The world of network communications continues to change at an ever-increasing rate. We are now witnessing exponential growth in the Internet of Things and mobile devices where our lives have become reliant upon network connectivity.
This can either be for convenience – for example, showing where the nearest post office is – or mission-critical applications where a person's health is continually being monitored. What these examples illustrate is how networks must always remain operational and how they need to be correctly designed, built and maintained.
The challenge for further education is to produce the next generation of network engineers who will build the networks of the future. The industry recognises this issue and supports interested students to ensure they get a full understanding of the technology in action.
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Bringing together industry and academia, the support can come in a number of ways, such as the Juniper Networks Academic Alliance (JNAA), which provides students with exposure to educational material validated by industry professionals. Such material is very good at giving students a deeper understanding of the modern network and how it relates to future applications and services.
The main obstacle for educational institutions, however, is the expense of equipment. If taught with very old equipment or unrealistic simulation, the students simply cannot benefit from practical or real-world experiences.
At Staffordshire University, we are always pushing the idea that students cannot learn everything until something fails. It is only then that they use their accumulated practical experience and academic knowledge to overcome the issue.
Not surprisingly, commercial grade networking equipment is expensive. At my institution we are fortunate to have many excellent links to industry and receive support in the form of long-term loan equipment.
This gives our students an opportunity to use state-of-the-art equipment where they can develop their practical understanding and skill-sets needed by employers, rather than relying upon memorised text from a networking manual.
However, there could be a much bigger role for more manufacturers to donate (or loan) equipment to a college or university.
Another area of support, where again we are lucky but needs to be done more widely, is having industry experts sharing knowledge by talking to the students. We have done well over the years in getting technology specialists to host guest lectures, as this really does inspire our students.
A training course run by Juniper Networks recently and attended by its industry partners is a good case in point, with lectures delivered by professionals working within the industry.
Offering many invaluable insights, the speakers clearly shared the graduate’s interests with talks about personal learning paths, starting with routers and switches, and network protocols, progressing to networks that are moving terabytes (and more) of information – something which we may typically use on a daily basis, but usually without knowing it.
The networking industry right now is a truly exciting place, supporting many new applications and services with technology often taken for granted. But to foster the innovation needed by this fast-paced industry, we all need to help the next generation of engineers onto that career ladder so that they can design and build innovation into the next network, enriching all our lives in the process.