Designing a Course in Linux System Administration
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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