August 20th, 2009

More Troubleshooting Labs from Breakaway

Earlier this month I wrote about some great hardware troubleshooting labs that Kelly Campbell of Ozarks Technical Community College demonstrated at CompTIA’s Breakaway conference.  He was a wealth of information and good advice.  Here are some of the operating system lab ideas he shared the same day.

Campbell says students first need to understand that operating system troubleshooting is platform dependent – your process definitely varies based on whether you’re using Windows (and what version) or Linux or whatever.  Troubleshooting software or the OS involves critical thinking and logical troubleshooting, so “The more we teach them to use a logical approach, the less frustration they’ll have.”  He says one way to start building this is by making sure they have a thorough understanding of the boot process, what OS files are involved in it and their purpose. Teach them to watch the screen as the machine boots up, looking for error messages that might provide clues, and learning to identify when in the process something goes wrong. Does the problem occur before the boot loader or after?

Here are his steps for preparing the lab for troubleshooting exercises:


Have the following in place:

  1. Boot disk
  2. NT Loader and boot.ini
  3. Floppy/CD with OS files – A+ still requires students know how to make boot disks for Win2000 and XP.  So we should teach it.
  4. OS disk – some files (like the kernel file) will be compressed and can’t be copied directly over.  Teach students how to find these, identify them, expand them, put them in the right spot.
  5. Prepare Recovery Console and make sure students understand how it works.  (Campbell goes through all of this before troubleshooting.  How to get into it, how to use commands, etc.  You need four commands to use RC properly, so this is critical.)
  6. Backup preparation. Troubleshooting could get nasty if they don’t do this.
  7. System Restore and/or ASR.  You can use System Restore, but only if you have created a restore point.  He only lets them use System Restore and ASR one time.  System Restore doesn’t solve all that many problems anyway, so students don’ t need to let it become a crutch.
  8. Registry backup.  Shows them how to export the registry somewhere.  If you corrupt the registry, which can happen, will be very glad you have a backup. Puts the responsibility back on the students.


  1. If you have them use it, you need to cover Recovery Console in advance of troubleshooting labs.
  2. It’s up to them to install in the loader menu.
  3. They need to understand the basics of search and location of files.  Many don’t know how to do this, don’t know where boot files reside etc.
  4. Make sure they know how to use Safe Mode, MSconfig, and boot disk.
  5. Teach commands such as Fixboot, Fixmbr, Expand, Copy, Services, and Ren.  Even though fixboot and fixmbr may not fix most problems, they’re easy to try and worth doing because they could save a lot of time if they do fix the issue. In troubleshooting, try the easy thing first.

He gives a total lab value (ex. 25 pts) to each lab.  He has instructor checkpoints throughout the labs, requiring students to get his initials and approval at various stages to ensure they don’t move ahead in the wrong direction.  He makes them answer questions that are built into the lab and type these up.

Some other tips:

  • Once troubleshooting starts, he won’t answer questions about what step to take. When the student says they’re ready, they’d better know what they need to know to get started.
  • He has them first identify the malfunction and get him to verify it (in case there’s another problem that’s cropped upand they’re working on that instead).  Before they work too long he should verify they’re working on the right issue.
  • He doesn’t let them talk about the problems between sessions.. that’s cheating and he’ll give a zero for it.
  • Formatting the hard drive isn’t allowed.
  • If they get hung up on one problem, he’ll let them go on to others but they have to come back.
  • Give students a chance to succeed first with a couple of relatively easy labs that build their confidence.  “If you start out too hard you’ll probably destroy some of them.”
  • Consider tougher labs for those who come in thinking they know everything. That’ll help prove what they really do or do not know.
  • Teach customer service – do not let them talk down to others about tech.  Make them understand. Teach them that most  customers they deal with will not have set restore points, or backed up data. Make then sensitive to the need to be helpful without being condescending or surly.
  • Include some sort of pressure or time constraint.  This is real-world

Campbell says when designing and selecting labs, he tries to stick with A+ objectives.  “My job is to get them certified,” he says.  That said, he’s working now to incorporate more Vista labs in order to prepare students for the updated 2009 A+ exams.  He gives students a pre-exam to help them figure out what all they’re going to need to learn.  He says this also takes care of most of the ‘expert’ issues of students who think they know everything but don’t.

So what do students need to troubleshoot OS issues effectively?

  • They must understand OS processes
  • They must know file locations
  • They need the ability to access and utilize backup media
  • They need the three P’s – Patience, Persistence, and Perseverance.  MUST HAVE ALL THREE to be successful as a computer technician.  Patience to deal with customers and help them, persistence to make their problem your problem, perseverance to keep trying when things fail.
  • They need to know how to follow a logical process, backtrack as necessary, and TRY SOMETHING!


