Designing a Course in Linux System Administration

How one professor designed a class on Linux system administration--and how you can follow the class along on-line.
A Pain in the Assessment

This is the part of any class that students love, tests! In an academic institution, you usually have to assign some type of grade to the students at the end of the term. What are reasonable methods that can be used to measure the proficiency of the students. Tests? Yes. Quizzes? Sure. Trouble shooting? You bet. Term paper? Maybe.

How can assessment be carried out so that it is not simply another hoop the student has to jump through to get his or her grade? Assessment itself should be another learning experience. So instead of the traditional tests where students get to fill in the blanks, be creative! After class one day, go in and "break" the students machines. That way, when they all get to class the next day, they won't be able to log on. Give them 30 minutes to fix the problem, and at the end of the time, give them some hints or explain the problem. Troubleshooting can be fun unless, of course, it is your own machine. When Dr. Moorman and I last ran the class, it was only a matter of days before a student had his machine cracked from the outside. Luckily, we had planned a demonstration on security that day, so it worked out perfectly.

I also have used the RHCE book mentioned earlier to come up with multiple-choice questions the students can access on-line. This allows them to quiz themselves to see if they are understanding the material. Although you may not want to do this for an official quiz and/or test score, it is a fun exercise the students can do at their own pace and time.

Testing itself probably will come in two forms, written and hands-on. For the writing portion, I can ask the students to write out certain commands they might use to complete a certain task. In the past, we allowed the students to use their workstations to test the commands before they gave their final answer. We then asked the students to answer the questions by memory. In other words, we did not allow the use of man pages, the Internet, their notes or their neighbor. Although this is not how it will be in the real world, I feel it makes for a better system administrator. After all, would you rather have a sys admin who can fix a problem off the top of her head or one who has to take time to look on the Internet to see is someone else has had a similar problem.

The second portion of testing will be the hands-on method of lab practicums. Students will have to set up their machines to a particular state. The state could be setting up new users, permissions, services or many other types of problems. I should be able to log on to their machines and check to see if they have set up their system successfully. I think the students will enjoy this portion of the test much more than the written portion, because there is a certain satisfaction in knowing you have fixed a problem. I know I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect when I became an RHCT. The scary part for the students will be not having access to any resources for this part of their test. Again, they will have to rely solely on themselves to see if they can understand and solve a broken system. Although this may seem harsh, it is my hope that doing this will motivate students to dive deeper into the material. Besides, this is the process they will have to go through if they ever want to become certified.

I can be more lenient on the homework portion. I will give certain assignments and problems for the students to complete before the next class period. Here, they will be allowed to use their books, notes or whatever they want to help them solve a problem. These exercises hopefully will cement the basic knowledge required to pass the tests, if nothing else.

The final method of assessment could be the most unpopular--a term paper. This assignment may not be your cup of tea, so some people might omit this aspect. However, I feel it is important for the students to be able to write as well as to solve problems. If you are at a technical college, you might not think this is important, but being able to express oneself well in written words is a part of our mission as a liberal arts school. For the paper, you could ask the students to write on many different topics. For instance, you could ask them to develop a plan for a small liberal arts college to change their computing structure from closed source to open source. You could discuss the history and importance of Linux and open source. There are many interesting topics for students to choose. The last time we ran this class, we asked our students to talk about the decision Netscape made to open the source code for its browser.

Class Dismissed

Okay class, time is up. I hope you enjoyed our discussion for the day. If you want to follow the class, feel free to check out our Web site. You can use the username guest1 and the guest password is guest42. The class begins April 27th, so make sure you get there by the time the bell rings at 9:00am. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to raise your hand in class or to send me an e-mail at



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Josh More's picture

When I was working on my RHCE, I needed the ability to 'break' a system for me to practice fixing it. To ease this, I started the trouble-maker
project. It is designed for both the person studying at home and for use in a classroom environment. It might be helpful to those of you creating break/fix tests.

While work has stalled due to me focusing on my new job, the project is certainly not dead. I will happilly accept any new scenarios that
people feel like adding.

rhce dumps

shaik's picture

it would be pleasure if u send the dumps of rhce

Usefullness of trouble-maker

Larry Vidrine's picture

I'm a home user of SuSE 9.3 Pro and Knoppix 3.8. Trouble-maker is made for people like me (who are adept at creating problems for themselves and not so adept at solving them), as well as for sys-admins whose job it is to solve problems other people have created.

I have a few other problems to resolve first, but when they're taken care of, I will try touble-maker: just to create problems for myself, and work my way through them. It would be really handy to create problems, and if I can't solve them (I'm sort of a bulldog in my efforts to solve problems), then I can easily recover (I like that idea).

So far, I've found 17 ways to trash my system, and an equal number of ways to protect myself from myself. A way to test something without thouroughly trashing the system would be just awesome.

Keep working on it. This is just too valuable to let lie fallow!

Additional GPU Tutorials

Mike Chirico's picture

The following link "Souptonuts" contains GPU tutorials that I have put together, which include building a Linux system on cdrom using BusyBox and the latest 2.6 source kernel. Plus, getting Gmail with Postfix. There are also over 150 Linux tips that are updated weekly.

