S8-O/LT6-6 - Exploring the CELF - An Innovative Cyber Engineering Learning Facility

1. Innovative Practice Work In Progress
Jason Pittman1
1 High Point University

The cybersecurity laboratory exercise is a common feature in computing education. Researchers and instructional designers suggest such laboratory exercises are constructivist by nature and impart an active learning experience. However, students report an overtly objectivist perspective related to how they use these laboratories. Such a disconnect between intended design and situated perception is an unexplored curiosity. Creators of the laboratory exercise design assert that following their procedure causes students to analyze, evaluate, and create. Yet, students view the procedure as a fast tool they can use to accelerate towards their incentivized goal - the grade. Thus, the procedure becomes a means to bypass the crafted constructivist pedagogical queue and learning is occurring, at best, in the lower half of Bloom’s taxonomy.
    Accordingly, this innovative practice work-in-progress study presents the technical architecture, pedagogical design, and preliminary results from a new type of laboratory environment and experience intended to resolve the experiential disconnect. More specifically, whereas traditional laboratory exercise designs are
theme parks in game design terms, the Cyber Engineering Learning Facility (CELF) is designed and implemented as a sandbox. Traditional environments provide a highly tailored experience with predetermined steps and content. The learning is on rails in other words, much like any ride in a theme park. Conversely, the CELF uses the pedagogical concept of a phenomenarium and first principles of cyber science to engender a full stack Bloom’s taxonomy experience.
Beyond the pedagogical concept and first principles however, the CELF relies upon two unique innovations. First, the environment itself diverges from the common virtualization model seen in cyber ranges in that we use a laterally scaling private cloud infrastructure. Further, we assign students a virtual desktop environment within which they can create nested virtualized infrastructure. Consequently, the CELF delivers on-demand cyber engineering experiences as a service with reduced total cost of ownership and higher scalability compared to traditional laboratory designs. Second, the infrastructure design allows exercises within the CELF to only consist of a first principle statement (e.g., least privilege) and a general description of the intended activity. For example: implement a file server which allows Alice to share files with Bob but not Eve and Eve with Alice but not Bob. The students must decompose the description into discrete goals themselves, construct an idealized pathway towards each goal, and bring the full sequence into reality. Thus, the experience is without rails and students are free to explore how to meet the objective.
Preliminary results suggest the CELF design and implementation is operating as intended but with room for additional innovation. To that effect, we present statistical analysis of the infrastructure utilization, pedagogical effectiveness, as well as analysis of student perceptions. Further, we discuss limitations of the current CELF design along with several avenues for future innovation.