  1. Carefully monitor the boot process.  Where doe sit fail?
  2. If there is an error message, respond to it.
  3. Prior to boot.ini, just the boot disk.
  4. Start checking for missing or corrupt files.
  5. Advanced Options Menu
  6. Windows repair from disk.
  7. Registry replacement. BE CAREFUL
  8. After desktop load, respond to error messages (this would be application level).
  9. System Restore
  10. ASR

August 3rd, 2009

CompTIA Breakaway:Troubleshooting Labs

CompTIA’s Breakaway Conference A+ training sessions are off to a great start. Kelly Campbell, lead A+ instructor at Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, MO is sharing some eye-opening thoughts on troubleshooting and talking about his approach to labs.

Those thoughts are worth paying attention to. As fellow presenter Jean Andrews (the textbook author) tells it, Campbell prepares his students for troubleshooting and then “throws them in the deep end”.  They emerge as skilled troubleshooters, with an A+ pass rate north of 90%.

Ozark students have two semesters of preparation for A+, with a hardware course followed by a software course. Campbell works to teach them the content, then tests their knowledge through labs.

In both courses, the overarching goal is to teach logical troubleshooting processes and help students develop critical thinking skills. He tries to provide activities that challenge students and at the same time help them develop confidence. In designing labs, he talked to working computer technicians to find out what problems they see most commonly.

For hardware labs, Campbell keeps a group of almost a dozen computers with errors implemented on them. He keeps those errors reasonably simple (just one fault per machine) and tries to control the environment to avoid “unknown variables” – additional problems that may complicate the troubleshooting process and distract from the problem he wants students to identify and fix.

He has a key that documents what the malfunction is and what symptoms students should observe on the computer.   Students work through labs where they figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it. They have three days near the end of the semester to work through several of these layas.  Everybody doesn’t get all the same problems, but that’s okay.  They don’t always get the same problems in the real world, either.

If you’ve taken the A+ exams lately you know they include more troubleshooting questions, and you know it’s hard to imagine all the different scenarios that could crop up.  So for certification – as for the workplace – the real objective is to teach Critical Thinking and Logical Troubleshooting.  How do you do that?

  • One of the first things to teach students is to figure out whether the problem is ‘Pre-boot’ or after boot.  This can tell you a lot.  Does the computer boot up?  If so, can you play sound? Can you get to the Internet? Does Device Manager show red x’s or other warnings?
  • Teach them a ‘Sub-system oriented’ approach. Narrowing the problem to a subsystem can help identify which factors to investigate first (if it’s a video subsystem problem, check the video card, driver, connection, etc.  If the problem appears to be with the hard drive subsystem, there’s not much point in starting by checking the sound card.  It sounds logical, but students need to be taught to think this way.
  • Rule issues “in” or “out.” If you can narrow down the unknowns, you can find a starting point for troubleshooting.
  • Teach students to plan, not panic. Panicking just wastes time.  Plan a logical approach to troubleshooting and fixing the problem instead.

Campbell lays out his expectations in his lab guides, and spells out rewards and consequences (discussing exercises with other individuals or groups will get you all a ‘zero’ on the activity; completing extra labs can win you some points you’ve lost along the way).  He doesn’t particularly like grouping students, preferring to have them work as individuals. In the real world they generally don’t have a partner and must rely on themselves, he reasons.  Plus, grouping has its own risks. Having two experts together backfires because they both ‘know’ too much.  ”They spend the time being an expert, instead of a learner.”

As for setting up computers for troubleshooting, here are some of Campbell’s tips:

  1. Save bad hardware. If a video card goes bad, mark it and store it separately.
  2. Save the “wacky” stuff – the peripheral that causes unexpected issues, for example – and use it in labs.
  3. Have some “easy” activities and some difficult ones.
  4. Set up and identify faults.
  5. If you can get one, use a Troubleshooting motherboard (like those available from Marcraft or Heathkit)
  6. Consider creating your own damaged component to create a fault, but be careful.
  7. Have a plan.  What do you do if…

(ExplorNet teachers: Kelly shared a list of suggested faults that I won’t share here in case his students stumble onto this post, but I’ve incorporated them into our troubleshooting labs wiki in the Professional Learning Community).

Campbell doesn’t normally use a bad CPU or motherboard, but teaches students how to isolate the problem down to one of those two components by removing other components systematically until the problem is narrowed down to one of the other.  Pull out the modem.  Still doesn’t boot?  Pull out the sound card, the video card, etc.  until the CPU and motherboard are all that’s left.  From there, try the following to rule out various issues:

  1. Test power and power supply.
  2. Possibly, remove the CPU and look for problems (but he doesn’t let them replace the CPU or motherboard).
  3. Start up and shutdown – is the cooling system the problem?
  4. Check the spacers.
  5. Consult the motherboard documentation and check the connectors.  Are things connected correctly?  This teaches the use of motherboard documentation.
  6. Strip the system down to the bare bones.  Start to pull out unneeded elements such as expansion cards.

