradigm that is based on cloud and the related virtualized computing services, which specifically can be tailored to address the new “networked” student’s learning needs that other modes of instructional delivery cannot. The present movement now involves a gradual shift from the Student-Centered approach emphasized over the past decade plus to a “networked” view that can be categorized as “Community Centered Knowing.”

Experience and the literature (IBM 2013; Koutsopoulos & Sotiriou, 2016; Koutsopoulos & Sotiriou, 2015) succinctly indicate a range of resources and services available to education using cloud computing, whether they concern infrastructure, services, virtualization of computer lab environments, solutions to, or the introduction of new processes. That is, cloud computing, and specifically, virtualization of labs for Information Technology and Cybersecurity training and education will bring several key benefits including, but not limited to, the following;

1. Savings: The cloud and virtualization will promote the cost-effective use of computer hardware and software resources, by reducing fixed, variable, and incremental costs associated with a more traditional computer lab environment;

2. Flexibility: One of the main benefits of cloud-based and virtualization for teaching and learning is that it will reduce or eliminate individual investments by partner colleges in equipment, software, and programs due to the centralized resource management;

3. Effectiveness: Virtualization can provide a dynamic exchange between faculty and other participants and participation between

4. teachers and students, their social network and parents, leads into: first, finding the appropriate to the stage of education information and tools and second, an effective learning and teaching process (Tuncay, 2010).

5. Sharing: Cloud computing provides the means in every institution to avoid the duplication of resources that exist elsewhere. That is, skills, good practices, applications, teaching content and infrastructures can be pooled and shared.

6. Real-time Access: Cloud computing allows students and teachers to access in real time useful and free information from anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds.

7. Reduces the Risk of Obsolescence: For all practical purposes cloud computing provides an “anti-obsolescence” insurance against technological changes, because it can cope better and more efficiently with their increasingly rapid development.

Additional concerns that must be addressed for colleges and universities that wish to build out a shared environment for cybersecurity training and education. Herbert and Wigley (2015) emphasized that the development of a student’s experience (related to computer networking skills, including networking security) must address both problem-solving and soft skills (such as teamwork). Further, while the researchers noted the high-cost for physical labs, which may not be economically feasible for all colleges, for desktops and servers can be done quite well, the virtualization of networking equipment including routers and switches is often done poorly (Herbert & Wigley, 2015). However, both researchers noted that the “Laboratory-As-A-Service” (LaaS) is evolving with NDG’s NetLab and Cisco’s vSphere, which increasingly provides students with full virtualization of Cisco routers and switches (Herbert & Wigley, 2015).

In an effort to study the transition of the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s (UHCL) Management Information Systems and Computer Networking programs to a virtualized environment, faculty noted a concern that they had with the student’s lack of contact with physical hardware resources, especially for the entry-level courses (including an Introduction to Computer Networking and Computer Repair), which seen as problematic (Gercek, Saleem, & Steel, 2016). The solution identified was to address a selected group of lower-level courses that would be offered either on-campus or in a mixed-mode (e.g. partial online and partial in-class) where students would have hands-on experience with the hardware, cabling, and other related computer and networking devices. It was felt that after the first few (on-campus or mixed-mode) courses, the need to physically manage hardware and cabling was not necessary, as most of the higher course level offerings dealt with networking scripts, system scripts, scripting languages, and other software-to-hardware command-level interfaces or GUIs. UHCL also identified that a significant task was to identify a suitable virtual lab approach where faculty were the key drivers in the selection and of the virtual network lab software, which would align with the academic objectives of the MIS and Computer Networking programs (Gercek, et. al, 2016).

Virtualization Changes the Training/Educational Approach

Aside from the technical and cost benefits derived by virtualization of lab environments, the push for virtual environment for many courses and programs is being driven by several external factors. Cini and Krause (2014) suggested that higher education (including the Community College and the University) will eventually discard the “assembly model of one-size-fits-all” used over the past 150 years, due to online educational environments. The re-set of discarding the ‘sage on the stage’ to the educator as collaborator discards the typical silos of higher-education learning, and will further redefine higher education in the next 10 years (e.g. by 2024) because of the following significant aspects (Cini & Krause, 2014):

1. Demographic trends: enrollments will soften until at least 2020, necessitating institutions to seek creative ways to ensure courses ‘make’ at institutions by using online and virtualized environments.

2. Tuition cost: students cannot afford higher tuition and will become more resistant to increased tuition costs. As a result, students will become smarter shoppers for relevant education, which will have an impact on how colleges offer courses to students, including online and virtualized courses.

3. Continued proliferation of Internet-technologies: Accelerating and converging technology trends will provide new student training opportunities that students will progressively be required by employers, especially in the Information Technology fields.

