My job in higher ed

My Job in Higher Ed with Andrew Smith, Senior Lecturer in Networking at The Open University, Author and National Qualification Consultant

Andrew Smith has 20 years of teaching experience and still gets a buzz out of seeing a student grasp a new concept. He is a Senior Lecturer in Networking at The Open University, a leading university for flexible, innovative teaching and world-leading research in the UK and 157 countries worldwide. We caught up with Andrew to chat about online simulators for teaching, hybrid MOOCs ...and zombies!

Andrew Smith


What does a typical work day look like for you--if there is such a thing!


One of the joys of The Open University is that there’s no such thing as a typical work day. When you have hundreds of students all working at a distance the job is so variable. Sometimes we’re busy writing content for our students and sometimes we’re building assessments for them. I do a lot of research and development around supporting teaching of network engineering in schools and colleges and how we can use social media for teaching.

How do you deliver programmes at The Open University?


It depends. We do a lot of our work asynchronously--think of it as a correspondence course. A lot of students read course content online or in printed material, engage in practical labs both on-site and remotely, take part in online or offline tutorials, or all or none of the above, it really depends on the course and subject.

I teach network engineering and get students using remote networking equipment and simulators. I also have them attending practical day schools so they can get live hands on experience using networking equipment. For some modules the technology is entirely remote however, and there’s a world of difference between a law degree (for example) and a network engineering degree!

What does your role as a National Qualification Consultant involve?


I work with awarding organisations such as City and Guilds and Pearson around the integration of what we call vendor technologies: Cisco, Microsoft and VMware all have certifications that are globally recognised and an IT professional needs them in order to have recognition and career success.

We have very well-established national qualifications in the UK and it’s about ensuring that the marriage between the two works well. So that a student on a BTEC National can gain their qualification and also have the opportunity to get the vendor certification as well.

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?


There are so many! I’ve been teaching for over 20 years and just seeing a student “get it”, whatever it is, is still incredibly rewarding. Seeing schools and colleges with large groups of students suddenly engage with cybersecurity or networking is great because we need to teach more young people how to become network engineers. It doesn’t matter if they’re a university student or a school pupil---it’s the same buzz.

Can you tell us a bit more about your work with schools?


I lead a community of Cisco academies; The Open University supports 170 at the moment. We provide teachers with the resources they need to improve their teaching and raise standards. One of my favourite approaches we use with teachers in the classroom involves a well-known network simulator called Packet Tracer.

We get the kids to pretend that they’re all zombies in a botnet and that their aim is to attack the teacher’s computer. The process enables them to learn all about networking, and more importantly, defense. It’s all simulated and legal, I might add.

We have a lot of fun and it adds a different dimension to the learning experience. It’s that hands on, visible experience that makes it so effective.

"We get the kids to pretend that they’re all zombies in a botnet and that their aim is to attack the teacher’s computer. "

How does The Open University compare with bricks and mortar institutions and as the need for flexible learning increases is it becoming more popular?


Yes, it’s becoming more popular but different too. We were formed in the late 60s and developed in the 70s and 80s using the technologies that were around at the time. Some readers might still remember The Open University television programmes on BBC2--people used video cassette recorders to capture them. It might sound really old school but it worked well at the time.

The dynamic has changed: people are using their smartphones and tablets and they might be engaging with our content while on their commute to work. Course content is more bitesize now; we’re working on badged open courses and other models to break it down into more digestible components to reflect people’s lifestyles.

Really it’s just that the approach and the technological interventions that have changed to meet people’s work and life commitments.

Can you tell us a bit more about the “teach the teachers” project you’re working on at the moment--and what’s a MOOC?!


MOOC is a “massive online open course”. FutureLearn, Coursera, EdX and the like are all MOOC platforms. There is a lot of theory around MOOCs and different approaches to them. What we did was take a popular Cisco course and run a very successful outreach project globally around engaging teachers around the topic of networking and cyber security technologies.

Everybody talks about the digital skills shortage and my personal view is that there is--among teachers as well as students. A lot of teachers are very good at what they’re doing but they don’t have the time to go and develop the skills they need to teach new topics to their students. MOOC platforms enable us to deliver flexible courses so that teachers don’t have to be pulled out of classrooms.

In our case we took Cisco’s platform, turned it into a hybrid MOOC and made it a flexible experience by meshing it with Facebook and other technologies. Facebook Live enables you to live stream webinars and other experiences and build community around a Facebook page. This approach means we don’t have to worry about who the teacher is, where they are or what technology they are using because they can watch the webinar live or in the comfort of their own marking pile! There’s a clear start and end to the course but in between it’s entirely elastic.

We’re seeing a higher number of teachers getting accredited and higher engagement since we started two years ago. When I started the project I thought I’d get a couple of hundred teachers on board so when the first course enrolled 1,130 I was surprised to say the least!

With these platforms you only tend to get a 5-10% completion ratio. With our MOOC we’re seeing anywhere between 22-35% of people go through. Although it could be better, we’re doing incredibly well compared to what’s happening globally. Hundreds have qualified but there are thousands that have got at least something out of it.

"MOOC platforms enable us to deliver flexible courses so that teachers don’t have to be pulled out of classrooms."

Your research is primarily focused on pedagogical simulation in networking. What new methods are you trialing at the moment?


We’re actually working on another project called Open Networking Lab that’s funded by UFI. With the help of Cisco we’re building an online simulator that’s accessed via a web browser, with the aim of getting someone with no networking knowledge and experience from “zero to hero”. We’re building a badge open course using a pedagogical simulator called Packet Tracer but by embedding it into a web browser experience you can run the simulator on a tablet or smartphone. It gives students the space to try things out and break them in a safe context, a bit like a trainee airline pilot would on a flight simulator.

Critical systems run on networks: defense, hospitals, banking and so on, and if we can give people the opportunity to try things out in a web browser and make mistakes safely before they get anywhere near the expensive equipment, then it can only be a good thing.

Do you think universities are doing enough to prepare students for the workplace?


Yes and no. A lot of universities are focusing on employability and industry competence and that’s incredibly important. Personally, I don’t think there’s enough of it going on but I do see where good universities are making progress. At the same time I think it’s fair criticism of us and other universities that we should be doing more.

Most students come to university to gain the knowledge, understanding, skills and experience needed to go into the workforce and be very good at what they do, not for the party nights social lifestyle that’s on offer.

We’ve got to get the balance right between fulfilling the academic agenda and giving people the skills they need to thrive in the workplace. My field’s focus on cyber security, programming and networking is based entirely on what the industry is looking for. That’s why we work with the likes of Cisco as well as many others.

Finally, what would you be doing if you weren’t working in higher ed?


I’d go back into further education because I still enjoy teaching younger people. Teaching is great and there are plenty of opportunities out there. But if I wasn’t working in education and had to do something completely different I’d probably be a chef--some of my family members do it and I think I’d really enjoy it!

Connect with Andrew Smith on LinkedIn to keep up-to-date with what he’s up to.


My Job in Higher Ed is a monthly series. Take a look at our other interviews.

Kate Tattersfield

Kate Tattersfield is a former teacher turned content creator at FULL FABRIC, specialising in writing for the education sector.

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