Campbell’s recommended “tools of the trade” for troubleshooting labs:

  • Standard tool kit – screwdrivers common and Philips, nut drivers, needlenose poliers, side cutters, ESD strap, tweezers.  MAKE them use ESD strap or they fail.  Protect your reputation. Don’t let them learn bad habits from you and then talk about it elsewhere (”My teacher never made us wear those.”)
  • Power supply tester and/or multi-meter
  • Anti-static bags to take care of things like RAM
  • Textbook, notes, Internet access

He doesn’t allow the use of Ubuntu Linux, POST cards, outside hardware/software for troubleshooting.

One challenge in hardware is the addition of new laptop skills to the CompTIA 2009 objectives.  In the future, certification seekers are expeted to be able to change out the keyboard and the LCD screen.  Providing that hands-on experience is likely to be a conundrum for IT teachers, but the skills are important with laptop sales far surpassing desktops.

Campbell says the teacher implementing troubleshooting labs should have a solid plan that includes computer identification (which computer has which fault set), malfunctions, instructions, and grading schema.  Figure out the rules and grading criteria, and let students know up front what is expected of them.

The goal with hardware troubleshooting is to begin to develop critical thinking and logical troubleshooting skills. Those translate to operating system troubleshooting, which can be far more complicated.  Campbell goes so far as to say that a major objective in the hardware class is to prepare them for troubleshooting in the operating system class – teaching students to be methodical and detail-oriented.  More on operating system labs in a future post.

- Robin Fred
ExplorNet/The Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning

July 23rd, 2009

Summer Conference Highlights, Part 2

After some very informative Wednesday sessions, Day Two of our NC Summer Conference sessions begins with a sharing session of  great free tools and utilities for IT teachers.  We’re collecting those and  providing links and notes.

Barry Cochran kicked things off with a look at some of his favorites, including some easy-to-install freeware that helps with “little things.”  Some of his suggestions and those shared by others are listed here.  Others, we’ll post in the Student Links section of Teacher Central.

Barry says you can always do a Google search for ‘best windows utilities’ or ‘best windows tools’ and come up with some handy results. The recommendations he and others shared range from image burning and pdf creation tools to screen  recording and backup programs and more.  Some of the highlights:

Taskbar Shuffle allows you to move around taskbar items and shuffle around the order in which they appear. “It’s a little thing  but it helps keep me organized when I wind up with 20 documents open at one  time.”

Barry says LiberKey is like a ‘Swiss army knife’ of freeware programs.

Lightbox Editor is a ‘Photoshop lite’ program from Adobe with lots of controls to help you manipulate  photos.  It’s from adobe and is a afree download though there’s a pay version you can use.

Cutepdf is freeware for creating PDFs.  To go the other way, there’s a neat online service we’ve found called pdftoword.  You upload the pdf you want to convert, put in your email address (I use a secondary email address, not my ‘real’ one), and it converts it and emails it to you.

Picasa is a pretty well-known and powerful imaging and photo-management tool from Google.

Mike Fleming from Asheboro High recommends, which offers downloads of older versions of software (from Skype to Picasa and dozens more) if the current version is buggy on your machine.

From Charles Thorne of Williamston High:

Trinity Rescue Kit is a data recovery tool that lets you  troubleshoot or save data off a machine that has crashed. Likes this a little  better than a previous favorite, the UltimateBootCD. It is a package of tools that allow you to get in and scan for viruses, reset passwords, edit the registry and more.

Everything Search Engine is a really fast search tool for Windows XP and Vista. It’s free and available from Void Tools.

Screen captures and tutorials can be a powerful way to document processes and procedures for students (or for your peers).  If you’ve used  TechSmith products, you know Camtasia is great for recording tutorials or demonstrations, and SnagIt’s terrific for for screen shots.  A free Camtasia alternative for screen recording is camstudio. It generates AVI files of your demonstration videos, with the option to convert them into web-friendly Flash videos.  Charles says ultravnc has another free program called UltraVNC  Screen Recorder (you must have the free vnc screen video viewer installed).

Karen's Replicator

Karen's Replicator

Backing up data is an ongoing challenge, especially if you carry your work on your laptop and shuttle it between home and work and travel. Karen’s Replicator is a free backup tool I love that’s available from  It lets you set up multiple backup jobs for automatic or on-demand use.

Charles has used Replicator and liked it, but says 2BrightSparks has a similar tool called SyncBack that he likes even better because it’ll back up open files as well.

