By Meredith Liu
In 1996, Cisco Systems, Inc., an American multinational corporation headquartered in San Jose, Calif., that designs, manufactures, and sells networking equipment, discovered that although the computer networking industry was booming, there was a shortage of qualified candidates to design, build, manage, and secure computer networks. In response, the company integrated backward and founded the Cisco Networking Academy (NetAcad), a comprehensive online training curriculum offered to third-party education institutions to help high school and college students acquire the fundamental skills needed to design, build, and troubleshoot computer networks. NetAcad employs a system of assessments to help drive consistent learning across its training sites around the world.
NetAcad launched in October 1997 at 64 educational institutions in seven U.S. states. Since its launch, the program has expanded to more than 9,000 high schools, colleges, technical schools, and community organizations in 50 U.S. states and 170 countries with its curriculum taught in 16 languages. More than five million students have participated in NetAcad courses and collectively taken more than 125 million online assessments.
Cisco Systems credits its strong public-private partnership model for NetAcad’s rapid growth. From the outset, the company envisioned a distributed delivery structure in which it would reach more students by partnering with existing educational institutions. As George Ward, former Cisco Systems engineer and founder of NetAcad, said, “Cisco [Systems] knows networking, teachers know education. By partnering, students win.” Cisco Systems provides NetAcad online content, lab materials, and instructor training for free to institutional partners, which in turn provide classroom space, computer lab equipment, and qualified instructors.
How NetAcad Works
Networking proficiency requires an array of hardware and software skills. The initial version of NetAcad offered a four-course sequence that provided students with the practical systems networking skills needed to obtain the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) Certification, a certification for entry-level networking jobs that an independent group separate from NetAcad administers. Today, NetAcad’s instructional model combines face-to-face facilitation by instructors; in-person, hands-on labs; and online learning. Cisco Systems provides participating educational institutions with a comprehensive package of instructional tools and curriculum, including hands-on lab materials; online practice activities; a simulation tool; a visualization and assessment engine called Cisco Packet Tracer; and educational games. The program also offers participating educational institutions discounted equipment bundles and a range of support services, including a global 24/7 NetAcad help desk.
NetAcad delivers its online curriculum and assessments through a cloud-based learning management system (LMS) called Cisco NetSpace. On Cisco NetSpace, students can navigate through online course material, complete assignments and assessments, and communicate with their instructors. The portal is available at all times so that students can complete activities at their convenience.
On the back end, instructors use Cisco NetSpace to manage their courses. The site also serves as a management system for NetAcad administrators and has the functionality to simplify common administrative tasks such as enrollment tracking, scheduling, and managing equipment inventory.
Because the system is cloud-based, it also supports the needs of curriculum and assessment developers at Cisco Systems. As developers change or create curriculum or assessment items, they can distribute these materials quickly and cost effectively across NetAcad’s 9,000 sites, which ensures consistency across the academies.
Cisco Systems designed the NetAcad curriculum and instructional model to ensure that students develop a range of systems networking competencies, while accounting for different teaching and learning styles across the academies worldwide. With students in 170 countries, NetAcad seeks to be both “globally consistent and locally relevant.” Even though the content and tools are standardized across sites, NetAcad recognizes the need for instructors to add context and additional information appropriate to their local economies. As such, the NetAcad curriculum is designed to be instructor-facilitated—that is, instructors create classes in Cisco NetSpace, enroll students, and provide instruction. NetAcad designs tools for its instructors to manage each course and assign the online content and activities that align with their in-person sessions. Instructors can also use Cisco NetSpace tools to supplement the curriculum with activities and assessments that they build themselves.