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Leveraging the use of simulators in tertiary institutions

Mujahid Kasim, Muhammad Sami

Advanced Network - CSC 4202 Computer Science Department IIUM
Abstract As networking systems have become more complex and expensive, hands-on experiments based on networking simulation is essential for teaching the key computer networking topics to students. The simulation approach is the most cost effective and highly useful because it provides a virtual environment for an assortment of desirable features such as modeling a network based on specific criteria and analyzing its performance under different scenarios with no cost. In this paper, we present the important factor and why it is necessary to use and implement the simulation tools or simulator in education learning to compliment the real networking lab, as well as with the useful and drawbacks of using the network simulator in education and tertiary institution. Keywords: network simulation, network simulator, education simulator, simulation in education, networking simulator

II. BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE REVIEW Technological innovations are advancing practice across all domains of education and industry, and the same goes to the network education. Simulation is gaining popularity as a means to provide innovative learning experiences and foster a richer understanding in network study. Simulation tools or simulators are tools that are used in the networking field to study and learn the computer networking concepts in the effective ways. Basically, network simulators try to model real world network systems and often are required since experiments may not be possible with actual computer networks. However, real network systems can be modeled by means of abstraction mechanism which renders possible to model complex systems into the limited resource computers. A network simulator should enable users to represent a network topology, prepare different scenarios, specify the nodes and links, and analyze the results. One of the earliest forms of computer simulation technology is screen-based case simulations. Its now an integral part of the US national medical licensing exam [5] where its also seen an increasing use in other courses as well such as managerial training [6]. In the case of computer network, a use of simulation is one of areas that benefited greatly in order to explain/shows the underlying concepts, principles, and theories of computer network [7] and simulation tools are commonly used in teaching computer network principles and practices [8]. Graphical user interfaces allows the simulation users to visualize and track working of simulated environment. The basic limitations of analytical approaches have led to a variety of modeling and simulation approaches and tools. Tools such as ns-2, ns-3 (ns 3 2010), OPNET, OMNeT++, Georgia Tech Network Simulator (GTNetS), Glomosim [9] and SSFNet [10], Packet Tracer and GNS3 [11] are used to reveal the inner workings of computer networks in virtual settings. A key emphasis has been on enabling design and testing of routing algorithms, MAC layers, and end-to-end queuing. Although the capabilities of these simulation tools support describing wired and wireless computer and device network protocols and communications in great detail, their underlying foundation lacks support for developing models in system theoretically [7]. The conceptual models of these tools are derived from computer network hardware and software abstractions. These models are mostly implemented in object-oriented programming languages and simulated in virtual and/or emulated in physical test beds. But these tools



Simulation is an act of imitating the behavior of a physical or abstract system, such as an event, situation or process that does or could exist. [1]. While simulation is not a new learning or training methodology, advances in computer, visualization, and haptic (tactile) technologies are fostering the rapid growth in the use of computer-based simulation for training and education [2]. Simulation in education nowadays not only used in science or engineering degree to provide a safe platform for the students, but also to provide a holistic approach on concepts, principles, and theories in other disciplines as well. Driven by the needs of the health-related disciplines for safe learning environments, computer-based simulators are now being integrated into the curricula of medical, nursing, dental, and other health professional education [3]. The use of network simulation tools has become very common in nearly all areas of computer network design, research and education [4]. It is important in networking curriculum for students to study on the practical learning of using the networking equipment and devices. Simulation labs emphasize the understanding of the dynamics of network protocols instead of configuration and management. Students can learn through these experiments, a wide range of networking aspects including the design and the limitations of protocols, simulation and performance evaluation techniques, interpretation of data and packet analysis. Furthermore, it is needed to ensure that labs contain some extension or development of the topic beyond the lecture and reading, but to provide students additional active learning opportunities to discover knowledge.

