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Online learning and the talent pipeline – in conversation with Prof Liz Bacon, Abertay University


Liz Bacon Abertay University BRIM
Abertay University talent pipeline

When establishing the UK’s network of Cyber Resilience Centres, one of the big considerations has been investing in and developing the future talent pipeline of cyber resilience professionals here in the UK. Each Centre works closely with leading regional Universities on their Student Services programme, engaging the skills and knowledge of current ethical hacking students to bridge the gap between smaller SMEs and affordable cyber resilience services. BRIM’s Director of Special Projects, Alan Greig, works closely with the universities nationwide to help set up, deliver and manage these partnerships.


Abertay University in Dundee boasts a distinguished Division of Cybersecurity, with a world-renowned teaching centre for ethical hacking. Professor Liz Bacon, Deputy Principal and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the university and an experienced and respected systems designer and developer, recently shared with Alan the challenges of university learning in a pandemic, remote learning and an insight into Abertay’s virtual hacking lab, plus what’s next for them and their industry partners.


Alan: So, Liz, what have been some of the challenges of shifting to an online learning model during the pandemic?


Liz: Switching to online learning has been a significant shift for all universities, with both staff and students having to quickly adapt to different ways of working. Thanks to the tech focus within our Division of Cybersecurity and the nature of the courses we teach, both staff and students are very comfortable doing things online, and we were also fortunate in that most of our students already had devices at home due to their interests in computing and technology.


In contrast, delivering practical work during the pandemic was a huge learning curve. Practical work on our Cybersecurity and Ethical Hacking programmes is usually undertaken in our on-site lab within the university, which sits on an isolated network. As the equipment only works within the university, some staff members were forced to tweak some practical assessments in the first lockdown that were unable to be completed in person.

Once we realised that we needed a long-term solution to allow students to continue practical work, we invested in a virtual lab that students could access online.

We introduced a virtual lab as part of a pilot project to allow students to carry out work online as if they were on-site within the university. The virtual hacking lab allows each member of staff to set up the machines they would like students to work on. Staff then allow their students to access the virtual machines via a remote connection to complete their work. The great thing about the lab is that it handles most of the heavy processing power, so students can carry out their work without investing in additional hardware. In the rare event a student did need to invest in additional hardware, they were able to apply to a university fund to help cover the cost.


Alan: What will happen to the virtual lab after in-person classes resume fully?


Liz: The virtual lab is something we will continue to invest in, as it provides us with a flexibility we’ve not had before. I doubt the days of gathering 200 students in a lecture hall will return anytime soon, so we’ll retain some elements of online teaching going forward. We hope this will allow us to focus more of our face-to-face time with our students on supporting them with their practical work and interactive /social learning activities going forward.


Alan: How did staff and students adapt to this new way of working?


Liz: Like everyone, both our staff and students have had to adapt to a changing world. In the first weeks of the pandemic staff had to make changes to practical work students were undertaking, including to some honours projects that had originally required human participants. Project supervisors worked with affected students to rescope their projects to ensure they could be completed within the required timeframe. This led to some of my colleagues having to develop new assessment briefs for students very quickly - they all did a fantastic job. The introduction of the virtual lab has allowed us to operate much more normally and has allowed students to continue to develop their practical skillset.


Students have had to take on the pressures of the pandemic and it’s been a big adjustment to undertake complex learning from home. A lot of the learning that usually occurs on our courses is social, with peer support helping students to work through and overcome challenges. Students who were going into second year or above had already had the chance to develop these social support networks. It has been a tougher year for our first year and direct entry students who have perhaps felt a little more isolated, but the majority have coped well and shown an amazing level of resilience and adaptability.


I’m extremely impressed with the dedication students have shown to their studies during this difficult period and being able to access machines via the virtual lab at a time that suits them has benefitted those who have additional commitments, such as employment or children.

On the staff side, all of my colleagues have dealt with the challenges created by the pandemic exceptionally well and have come together as a team to support each other and find common solutions to a lot of the technical challenges that we have faced.


Alan: What’s next on the horizon for Abertay in the wider industry?


Liz: Throughout the pandemic we have stayed in close contact with our industry partners and continued to push forward with important developments. In December, Abertay was recognised as Scotland’s first gold-level Academic Centre for Excellence in Cyber Security Education by the National Cyber Security Centre, and we’ve also had funding confirmation for the £18m cyberQuarter research and development project, which will place the University at the heart of a new cyber hub here in Dundee. We are always keen to work with new partner businesses and it is a massively exciting time for cyber in Scotland as we look towards brighter days on the horizon.

You can find out more about the programmes on offer and how businesses can work with the University on Abertay’s Division of Cybersecurity on their dedicated web pages.


About the author:

Professor Liz Bacon is currently Deputy Principal and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Abertay University. With a background in computer science, AI and technology for immersive learning, she has over 100 refereed publications and has given over 85 keynotes and invited talks across the world. In 2015, she was voted the 35th Most Influential Woman in UK IT by Computer Weekly. Her research interests include immersive learning, smart systems, computing policy, smart systems, security, artificial intelligence, teaching programming and technology enhanced learning (TEL).


If you would like to discuss the UK cyber talent pipeline, contact us for a conversation.