Hope this helps,

Mike Chirico

Other resources of information you might want to check out.

James's picture

"Rute User's Tutorial and Exposition" by Paul Sheer might be another resource for you to investigate.

Linux Certified has an excellent class outline for Linux fundenmentals. You might want to check with them about using their course flow.

Also don't forget to mention the Linux Documentation Project.

I hope your course, is fun and thought provoking for you and your students.


Conclusion: computers are hard to use

Anonymous's picture

It's wonderful that you would like to teach the students about free (as in freedom) software!

However, I think that in 2005 users come with expectations of ease of use, so given you have only 40 hours, I think you should go GUI all the way for the first 30, then leave 10 for CLI related work.

System administration at the level of a single machine can mostly be done using a GUI, so it's unfair to make free software seem less familiar and dated than Microsoft's Windows or Apple's OS X.

Most distributions have GUI package managers to install or remove software. Teach them how to get all security patches through the available tool. The first thing I noticed about Linux coming from a MS Windows-environment was that I didn't have to reboot each time I wanted to try new software or updates - fantastic!

Teach them how to turn on the firewall feature, and teach them that an email is a networked postcard anyone can read, unless you put it in an encrypted envelope using GNUPG. Teach them it is rude to forward infected email to unlucky Windows users, so have them install ClamAV and teach them how to update it.

Teach them to write, calculate, and present their papers using on of the Office suites, most likely 2.0.

Teach them to drag-and-drop files to move, copy or delete using the GUI file manager. Have them create archive files using a GUI archive tool.

Summary: free software is easy and familiar, but power-users tend to make things difficult for newbies by saying "The only way to get your feet wet is to get up on the 10 meter high-board and do a double into the pool - it's so easy!". Please don't do that.


Anonymous's picture

However, I think that in 2005 users come with expectations of ease of use, so given you have only 40 hours, I think you should go GUI all the way for the first 30, then leave 10 for CLI related work.

I beg to differ. If someone's going to learn Linux administration, teach them the command line interface 100%. If someone's too lazy to learn the CLI, they shouldn't do Linux administration; keep them away from my systems.

I don't know what being in 2005 has to do with whether or not a person should learn the CLI. If they don't want to to work 100% on the command line, then they can learn to be a MCSE.

It's the difference between paper administration and real time administration - theorizing or doing. I think it's hard to explain but if one hasn't done command line administration they cannot possibly understand the difference. Once you've done it, you don't want to work with GUI's because they slow you down and they don't catch every possibility.

Finaly a outline for a Linux Course

Nicolas Kassis's picture

I've been trying to create a linux tutorial to present at my university but I never had any thing to base it on. This might be a good outline for it.

Book writers should take a look at this list of topics.


In general I like the idea but I'd like to add.

James's picture

1. Teach them how to read a man page...... Don't let them spend ages spinning their wheels when so much help is right there. This doesn't have to be more than 10 minutes and a lot of "what does the man page say" being asked when they ask questions. The more you teach how to read a man page the more they will carry beyond the class.

2. Move from teaching NFS to remote file systems and administration. The idea that beyond the bootloader and the initrd image the need to have anything physically local is a matter of choice not necessity. Let student A play with launching an app not even installed on his/her box but rather installed on another students. I've sat half way round the world reading mail over ssh forwarding with a mailreader installed on my home system not on my laptop, all with the click of an icon.

Heck, If your school is like so many that require students to have laptops,or if they have some kind of computer access. I would highly recommend handing out copies of Knoppix on the first day. That way they can play at home and not lose anything they have. 1 knoppix CD plus 1 floppy and they can carry thier desktop anywhere. (the floppy is for configs) If they have a usb Pendrive/keyring drive, they can carry their desktop and their home.

Only hand out a LiveCD if you use it in class!

Anonymous's picture

My son is 6 years old and my daughter is 4 - they don't know which system is "right for them", so they are happy clicking any menu that lets them play Supertux. My wife is a Windows user, and accustomed to certain ways of doing things, and if Linux differs in any way what so ever "Linux sucks". The point is this: if you don't use Knoppix in class, don't give them Knoppix to play with. Give them what they use in class. You are there to teach them, so teach them by dipping their toes, then, if they are confident - teach them to swim.

Things to add

Jason Coutu's picture

When talking about man pages, it is important to talk about serching techniques, and tools. Man is useless without appropos or some other serach tool. Google is also a great resource. Some students will take offence to having to look things up for them selves. This year I had a student tell me that if I didn't teach it in class he shouldn't have to look it up. I told the student that the class should also teach the student how to learn. :)


Lab Tasks for Linunx

barryp's picture

Great article ... rings true for me, as I am in the same boat: one of forty lecturers working with Linux within a sea of Microsoft OSes ... everyone else is on XP (except for one, who uses Mac OS X). I've intergrated Linux into as many of my courses as I can. On one, a final year SysAdmin course, I have my students work exclusively with Linux. I've developed a collection of Lab Tasks based on Marcel Gagne's first book that they work through,and that work well. The students seem to enjoy working through them ... even though, for some, using Linux after years of XP is a bit of a shock at first!

Paul Barry
IT Carlow, Ireland

Paul Barry