have some disadvantages in terms of underlying methodology, implementation and scalability [12]. The implementation of modeling and simulation program uses ICT as an indispensable part of the modern education system, in which this technology provides a new teaching paradigm, strategies, challenges, and prospects for active learning [13]. Due to the nature in studying computer networking that must have involve a computer, active learning environment where computers are used as a front end is imperative, which allows better experience. Although the use of simulations has many advantages when it comes to student learning, it also brings with it a number of unique problems. These include but are not limited to the high cost of monitoring equipment, maintaining the appropriate levels of hardware and software, having an appropriate mix of equipment available, the ability to scale lab facilities as the program grows, and a growing need to deliver course material in a distance format [14]. Yet when it comes to the use of simulation in computer network study, the aforementioned problems and costs are very minimal since the simulation tools or environments run on ordinary computer platforms. With the advent of open source initiatives and how most students now own a computer, the leverage to education through simulation easily achieved without providing a particular lab in the university. The imminent need to change how learning process or education system has been noted and postulated by many prominent researchers and pedagogue, because of the impact of digitalization current generation experienced. Newest generation currently in primary and secondary school is demonstrating the impact of having developed under the digital wave. These youths have been completely normalized by digital technologies-it is a fully integrated aspect of their lives [15]. Many students in this group are using new media and technologies to create new things in new ways, learn new things in new ways, and communicate in new ways with new people-behaviors that have become hardwired in their ways of thinking and operating in the world. Green and Hannon give an excellent example of this, Children are establishing a relationship to knowledge gathering which is alien to their parents and teachers [13, p.38]. By using a simulation tool in an introductory computer networks courses for the past few years, many feedbacks from the students has been very positive. Overwhelmingly, students have indicated that the simulation labs help them better understand the intricate details of actual networking protocols, and they generally indicate that they enjoy these labs as well. In summary, students benefit from the simulation laboratory in the following three ways. First, for instance, the OPNET simulation labs reinforce the networking theory taught by regular lectures. Second, the open design of the labs encourages active learning. Third, students gain the knowledge of modeling and simulation techniques for performance evaluation of networking systems. This active learning approach gives students experience in the subtleties of the design of a complex system, as well as prepares them for the networking industry.

The Cisco Network Academy recently introduced Packet Tracer - a network simulation software tool for teaching. It allows students to create network topologies and then configure the associated devices. In addition, it is also able to inject packets into these networks and observe the results. This software can be deployed on a standard PC and then used by students studying from home. It is possible to configure Packet Tracer as a multi-user system. The Packet Tracer software allows students to design a network based not only on different types of devices such as routers and switches but also on specific models of devices. However, networks must be considered in the context of rooms and building. Packet Tracer allows users to design a network in the context of a given physical environment and, hence, develop the associated cable runs. GNS3 is a simulator software that extensively supported with a range of associated video tutorials, ranging from suitable for beginners to advanced practicing professionals. Simulators, such as GNS3, are particularly important for professionals seeking to obtain and upgrade professional certification. Such certifications not only benchmark competency for specific technologies, such as Voice Over IP (VOIP) and Firewalls but also have international currency. GNS3 allows users to design a network topology based on specific models of different network devices along with an associated CLI window. One of the main limitations of GNS3 is obtaining a network devices operating system to be used with the simulator. Without the proper devices, operating system GNS3 cannot perform any significant tasks. Normally, operating software is bundled with the network equipment and not purchased individually. Another limitation is its high consumption of processing resources. However, as it is open source software, further functionality and modification may become available [11]. To put it simply, these technologies afford the ability to convey concepts in new ways that would otherwise not be possible, efficient, or effective, with other instructional methods. In other words, these techno logies dont just help us teach the old stuff in new ways they can also help us teach new stuff in new ways [16]. III. KEY COMPONENTS IN SIMULATION A simulator must fulfill certain individual requirements, which can be combined into the following groups: general demands, implemented modules, statistical capabilities, outlet reports, manufacturers help and support for end-users. Integral components of a simulated learning experience include: the educator or preceptor, the student(s), key educational practices, and the simulated environment. The educator guides the student in the learning process. Qualified faculties who have been trained in simulation assume the educator role during the simulated learning experience. The educator role can be played by lab instructor or staff specific to the simulation lab. In either case it is important for the educator to have knowledge of the simulation and the material it covers. Students participating in the simulated learning experience must come into the