Daniel Hutchens from Forbush High uses yet another backup tool called allway sync.  It’s particularly good for flash drives – you can set it up so it’ll autmatically synch your flash drive when you insert it in your laptop.  ”It really helps keep everything synchronized,” he says.

Collaborative tools are on my mind as we gear up several curriculum projects involving far-flung team members.  And we’ve cut down on the need to travel and meet in person by using gotomeeting.  We’re using it at Summer Conference to let Alan Rowland and Connie Slagle from CompTIA present to us live from the Midwest, and Michael Meyers to show us some great A+ and Net+ labs without having to travel from Texas (more on that in another post coming soon).

We’ve been using a Google Docs spreadsheet to track projects – what resources are in the works, what’s been done to them and what needs to be done, to who’s doing what when.   GoogleDocs allows you to collaborate with anybody.  Send them an email and they accept it, you can invite them in your document and all work on it at the same time.

Those are just some of the great and mostly free utilities and resources teachers shared during the session.  We’ll post more from here soon.  Meanwhile, if you have a cool tool you’d like to share, send a comment below…

-Robin Fred
ExplorNet/The Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning

July 23rd, 2009

Highlights from Summer Conference, Part 1

North Carolina’s CTE Summer Conference is off to a great start, with attendance far ahead of what was expected just a couple of weeks ago.  Here’s a Wednesday rundown:


Almost 20 Computer Engineering teachers attended our first Wednesday morning session to hear about curriculum updates, changes in CompTIA’s A+ certification, and a great deal for North Carolina high schools.

Alan Rowland and Connie Slagle joined us live from Chicago and Indiana via gotomeeting to explain CompTIA’s E2C program for education.  North Carolina schools can join it for free thanks to a statewide agreement with the Department of Public Instruction, and take advantage of free exam vouchers for teachers, heavily discounted exam vouchers for students, and a lot of other benefits including exam prep resources and promotional materials for the classroom.


The second session of the day focused on how participation in SkillsUSA can engage students and turn them into leaders in the classroom and beyond.

State SkillsUSA Advisor Peyton Holland encouraged teachers to start or support chapters in their school and possibly kick things off by bringing students to Camp Dixie in September.  ”It’s a good time had by all,” he said, adding that it more than that for many – and it’s only been a few years since his life was changed by the experience.

Peyton’s a recent NC State grad who’s never stopped being an active proponent of SkillsUSA in the few years since he graduated from Northwoods High School. If you’ve met him, you know that he possesses self-confidence in just the right way – at ease and comfortable in a group, able to put forth his own ideas while showing respect to others.  Just the qualities you’d want to foster in your students. Though he didn’t mention it, he was a high achiever in SkillsUSA himself, winning the national Job Interview contest twice. He told our session it was SkillsUSA and a session at Camp Dixie that lit the spark for him.

West Montgomery teacher Kathy Wright reiterated how Camp Dixie can change students’ perspective on themselves and their interaction with others.  She’s taken some who weren’t sure they wanted to go to a ‘leadership camp.’

“By the time you get ready to leave they’ve really had a good time,” she says. “They’ve learned leadership in a fun way.  They meet people from all over the state, make new friends, compete with other groups of students. Everybody gets a chance to participate and team-build.”

Todd Thibault, the state Skills Advisor of the Year, talked about bringing West Johnston High students to compete in 21 different state events earlier this year. He was able to overcome budgeting issues and take his state championship quiz bowl team to national competition this summer. They placed fifth, and had a great experience in the process. Upon their return, Todd immediately went to work with a community service team, preparing for what he hopes will be a return trip next year.

“I had one kid tell me, ‘Mr Thibault thanks for making me do this. I had a great time,’” he says.  ”I push a lot of kids to do skills, and in the end they enjoy it.”

Both Kathy and Todd talked about the many different contests available and appropriate for computer engineering students, including non-tech contests like Public Speaking, Community Service, Quiz Bowl, and Job Skills Demonstration.

But many students in these programs will gravite toward the tech contests such as Internetworking, Technical Computer Applications, and especially Computer Maintenance and Repair.

Bill Burgess and Marshall Millican of Carolina Training Associates joined us to talk about how they run the Computer Maintenance contest at the state competition each spring.  Bill explained how he sets up the contest and scores participants, and showed the Heathkit fault boards and trainers he uses to set up troubleshooting labs that test students’ ability to identify and fix problems. (Those tools could make a great addition to your classroom if you have money for additional resources – more to come on that at a later date).


We wrapped up the day with a look at Moodle – what it is, how it helps in the classroom, how (briefly) it can be set up, and how we use it to enable our teachers to implement some of their classwork online.

