An Open Networking Lab for practical open education

Kear, Karen; Smith, Andrew; Donelan, Helen; Mikroyannidis, Alexander; Jones, Allan; Rosewell, Jonathan; Wermelinger, Michel; Connolly, Teresa; Sanders, Chris; Peasgood, Alice; Williams, Judith; Moss, Nicky and Third, Allan (2019). An Open Networking Lab for practical open education. In: OER19: Recentering Open, 10-11 Apr 2019, National University of Ireland, Galway.


The Cisco Networking Academy programme (NetAcad) supports education and training in network engineering worldwide. NetAcad works with diverse educational institutions to offer an educational ‘vertical’ from beginner to advanced network engineer. However, as recognised by employment stakeholders, skills shortages in networking remain (Tech Partnership, 2016), particularly at the entry point (vocational levels two/three).

NetAcad has been seen as a closed community based on the use of proprietary (Cisco) technology, but since 2013 it has moved towards openness through the release of APIs, free-to-use software/content, and the adoption of open standards. This has been, in part, enabled via scalable engagement projects with diverse stakeholders, including the UK Open University (OU). The OU is an Academy Support Centre (ASC) within NetAcad, supporting the growth and academic development of network engineering.

In collaboration with Cisco and funded by the Ufi Charitable Trust, the OU is developing an online Badged Open Course (BOC), as part of the Open Networking Lab project ( Using the OU’s OpenLearn Create educational platform ( under a CC-BY-SA-NC licence, material from the course can be taken and reused. The BOC will provide what is colloquially described as ‘zero to hero’ learning in network engineering and represents approximately 24 hours of study over 8 weeks. The course, which is free and open to all, is aimed at post-16 learners and is intended for use both by individuals engaged in independent study and classroom-based learners. Early versions of the course have been used by a number of UK further education colleges over the past 12 months. These institutions have been using the course with students who are studying towards a vocational qualification but currently have little previous experience of networking.

Drawing on Sfard (1998), who argued that acquisition and participation are both necessary for learning, the course is primarily a combination of screencasts (acquisition) followed by experience/practice (participation) with a web-based computer network simulator. With the use of an Open API, integration between Cisco’s freely available and powerful ‘Packet Tracer’ network simulator and any compatible browser is enabled. The web-based network simulator, known as ‘PT Anywhere’ (Mikroyannidis et al., 2017) offers an authentic experience of networking, while developing learners’ confidence. Students can put into immediate practice technological skills learned via the screencasts. Each new practical activity delivers a network with configurable components. Students can follow the instructions, as well as freely exploring the network – adding, removing or modifying components.

We will present findings from two large-scale evaluations of different stages of the course development. These evaluations took place with FE colleges using the course, and include student surveys, observations, learning analytics and interviews with staff. We will consider how these findings have shaped the development of the course as it moves towards becoming a BOC, hosted on the OU’s OpenLearn platform ( and also accessible via the OU’s OpenSTEM Labs ( We will discuss with participants the implications of being open to a range of learners with different learning preferences, learning needs and prior experience.

Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Prentice-Hall Inc., New Jersey.

Mikroyannidis, A., Gomez-Goiri, A., Smith, A. & Domingue, J. (2017) Online Experimentation and Interactive Learning Resources for Teaching Network Engineering. IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON). Athens, Greece, IEEE Education Society Publications.

Sfard, A. (1998). On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing just One.
Educational Researcher, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp.4-13

Tech Partnership (2016). Factsheet: Demand for Digital specialists [online]. Available at: [Accessed 30 November 2018].

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