simulated environment prepared for the simulation with a basic knowledge of the material and dressed appropriately for the related object experience. The learning environment provides the foundation for effective simulated object experiences. Learning occurs when the environment accurately reflects reality and both the student and educator are actively engaged. Simulated experiences offer the opportunity for diverse styles of learning not offered in the class room environment and can result in an increase in confidence felt by the student. In network simulator, it is important to define basic components such as nodes and links. The basic network components are depicted in the form of interacting elements composing a network and its experimental frame. They represent application layers tasks. Since the main focus is aiding teaching and learning of network routing protocols, classical seven-layered approach is not considered. Instead, a flat hierarchical, but modular approach is chosen and the main components desired for protocol implementation such as queues, packets and routing tables are modeled. IV. THE NEED FOR SIMULATOR The real network teaching laboratories are expensive. This is due to the cost of network components that is high and sometimes beyond the reach of higher education institutions. In addition to the purchase cost, there is ongoing technical support and maintenance. The networking equipment and devices need to be upgraded regularly, for instance in every several years. Moreover, the safety of the lab properties also cannot be guaranteed and the accidental damage to hardware is prone to happen by inexperienced students and the prevention is difficult to be handled in reality. Students need to conduct lab session on campus within a certain time limit. It is difficult to replicate the same lab without wasting time on initial setup. After the lab sessions, students may need to leave the room to make a way for another class. If they have not finished their exercises, they will need to wait for the next available timeslot to continue with their lab session. In addition, time is wasted in reconfiguring the network equipment to the former network topology. Simulation tools are useful for modeling and evaluating network protocols and traffic. Such tools are important because it is impractical to conduct experiments on a live network. V. EXPECTATIONS FOR USING SIMULATION IN EDUCATION Simulated object experiences must be comprised of certain components in order to be successful teaching tools and include the following: Simulation experiences comprise the actual simulation experience, debriefing, and evaluation. Each simulated experience must have clearly stated objectives that are presented to the student prior to engaging in the simulation experience.

An orientation to both the simulation technology and the environment is required. The simulation must challenge the student to use problem solving and critical reasoning skills to assess the situation and determine the correct interventions. The educator assumes the role of facilitator, providing cues when necessary, but is not an active participant in the simulation. The educator and the student should participate in an active debriefing. Facilitated by the educator, the debriefing should challenge the student to think critically about his/her practice and judgment. The qualifications and training of the educator directly contribute to the efficacy of the debriefing. The educator should receive training in general simulation basics and have an advanced knowledge of the situation to be covered in each simulation that they facilitate. Observing other students performing in a simulation experience, either in real time or videotaped, enhances learning and affects both the participant and the observers self-efficacy. The debriefing session should occur immediately after the simulation is completed so the thoughts and feelings of the learner are not forgotten and do not get distorted over time. Video recording of the simulation can be utilized as a tool to provide objective data for review. Each simulation session should also include an evaluation of the overall experience by both the educator and student.

There needs to be an introduction to both the simulation and the environment by the educator. The environment in which the simulated object experience is to be performed must reflect reality as much as possible. Introduction to the environment is important because it allows students to become familiar with the simulator and resources available. Poor introduction may lead to students questioning what can be done for real, which may lead to a decrease in realism. VI. THE ADVANTAGES OF USING SIMULATION Simulators can be used not only to demonstrate and exercise network related situations, but its facility for building dynamic scenarios and assessing the state of the network and the packet transmission at any point was crucial in enabling us to provide a feedback, evaluation, correction and analytical framework [17]. Simulation tools such as Packet Tracer, NS-2 and NS-3 allow a student or a researcher to study mechanisms, behavior, and the performances of existing protocols like CSMA (Carrier Sense Multiple Access) or more complex mechanisms (IEEE 802.3 or 802.11 for instance). Finally, it may be used to develop new protocols and to evaluate their correctness and performances and minimizes development time [18]. It also enables the possibility of running a large

number of simulations even if the computational and storage resources locally available are scarce. Implementation of simulation in education also enhances collaboration among students [19]. In this way, the proposed simulation environment enables the realization of many collaborative learning scenarios with pedagogical interest for Computer Networks education. Flexible learning environment may also stimulate students interest in exploring networking related modules. The benefits of using simulation other than pedagogical interest include resource efficiency, easier to maintain, and minimizes development time for the institution. VII. CONCLUSION Students perceive network simulators as a valuable learning tool which helps them to focus on the tasks at hand and helps them to make more efficient use of their laboratory time. While a simulation can never replace experience with real networking equipment, it provides great benefit to all parties involved, i.e. to students who gain more experience in their courses, to lecturers who can better focus on the actual aims of the laboratory sessions, and to the department which will appreciate the reduced costs involved.

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