Moodle is open source classroom management software that offers a slew of benefits.  It provides an interactive online approach that students love.  It saves paper.  It saves productive time when a student (or even the teacher) misses class.

But to me, the greatest benefit of Moodle for computer engineering students is that it enables hands-on activities in the classroom.  What I mean by that is that instead of trying to conduct a lab with 20 (or more) students working on four or five computer kits all at one time, you can have a small group working on a lab that you’re leading and watching closely, while the rest of the class is engaged in appropriate, productive, on-task work. (See an illustration of Moodle’s benefits in this WRAL-TV news report from earlier this spring).

Geof Duncan gave a demonstration of how our system works and how teachers set up their courses and get started with some of the basic and common tasks needed to set up a class online. We’ll be planning some online webinars and training sessions to add to the Moodle support this year.

More to come tomorrow from Greensboro…

- Robin Fred
ExplorNet/The Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning

June 26th, 2009

CompTIA Enhances A+ Prep Resources

CompTIA has updated its website and I found a great section of resources for  students and teachers. There is a test prep page that includes the exam objectives, practice tests, training materials and information.  And there’s a page for teachers that has information about program benefits and how to help students get certified.

By joining CompTIA’s E2C program, you can get access to discounted vouchers for students, and free vouchers for yourself.  Perhaps most importantly right now, students at E2C member schools can purchase vouchers for the current (2006 version) exams through June 2010. The 2006 exams map to existing resources and curriculum that students everywhere will use in 2009-10, rather than the updated 2009 exams that everyone else will have to take starting this fall.

If you are in North Carolina, NCDPI still (for now at least) has a statewide agreement that allows schools to join E2C for free.  See details and guidelines at the NC T&I website.

Finally, if you have the ability to make a trip this summer, registration is online for CompTIA’s Breakaway conference August 2-6 in Las Vegas. Information and registration are online. A special E2C strand includes Sunday-Tuesday training sessions led by Jean Andrews and Michael Meyers, plus specialized sessions for IT educators from across the country.

May 26th, 2009

Digital Media Students Discover New Possibilities

The ever evolving world of technology will present ongoing challenges for those of us who are already in the workforce, and new opportunities for those who are just starting their careers.  A Digital Media program that’s been in place at Middle Creek High School in Apex, NC the past few years produces a vivid picture of the brave new world ahead.

The program incorporates audio and video production along with basic web design, graphics and animation. Students produce sportscasts that are available as podcasts through iTunes. They produce a daily morning radio show that’s broadcast in the immediate vicinity of the campus, as well as a daily newscast for the school. They create web sites and graduation DVDs and video productions of the school musical. They edit sports videos that are played for thousands of fans air at Carolina Hurricanes games.

Most importantly, they learn how it all works together in the modern world of interactive media, where digital information and entertainment are available not just on radios and television sets but on laptops and cell phones, all on-demand.

Middle Creek has a Digital Media academy, so students have the ability to get in-depth exposure to skills they may use as they continue their education or begin their careers.  During my spring visit, students were busily working on a variety of projects.

Level I students learn a bit about each of the areas covered in the course (audio, video, web design, graphics and animation).  Some of them were in the school’s Mac lab, putting the final touches on videos that layered graphics – some of which they’d created themselves – over music tracks they chose.  They’ve learned a bit about the major Adobe CS3 products – Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Flash – in edition to audio and video editing software and equipment.

By Level 2, students are creating real products.  One group I saw was taping a segment for the next’s day’s campus newscast.  Others worked on radio broadcasts or sports play-by-play, or created websites for non-profits.  One girl named Abby showed a beautiful site she built for SkillsUSA competition around the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, in collaboration with a couple of other students.  They won first place at state, one of five state championships the school brought home.

Advanced Studies students were working on post-production for a DVD of the high school musical, Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, complete with a multi-camera shoot, credits, profiles, behind the scenes takes, and more.  I saw last year’s edition, Seussical the Musical, and the DVD is definitely professional quality work.

Middle Creek’s Digital Media program is one of the models for ExplorNet/QTL’s new Digital Media courses, and the school’s three Digital Media teachers will help lead the training for new teachers from across North Carolina in late July. All three have experience in the TV news industry, and have brought those skills to work for students.  Hearing them talk about the program they’ve built, or the students they’ve affected, is a pleasure.

Luis Maldonado works closely with advanced students on the morning radio show, among other things.  He and some of his students are at school by 6:00 for a daily radio broadcast that goes from 6:30 to 7:30 in the immediate area of campus.

As Maldonado notes, the skills students are learning won’t just be put to use in entertainment.  These skills have the promise to help business save travel or training costs while building efficiency. They may enable doctors to perform diagnostics or eventually surgery remotely. They’ll enable professional development and collaboration and education, helping make expertise in any subject readily available far and wide.

