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A Journey from End Systems to Backbone Routers: A Virtual Lab Environment for Online Computer Networking Courses

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Computing and Information Technology Division Technical Session 6

Tagged Division

Computing and Information Technology

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Paper Authors


Zhaohong Wang California State University, Chico Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Zhaohong Wang received his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from University of Kentucky in 2016. Prior to joining the faculty of EECE at CSU, Chico, he had worked as an embedded system engineer and software engineer throughout his graduate study. His teaching interests include embedded systems, computer networks, and digital signal processing. His current research is about algorithm design for digital signal processing in the encrypted domain and Internet of Things. He has been an active member of IEEE with the Signal Processing Society and Computational Intelligence Society since 2012 and 2016 respectively.

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Jing Guo California State University, Chico

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Dr. Jing Guo got her Ph.D. in Epidemiology and Biostatistics from the University of Kentucky in May 2015. She had worked as a statistician at the Center of Healthcare Services Research at the University of Kentucky before she joined California State University, Chico, as an Assistant Professor in Statistics. Her research interests include nonparametric regression, ensemble machine learning, and relative survival analysis. She is also interested in statistics in information security. She has taught statistics, research methodology in nutritional science, and research methods for healthcare education.

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The computer networking course is a critical component in the undergraduate computer science and engineering curriculum. In an era of mobile and ubiquitous computing, almost every embedded device can connect online to make full use of its potentials and accommodate task needs. Hence, a good understanding of computer networking opens doors for many high-tech jobs for our students. Traditionally, computer networking courses utilize switches and routers in the laboratory environment to give students hands-on projects to enhance their learning experience. However, due to the pandemic situation, many institutions have switched to online learning. The computer networking class is not allowed to access the physical networking equipment in the laboratories. Consequently, computer networking learning loses the critical element of the learning experience, on top of the challenge brought about by online learning.

While instructors could utilize packet capture tools such as Wireshark to teach popular networking protocols, the experience is still not matching the laboratory's real experience with networking equipment. The reason is that it lacks the design and implementation element with real equipment. An alternative is to have students run network simulations and emulations to explore various computer networking scenarios by commercial and open-source tools. One of the tools is Mininet, typically used in software-defined networking (SDN) research. Without configuring the SDN features, Mininet can still emulate many networking scenarios constructed in the networking laboratory and is more real than simulations.

This paper describes our practical way of teaching the computer networking course using hands-on activities with Wireshark and Mininet. Inspired by existing work in Wireshark and Mininet in their use, we designed our novel combination of the two in 12 laboratories. Students would first observe specific protocols by packet capture in Wireshark and then emulate networking scenarios in Mininet for the same protocols. As such, students would be able to investigate end systems and backbone routers in many networking scenarios. Given that students already felt challenged by online learning, our research question is whether our approach to designing the online laboratory through the hybrid-tool helped students remove online learning obstacles on computer networking. To assess our approach, we analyze a few factors and student attainment of the course learning outcomes. We considered students' online laboratory experience before the computer networking class and post-survey of their hybrid-tool online laboratories' experience as the factors. The evaluation of outcome includes the performance in the hybrid-tool online laboratories the final exam score. Additionally, we compiled input from the students on the hybrid-tool value during the review of student evaluation of teaching. Student attainment of the course learning outcomes has demonstrated a positive effect of the approach and that the impact is statistically significant.

Wang, Z., & Guo, J. (2021, July), A Journey from End Systems to Backbone Routers: A Virtual Lab Environment for Online Computer Networking Courses Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36588

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