Monday, August 3rd, 2009...6:10 am

CompTIA Breakaway:Troubleshooting Labs

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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

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