Maldonado two other teachers who work with the academy – Thomas Hodges and Wes Petty all bring industry experience as well as dedication to the program at Middle Creek. With varied skills from Flash, Photoshop and Dreamweaver to audio and video production, they combine to offer a comprehensive program.  But ExplorNet’s new Digital Media program aims to help schools with a single teacher begin programs that may start smaller but become robust over time.  The summer training gives qualfied teachers a basic understanding of the major topics – a foundation upon which to build their knowledge and skills.

Some of the Middle Creek students’ work you can see online includes:

  • Music that a pair of students named Tony and Cole recorded together;
  • Play-by-play broadcasts at ;
  • Photo albums at the Mac website;

Though Middle Creek’s program is an academy and more in-depth than most Digital Media schools will attempt, it’s a promising field and an exciting program for the future. Find out more about it here.

March 27th, 2009

Student Achievement on Display at Watauga Workshop

Robin Fred
The Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning

(March 27, 2009) – The final QTL IT Spring Workshop is going on right now at Watauga High School in Boone. We have about a dozen people on hand and had a busy morning with discussions, a virtualization lab and a tour of the Appalachian State IT Services offices.  Now we’re spending the afternoon going through some impressive quick labs that were actually designed by Errol Shook’s students at WHS.

As I write this, we’re talking about creating bootable Ubuntu flash drives – and teaching file systems, BIOS, boot order, etc. in the process of doing that.  A student designed this activity for Errol to share with other high school teachers.  Talk about high-level thinking skills!  Next up: another student-designed lab where we’ll build bootable hard drives using Ubuntu Linux and old junked 10G hard drives.

That level of thought from students here isn’t surprising, after seeing some of the hands-on activities Errol uses to teach the content of his Computer Engineering and Networking courses.  At first blush, one might think an activity like setting up PXE boots to run a virtualized Linux computer within a Vista-based PC would be beyond the scope of the Computer Engineering course objectives.  But Errol uses advanced labs like these to actually teach the content in a real-world context.  He always connect the activity and the steps of the process back to the basic technology – teaching everything from hardware technology to software file systems to user rights along the way.  And it works – his students complete the courses with almost universal proficiency.

Watauga High has a great IT lab setup, with some pretty high-powered new computers that Errol’s students built with kits from Computer Warehouse of North Carolina. He talked a bit about how he has it configured and the security measures he’s taken.  He tries to live on trust and give students the ability to do what they need to do, but like everyone has had to think through how to protect the school network first, and his own segregated classroom network second.

Here, that’s accomplished by way of a classroom that’s sectioned off from the rest of the school network via K12LTSP.  Students built the computers, which run Windows Vista but are set up to run a virtualization of Linux from a classroom server (maybe I can get him to write up how he made that happen).  Those virtualizations allow Errol to teach Level 3 students programming languages and technologies including Java, Linux, Ruby, Python, Perl and more.  The limitations of each individual PC are no longer a barrier to having what’s needed to teach those technologies.

It was gratifying to hear that Errol got a key idea for how to do all of this at a QTL workshop that Greg Thoyre of Orange High led a few years ago.  It’s great to see teachers turn an idea they got at a workshop into an innovation that transforms their classroom.

It’s also been great to have a guest named Cory Efland, who’s one of Greg Thoyre’s former students at Orange High and is now wrapping up his teaching degree.  After getting his A+, Net+ and Linux+ certifications while he was still in high school, Cory came to Boone to attend Appalachian State and get his teaching degree.  He’s been student teaching with Hank Hardin at Avery High School – a program that builds more than 200 computers for the school district every year.  So he’s learned from some of the best and is getting ready to start his own program somewhere.   His head must be swimming with new ideas after talking to the experienced teachers here.

We’ve talked a lot today about helping students get certified, and setting them on a solid career path.  CompTIA’s E2C program helps schools offer certification exams for students at a discount.  North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction has set up a statewide agreement to help bring schools into E2C just by filing the paperwork to join. Frances Nichols of Mt. Airy High talked about going through the process for getting vouchers and getting students to exam sites.  She says it’s worth the trouble.

One thing Errol always does after working with a student 2-3 years is to write a letter of recommendation for seniors who he feels have mastered the technology content and have done their work and who he feels would make good students.  Many of those kids get jobs with IT services at Appalachian State or other colleges and universities, or with local businesses.  This helps Errol’s program because he now even gets surplus equipment from those ITS programs that found out about the program from the students who got jobs.

