Professor, CSE Dept, KSIT
Professor, CAOS, IISC
At the undergraduate level, most Computer Networking curricula aim to familiarize students with key networking technologies and standards, with an emphasis on breadth rather than depth of understanding. This is detrimental to students in two ways. First, students obtain a rudimentary or incomplete understanding of inherently complex yet fundamental concepts. Second, students are often unable to translate their limited understanding into diagnosis and action while troubleshooting networks. In this series of articles, we describe a small set of hands-on experiments (which have been iteratively refined over six years) that offer learners opportunities to reflect on their understanding. The feedback collected from our students confirms that this experiential learning helps students gain a lasting understanding of the workings of computer networks. All experiments can be conducted as 1-2 hour exercises in a networking lab, or even at home with minimal setup.
The ACM/IEEE Computer Society Joint Task Force  has established guidelines for the Computer Science undergraduate curriculum (hereafter, CS2013). All learning outcomes (LOs) specified in CS2013 target one of three levels of mastery: Familiarity, Usage and Assessment. Almost all LOs associated with networking technologies and standards target the lowest-level (Familiarity) LO. This is reflective of how the introductory undergraduate course in Computer Networking is typically taught, with an emphasis on breadth rather than depth. We believe that this tradeoff is undesirable and unnecessary for many key Computer Networking concepts, which can be explored in greater depth using carefully designed experiments.
A lab-based environment allows students to learn experientially by exploring inherently complex concepts at the depth necessary to understand them, at a pace largely under their own control. This approach uses lab-hours more productively, without requiring additional lecture hours. These experiments though can be done alone, but in our experience, students who work in groups of 2 to 4 typically gain an even better understanding, provided the group discusses their experimental observations, and identifies those observations in line with expectation vs. those that represent “failures” of some kind (along with explanations for such failures).
This series of articles approaches the teaching of computer networks using a set of hands-on experiments, aimed at encouraging students to apply the underlying concepts to realistic situations, to enhance their ability to diagnose and troubleshoot networking problems as professionals.