The Impact of Cisco Network Academy in the Higher Education Sector in Oman
The University of Technology and Applied Sciences (UTAS) is the largest institution of higher education in Oman. We have 46,230 students, 13 specializations, and 13 campuses. The IT department at UTAS-Muscat has around 2,000 students and 130 employees. We offer several specializations, including database, networking, information security, information systems, and software engineering. Apart from IT, students can study mathematics.
UTAS–Muscat was formerly called the Higher College of Technology, which was established in 1984 as the Oman Technical Industrial College (OTIC). In 2020, the former Colleges of Technology (CoTs), the former Colleges of Applied Sciences (CAS), and the former Rustaq College of Education merged under a single umbrella. Such merging is motivated by the Oman Vision 2040 with a focus on the National Strategy for Education 2040, Scientific Research Strategy, and the Innovation Strategy, keeping abreast with the modern challenges, priorities, and needs.
I joined the university after my bachelor’s degree in 2005, even before I completed my field training at the Ministry of Civil Services. I went on to complete my master’s degree from the University of Manchester and my PhD in computer science from Glasgow University, before becoming head of the IT department at UTAS in 2015.
Our Start with Cisco Networking Academy
When I joined the university 16 years ago, the department was looking to supplement existing course materials in our various specializations. To do that, the minister at the time requested that the department join Cisco Networking Academy. That was eons ago in tech time, but even then, Networking Academy was on a completely different level from anything else the university had experienced.
Like many other educational institutions, we still relied heavily on printed books and materials, so it was new and exciting to have access to so much organized content online. We were amazed by Cisco’s best-in-class curriculum and how well it was organized and presented, making it easy for students to grasp the material.
We are also always pleased with how current the content is. Cisco frequently updates their curriculum to reflect the latest changes in technology and the needs of the marketplace, which means our students are always up to speed on the latest developments. Printed material can never keep pace with digital content, so we were always teaching a step behind.
Ensuring Up-to-Date Curriculum
When we first started with Cisco Networking Academy, we viewed it as enhanced, practical training on top of the curriculum for students graduating from our IT program. After completing their core courses, students would then take 6–12 weeks to work through the four Networking Academy modules and achieve CCNA certification. Over time, Cisco added courses in different areas apart from networking, so students from a broader range of studies could benefit from the courses.
While the exposure benefited more students, it also presented university administrators with a concern. As we learn more, we have to change the curriculum to reflect new knowledge. But as every educator knows, the process of a curriculum renewal is a long one. One of the greatest challenges we face in IT departments, therefore, is filling the gap between the curriculum and the latest technology. We realized we could bridge the gaps by integrating Networking Academy content directly into our curriculum.
One of the ways we’ve done this is through add-on value courses for students. Whenever a student expresses interest in a particular area, they can take a course in it, and even though it’s not part of their existing curriculum, they’ll receive the appropriate certification upon course completion. Even if a student specializes in networking, any job will require that they also have an understanding of security, so these additional certifications make students more desirable to employers. Some of the most popular add-on courses through Networking Academy are Internet of Things (IoT), Linux, and Cybersecurity.
Another example of integrating Networking Academy content into our curriculum is what we have done with IoT. It’s a part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and is a fast-evolving area that UTAS would have difficulty addressing on our own. Leopoldo Maglalang Jr. specializes in networking within the IT department and is also an instructor at the Cisco Networking Academy. He had the idea to use Networking Academy’s IoT add-on course to create a competition.
We trained instructors from more than 20 other academies, who went back to their institutions and used the IoT course with their own students. Later, the students returned to compete in the IoT Olympics. In the IoT Olympics we created in 2018, students came up with a project that was evaluated by industry professionals. Using Cisco’s content, we trained students and other instructors in a fun and engaging way, while adding IoT material to our formal curriculum.
Practical, Hands-on Experience
One of the biggest advantages to Cisco Networking Academy, apart from up-to-date content, is the incorporation of online theoretical lessons combined with practical, hands-on training, where students use real devices as well as network simulation tools like Cisco Packet Tracer. Previously, we bought expensive software that couldn’t be customized to fit our needs. With Cisco’s tools, we no longer had to buy as much of that additional software.
These simulation tools also proved to be beneficial during the pandemic. Even though our students were remote, simulation tools ensured we continued to deliver practical components in addition to theoretical elements—all while keeping everyone safe at home.
During the pandemic, we have also trained instructors remotely, keeping them up-to-date without the use of a physical laboratory using Cisco’s learning management system. And students have continued to receive certifications without having to be in a laboratory setting.
Students Graduate with an Edge
Among their add-on courses, Cisco has connected our students to several other programming courses and communities, such as Linux, C++, and Python. These connections expose students to a world outside of the Cisco ecosystem. Even though the content and devices come from Cisco, the information is vendor neutral. This is another advantage over other academies that provide only their own proprietary resources, making it possible for our students to apply their skills and knowledge to any IT environment.
The Cisco Networking Academy program began as post-degree training, then it became part of our academic degree. Now, it’s everything. It’s part of a student’s degree, but we can also offer value-added courses for a more holistic educational experience.
Due to the pandemic, students everywhere are having a hard time breaking into the industry. Those who are hired directly out of school are likely not receiving all the usual benefits of on-the-job training, since they are likely working remotely. Because we have Cisco Networking Academy, however, our students graduate with professional certifications that are equivalent to 240 hours of on-the-job training. They gain the kinds of hands-on experience that many have to wait years for.
We also know that prospective employers are looking for more than a specialized degree and technical skills. By taking add-on courses and additional certifications, our students demonstrate a track record of those “soft skills” that make them an ideal job candidate in a rapidly changing industry. Those skills include initiative, problem-solving, and self-guided learning.
The fact that their education has remained current, despite the pandemic, is going to help them in a competitive labor market. Our department’s investment in Cisco Networking Academy means our graduates can compete not only in Oman, but regionally and internationally as well.
A Bottom-up Approach That Changed Our School for the Better
Over the years, I’ve seen Cisco Networking Academy’s bottom-up approach make a difference in our school. Education isn’t funneled from the top down; information is shared through connections and communications with our students, trainers, and academic staff, whether it concerns the latest industry updates or ongoing competitions. This culture of open communication means that the message never gets lost, and we have a trusted education partner.
Working with Cisco Networking Academy has improved the student experience in the classroom. It has enhanced and modernized the curriculum at UTAS—making it possible for us to open the door for students’ career paths, wherever those paths may lead them.