Earlier today, we talked about Moodle, and the QTL system for managing online classrooms.  Those who haven’t yet dived in to the system because of bandwidth limitations or local restrictions or lack of time or whatever are getting a sales pitch from those who ARE using the system.  Will Stewart from Haywood County logged in to his account to show how he has students taking exams and doing work while he’s here today. We also talked about the WRAL TV story on Wakefield High School’s program, where Phil Vice did an excellent job explaining what Moodle’s a good thing.

We also looked at the games module in Moodle, a feature that will be much more functional in QTL’s IT Moodle setup next school year.  Teachers will be able to create hangman, cryptex, millionaire, crossword or other games tied to vocabulary lists and glossaries.  It’ll make Moodle even more interactive and engaging for students.  There’s a good video overview of Moodle games on Teacher Tube (you may need to set up an account to see it).

Some other links discussed today:

IMGBurn – Software for creating bootable CDs from ISOs.

CWNC - Computer Warehouse of North Carolina, which donated numerous door prizes for participants here today (congrats to Troy Jones of Lincoln County who won the big prize, a 22-inch flat panel monitor).

K12LTSP – Linux and Terminal Services package designed especially for schools.

K12Linux – The Fedora 10 iteration of K12LTSP.

Avira AntiVir – The anti-virus software Errol now says he finds superior to AVG Free.  Good enough for me…

CONFLICKER – A potentially dangerous worm that’s set to go off April 1 (read about it on

March 4th, 2009

Don’t Get Phished or Pharmed!

By Scott Gupton
Computer Engineering Teacher, New Bern High School

Just last month a good friend was the victim of ID theft.  They are still cutting up cards and on the phone for hours trying to fix the problem.

Take a look at this PDF file – a very good example of a “Phishing” site.  It is very rare to capture good screen shots of such scams.  I am working on a graduate certificate in Information Security and I was able to gain access to it via one of my classmates.

This scam has been around for years, but people still fall for it most of the time.  Most of us (including me) do not look at the “address” bar of sites that we visit.  The “perps” know this and take full advantage of it.

Tip? Always take an extra second to read the URL (web address) to verify that it is legit.  And never trust an Email from banks, the IRS, investment brokers, etc., etc.  Yes they will send you promotional emails, but they will never (usually) request usernames, passwords, social security numbers, etc.  If you’re not sure, then call the company to verify.

In addition, be aware of another attack:  Redirected Web Traffic (Pharming).  It is the same concept, but this time “perps” take advantage of misspelled words and/or typing errors.

Here is an explanation (adapted from source: Thomson Course Technology):

Users often make mistakes typing Web addresses into a browser. Scam artists capitalize on this by anticipating some of the more common mistakes, including:

  • Misspelling the address (for example, typing instead of
  • Omitting the dot (for example, typing grocerycom instead of
  • Omitting a word (typing only grocery instead of
  • Using inappropriate punctuation (typing tool’ instead of

Hackers can exploit a misaddressed Web name and steal information from unsuspecting users. They do this by registering similar-sounding domain names.  When users attempt to enter the legitimate website but enter the common misspelling or typo, they are instead taken to a website set up by the hacker to deceive them. This site can look almost identical to the genuine site, so users are easily tricked into entering personal information that is then stolen.

Redirecting Web traffic is not limited to malicious attackers. Several well-known Internet service providers (ISPs) automatically funnel misspelled addresses into their own Web sites that contain a search feature to help users find the sites they originally wanted.

I hope this helps!  Make sure you read the PDF!!!

Think Smart! – Think Security!


January 30th, 2009

Great Student Projects

We’re always on the lookout for great student projects or hands-on activities that engage students in the content of these courses. Matt Rogers of the Buncombe County Career Education Center shared a very nice one with our online IT Teacher Professional Learning Community and gave me permission to post it here.  Here it is, in his words:

I’ve been teaching for close to 2 years now and I’ve done this project each semester with my level 2 class to pretty decent success. I have them create their own Computer Store.

We start with safety and I have my students write up “Rules for the Shop” for any techs they hire for their shop. Moving to Hardware & Software, I have them create different computers using the Wishlist on newegg and tigerdirect. Each computer costs a certain amount (a $500, $1000, & one beast of a machine). They also price specific parts to create a way of customers to “customize” their machine (kinda like what Dell does on their website). The students then create a catalog using Publisher. In networking and IT security, they discuss what types of networking services they would offer and the equipment necessary. IT Security would allow them to tell potential customers what dangers lie online and what to do to prevent them (this also goes into professionalism & communication). Same for printers and laptops.

Finally, they actually build their shop using Google Sketchup and present their shop to the class at the end of the semester.

You can also work in job interviews, troubleshooting (by giving them scenarios of customers coming into their shop), and other forms of supplemental material.

Some students also created websites for their shop.

It works pretty well and definitely utilizes what they learn in a real-world manner.

