July 17, 2020
When his NSF grant expired, electrical engineering and computer science Professor Kevin Du figured his pioneering security education (SEED) cybersecurity workshop that he had run since 2015 had come to an end. Du had always intended the workshops to be an open source resource for computer science and cybersecurity educators and an expedited shift to virtual learning gave Du an opportunity to further evolve his project. For the previous five years the workshop occurred solely offline in conference rooms. Despite travel costs, a cramped four-day schedule and capped capacity, holding it in person was thought to be critical for participants work on labs.
“Hands-on learning is the biggest challenge with virtual learning,” said Du.
The spring 2020 semester gave Du increased comfort using online teaching tools and sparked his enthusiasm to attempt hosting the workshop online without funding.
“I’m excited about the process. I have never tried this before. For the last five years I have been polishing the offline workshop. Going online I am excited to use this opportunity to learn and grow myself. No platform is developed for this purpose. You just have to use a platform creatively to meet your needs,” said Professor Du. “I really don’t want this project to stop.”
About twenty people volunteered to assist during these virtual workshops. Two of them are Montana State University Assistant Professor of Computer Science Travis Peters and current Syracuse University Cybersecurity Ph.D. candidate Ammar Salman.
This will be Peters’ first time in attendance and he sees it as a chance to make his own students more engaged.
“My hope is to bring some of what I learn back to improve our own programs,” said Peters
Salman has gone through the workshop three times as a paid assistant, this will be his first as a volunteer, but he continues to find meaningful value in attending.
“I am getting better experience every time we do the workshop. This is human interaction. The more you talk to people, the better opportunities you’re going to end up with. I think that is a very important thing for grad students,” said Salman.
Both Peters and Salman are eager for the experience and immediately recognized a key benefit.
“I think there is a lot of opportunity here. Conducting the SEED workshop virtually vastly increases access. That is one of the huge benefits of conducting trainings like this. Certain barriers go away,” said Peters.
“In my years here in Syracuse I have never had such an opportunity,” said Salman. “We’ve had people come from all around the world. Now, since we’re doing it virtually, even more people are going to participate.”
Previous in-person workshops were limited to one hundred participants. Moving online has massively amplified the reach of the workshop. Attendance in 2020 matched the total number of participants from the last five years combined. More than four hundred people from forty-three countries on six continents signed up, with women making up twenty five percent of all participants. Accommodating greater inclusion was a welcomed new challenge. It meant crafting a schedule that worked for everyone across all time zones, but the flexibility gained from a virtual setting allowed participants to choose sessions based on their interests and availability.
“In the past, because of travel, the workshop could only be done in a short period of time. Now I can spread it out over two months. From a participant’s perspective it’s become much more feasible,” said Du.
A combination of platforms will be used to replicate the experience virtually. Du is presenting each lab on Zoom while volunteers like Peters and Salman respond to participant questions in parallel via Slack. The process will be an experiment, but the goal is impact.
“I’m treating this as a learning process. I’m sure we will find some way to solve it, but the best way to do that is something we are going to have to figure out,” said Du.
“All of the labs we teach during the workshop are essentially free,” said Salman. “It’s not exclusive, it’s for everybody, and that’s the purpose of the workshop section. To get all of this into everyone’s hands.”
Du determined it would have cost more than $500,000 to hold this year’s workshop in-person. Now the only real cost is time. Time everyone involved is happy to spend.
“When I started developing the SEED lab, I wanted it to be useful to others. As a professor, if you produce something and you see more and more people using it, you become happy. I spent twenty years developing those labs. Right now, there are over one thousand universities using them, but the more the better to me. That’s how I measure my impact,” said Du.
Peters is excited about the collaboration and sees considerable value in dedicating his time to the project.
“In what other situation would Montana State University, Syracuse, and all these other universities be sharing thoughts and improving how we can do these things virtually,” said Peters. “What Kevin has put together is great. I think it’s really meaningful for students who are trying to assess if cybersecurity is a space they are interested in. Hopefully from this, Kevin and the other volunteers can take what they’ve learned back to their own institutions and share it. It speeds up the movement of these ideas and techniques.”
Du says he plans to talk with participants who have attended online and offline for feedback about their experience to learn how he can optimize his workshop in the new frontier of virtual learning.