4. Trend towards Competency-based education: CBE will allow students to leverage their prior experiences to attain their desired certificate and degree goals in an adaptive manner, suggesting that courses must offer real-life case scenarios.

Building forward

Institutions must consistently provide training and education in ways that students demand in order to be viable in the near future. This can be accomplished by predictive analysis (Cini & Krause, 2014). Predictive analysis: Institutions will progressively use predictive analysis to determine the most suitable design to create successful student experiences, which can be gathered from online and virtualized learning environments. Predictive analysis will assist in determining suitable educational technologies, curriculum design, adaptive institutional policies, and can assist in understanding and adapting to emerging student behaviors (Cini & Krause, 2014).

Recommendations

The discussion regarding platform use, especially when examining shared resources for a region of schools (colleges and universities) and/or training institutes, must be driven from a collaborative effort with clear project management and communications management goals defined and understood. In particular, the following recommendations are noted to provide a starting guideline for collecting the user-community needs that will address the best-fit for a consortium of schools who wish to pool resources for cybersecurity education and training. These include:

1. Understand, inform and discuss for areas considering Cybersecurity (virtual/mixed-mode) education:

a) Virtualization and Cloud-based services between and among partners

b) Virtualization and Cloud-based security concerns and mitigation strategies

c) Discussion about a design that leverages existing processes and controls (and potential enhancements)

d) Additional robust security controls offered by given virtualization and cloud services platforms

2. Architectural conversations:

a) Scaffold requirements for each partner that determines what is organizationally appropriate (processes, procedures, risk appetite, maintenance and support).

b) Investigate and discuss the technical aspects that tie to the educational drivers including server consolidation, administration, server to administrative ratio, provisioning of instances, reconfiguration, and agility across schools.

Discuss concerns:

a) Manageability of the environment and who is responsible,

b) Security of management infrastructure, change management, capacity planning and SLA (service level agreements)/planning,

c) Physical access (including location, access, security, etc.),

d) VM sprawl (and contingency plans to manage the sprawl),

e) Licensing compliance issues,

f) Degree of resource utilization (bandwidth, servers, physical space, human resources),

g) Cost to acquire and operate (initial & fixed costs vs. marginal cost),

h) Complexity of design (provisioning multiple courses, multiple instructors, multiple colleges),

i) Reliance on virtualization (in contrast to physical environment),

j) Reliance on the organization’s/school’s/consortium capabilities and risk management approach.

Conclusion

This paper begins the conversation about leveraging shared resources for cyber security training and education that will offer multiple institutions the opportunity to leverage combined resources, reduce incremental student costs, and possibly, offer expanded opportunities to a broader base of students and learners. What was discussed includes various modes of instructional delivery that included lecture, the use of simulators, virtualized environments, and cloud-based services, each which offers both benefits and drawbacks. While the discussion about modes of delivery is not conclusive, additional research is necessary in these areas to focus on the best mix for cybersecurity education and training delivery. Presently, the options seem to weigh in on the combination of hands-on, virtualization, and cloud-based training options that offer students within a region of colleges and universities options to obtain meaningful cybersecurity education and training.

Huang (2017) specifically noted that cloud computing, and virtualization as a part of the campus information technology and educational technology (e.g. computer labs), in essence “superior to traditional campus network in resource utilization and information security” and has the additional impact on campus system users of openness and sharing.

In conclusion, the effort undertaken by the SCCRC and SynEd up to now to address the changes in school education as a result of cloud computing, shows that this technology is shaping, changing and enabling new ways of accessing, understanding and creating knowledge, and will continue to be part of all education stakeholders’ lives, because it can face the requirements posed by present day and future education and market needs. Moreover, all education stakeholders need tools such as those offered by cloud computing that are more versatile and can adapt to new developments. In other words, the position suggested is that ICT in the form of Cloud Computing already is and will continue to be an integral part of teaching and learning as well as managing schools.

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About the author.

Dr. Ron McFarland, CISSP, PMP is the Dean of Applied Technologies at the College of the Canyons in Valencia, California on temporary assignment as the Cyber Security Program Manager working to support a regional cyber security educational initiative for the South Central Coast Regional Consortium (SCCRC) in California. He also teaches as a Part-Time Associate Professor in Cyber Security Studies and a post-doctoral scholar for the University of Maryland University College. He received his doctorate from Nova Southeastern University’s School of Engineering and Computer Science and a graduated certificate in Cyber Security Technology from the University of Maryland University College. He also holds multiple security certifications including the prestigious Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification and several CISCO certifications. He is a guest blogger at Wrinkled Brain Net (http://www.wrinkledbrain.net), a blog dedicated to Cyber Security and Computer Forensics. Dr. McFarland can be reached at his College of the Canyons email: ronald.mcfarland@canyons.edu or his UMUC email: ronald.mcfarland@faculty.umuc.edu

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