Hope this helps,

Matt Rogers
Career Education Center
Buncombe County Schools, NC

December 18th, 2008

How Technology WILL Impact the Future Classroom

Robin Fred
The Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning

(Dec. 12, 2008) – This morning’s meeting of the North Carolina Joint Legislative Technology Commissions in Raleigh was indeed what state school board chairman Howard Lee called a “fantastically informative experience.”  The snapshots of progress in increasing the effective use of educational technology were dizzying to someone who views student engagement as the key to student achievement.

Rep. Joe Tolson – a longtime legislative champion of instructional technology -  set the stage.  He told the movers and shakers who had gathered to hear the state technology progress report that the challenge at hand is “providing tools so our students can be competitive in a global economy.”

Governor-Elect Beverly Perdue says she believes in technology as a critical tool for 21st Century learning, and it will be a key focus for her administration.  “This is all about North Carolina’s success in 10 or 20 years,” she told the gathering, adding that with it, “we can inspire and motivate all or most of our kids… and keep North Carolina competitive in a global economy.”

And without it?  “If we don’t teach our students with technology, how in the world can they adapt to the workforce?”

SAS President and CEO Jim Goodnight also made an appearance to talk about technology’s importance in the modern classroom in light of the fact that today’s kids use it all the time outside school.  “We ask (students) to literally slow down when they enter the classroom,” he said.  “Technology empowers teachers and engaging students in their learning.”

Goodnight touted the state’s 1:1 Computing Initiative, noting that after one year the dropout rate at pilot school Hunt High dropped by 42%.  SAS is putting its money where its mouth is, so to speak.  Goodnight announced to the group that the company is making its “Curriculum Pathways” program open free of charge to teachers and students across the United States.

Author Michael Horn (Disrupting Class: Student-Centric Education is the Future) delivered the keynote with a presentation that took a cutting-edge business theory and applied it to education.  His ideas rate a separate blog entry.  But in a nutshell, Horn contends that technology combined with a strong educational strategy offers a way to move from a “monolithic, factory-based model that doesn’t reflect the way we learn” to a modular and customizable approach that is truly student-centered.

The impact of technology on education hasn’t been easy to illustrate because too often the approach is to put computers in a classroom and hope simply doing that will make a difference.  The need for a better strategy was a common theme as other presenters talked about the transformation that’s now underway in many schools thanks to improving technology and smarter strategies.

Much of the improvement can be credited to better bandwidth, and MCNC’s North Carolina Research and Education Network has dramatically expanded that across North Carolina this year.  When 2008 began, only a handful of school districts were actively impacted by that effort to provide affordable high-speed connections to schools.  Now, 100 districts are connected, and MCNC President Joe Freddoso says almost all will be on the network within months.

Other highlights:

  • Students at the host Centennial Middle School greeted participants with demonstrations of how they use technology.  One group of students I spoke with showed how they used Google tools and video cameras to track wildlife habits around the school.  A pair of 13-year-olds showed me the robot they’d built and programmed, and one showed a game she had created using a free online tool called Scratch from MIT.  Too bad all schools can’t offer those types of learning experiences.
  • Howard Lee noted that in Greene County – a small, rural, poor district – the graduation rate has skyrocketed from 24% to 82% since the district began using more computers a decade ago.
  • Bryan Setser of the NC Virtual Public School showed cutting edge tools that bring the virtual world so many students these days are comfortable with (think Club Penguin but with a focus on curriculum).
  • Angela Quick of NCDPI spoke of blending the physical world and the virtual world through collaborative tools. These tools have been around a while but are suddenly more viable not only because the tools themselves are getting better, but because the bandwidth in schools is finally catching up (there’s that connectivity project again…).
  • A Chapel Hill principal appeared via webcam and Wimba Classroom to talk about technology as a tool – using what’s increasingly available to support what’s happening in the brick and mortar structure. “It’s a way to go from ‘well-managed classrooms’ to ‘highly engaged students.’”

Michael Horn ended the meeting on a similar note, saying his book is called “Disrupting Class” rather than “Disrupting Schools” because he believes schools will continue to play a central role in spite of the use of online learning in home school and other environments.  But he anticipates schools becoming portals for guided instruction rather than the structured environment that’s prevalent today.

If he’s right, that means an ever-changing role for teachers, and an ongoing need for professional development and administrative support.  But in my mind, the result is not a world that is less dependent on teachers… quite the opposite in fact.

After the meeting State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson told me just a few years ago she had teachers tell her that they feared increased use of computers would mean we’d need fewer teachers.  In reality, we should be able to offer our students more opportunities through the wise development and use of tech tools.  But great teachers who know how to use those tools to guide and inspire students will always be the key to making that work.