About Nancy Null

Nancy Null manages support and training for over sixty Cisco Networking Academy programs in Maryland, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, and in afterschool and community outreach centers in various states. Combining the experiences of 38 years as an educator with a passion for improving Career and Technology instruction, Nancy is involved with projects ranging from increasing gender diversity in IT programs to embedding Common Core State Standards in the CTE classroom. Her blog posts often feature best practices from exemplary CTE programs across the state.

When is “professional development” truly “development”?  What aspect of a professional should it develop?  In evaluating the worth of professional development, what outcomes indicate that it hit the mark?
Most of us have experienced professional development that developed only an active desire to flee the room.  The classic picture of professional development consists of rows of seats, a podium, and a presentation.  We can do better, and for Cisco Networking Academy instructors, we are doing better.


doodled-desksSix years ago, the Maryland State Department of Education identified Towson University as the Affiliate University supporting educational programs within the IT Career Cluster.  One of the primary responsibilities of that designation was the creation of appropriate professional development designed to support and grow those programs by nurturing a community of skilled instructors.


Employers in the IT industry have identified three elements basic to employee success:  communication, collaboration, and certification.  These “three Cs” need to be the focus of IT instruction, from high school Career Technology Education through college Computer Science.  No amount of technical knowledge will make up for an individual’s inability to provide appropriate credentials, work with others, or express ideas with clarity.  Thus, professional development provided to instructors needs to reflect these elements in both form and function.


Here at the Cisco Networking Academy Support & Training Center, our summer Instructor Institute works to meet these goals.  “Boot Camps” support instructor certification in the key industry sectors of hardware and software, networking, and security.  IT programs at the secondary level use industry certification achievement as a primary tool measuring student success; an instructor who has earned that certification is better prepared and able to help students achieve that goal.


1_jed_7oxTQvWenboAgfcMwgModeling communication and collaboration through professional development changes the delivery method as well as participant expectations.  Using a blended model of monitored remote and in-person experiences allows instructors to concentrate on development of engaging instruction while working with their peers.  Participants in most of our courses complete a guided overview of the technical concepts on their own prior to attending the in-person portion of the course.  They are tasked with arriving with questions; they are active participants in their own education, rather than passive attendees.


Instructors registering for Jason Kahler’s professional development offerings at the Center for Applied Technology South will work alongside several of his students.  These students are high achievers possessing multiple industry certifications, some of them already working in internships within the IT industry while still in high school.  They help instructors see course delivery from the student viewpoint, and they often introduce instructors to new concepts, such as integration of social media.  Jason also manages an instructor collaboration EdModo site, where participants share the ideas they have taken back to their classrooms.   The connections fostered by these interactions led to an “Academy Exchange” event where students from Baltimore City’s Carver High School Cisco Academy spent the day at CAT South, working and learning with Academy students.  CAT South students plan to visit Carver next school year.


Quality professional development is not training—it is rewiring.  Worthwhile professional development provides a valuable outcome, such as certification, and engages participants in developing relevant skills, such as collaboration and communication.  When it hits the mark, professional development actually adds value to the profession!



With so much technology available to deliver and receive content, one can imagine a class where the instructor is delivering a lecture via cellphone to a class full of tablets. No one would want to go back to the days of slates and chalk, but how does a teacher manage to nurture a sense of engagement in our high-tech classrooms? How can students feel motivated and activated when devices are managing the flow of information?


In Cisco Networking Academy classrooms around Maryland, innovative instructors create a sense of student “ownership” that produces stellar results.


The Networking Academy content is fully cloud-based, available 24/7 via smartphones and tablets as well as PCs. With all that access, savvy instructors like Jason Kahler have created classroom environments that take students beyond content to application.


Jason, Cisco instructor at the Center of Applied Technology-South in Anne Arundel County, creates a classroom environment as much like “the real world” as possible. First-year students in his two-year program “work for” second-year students, who request services in the form of work orders. Each year’s team in the Cisco program elects office positions and conducts planning meetings.

Jason's Lab

Jason’s Lab


Student Engagement
Are Jason’s students engaged in the class?  Here’s powerful proof. In planning meetings, students decided which open-enrollment courses at the local community college would go the farthest to helping the class implement a new CCNA Voice program next year. Several students voluntarily enrolled in those courses, gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to support the success of the entire group.  This “above and beyond” attitude reflects the highest level of student “ownership” of the program.


Instructor Trainer Assistants
Jason’s newest idea is the creation of instructor trainer assistants. Jason’s students have the opportunity to apply for a position as a trainer assistant during this summer’s statewide Cisco instructor training. The students will help instructors attending the training to see the curriculum from a student’s perspective; they will serve as technical aides, but more importantly, they will be able to communicate with instructors about learning styles and methods that succeed with today’s students.


In just one year, Jason has achieved a 90% success rate on industry certification (100% of his second-year students are certified!), and doubled the number of students choosing the Cisco Networking Academy program at his school.


Students in classes like these are learning valuable “people skills” that will set them apart in the IT field. Their active engagement in the delivery of content gives them a vested interest, not only in their own achievement, but in the success of others. These students will become the best team players as well as the best innovators—a truly powerful combination!



Cisco’s Virtual Academy Conference 2014:  Educating the Architects of the Internet of Everything leverages powerful new tools to support collaboration and interactivity. What follows is the “diary” of my attendance at the first day of the two-day virtual conference on March 18.





10:00 AM 

Packing for and traveling to this conference was easy:  slip into my fuzzy slippers, brew up a pot of coffee, walk downstairs to my PC, and log in.  Bad hair day?  No problem.  I created my profile, uploaded a picture, no badge required.


After hanging out in the virtual Lobby, I decided to try my luck at some of the Games.  Trivia and Memory Match were a snap, putting me in the top quarter of the Leaderboards for both.  Things went downhill from there; Puzzle Putt took me into the rough right away.  Perhaps that game was for attendees under the age of fifty.


Wandering over to the Meeting Rooms, I explored each of the Conference Sponsors’ virtual booths.  CompTIA, NDG, Citrix and other industry partners provided loads of giveaways and other resources, which I saved into my virtual Conference Briefcase for downloading later.  About the only thing missing was free pens…


Were my friends at the conference?  A walk into the virtual Lounge plopped me down in a chat session, and identified all the participants present.  Several of us decided that Puzzle Putt was rigged.  Then I realized  I’d better hurry, or I will miss the first live session!  Fortunately, I didn’t have to run across the building to get there.


11:00 AM 

Attended the initial live session, “Educating the Architects of IoE for Social Benefit”, presented by Harbrinder Kang, VP Corporate Affairs.  Live sessions include a running Q and A, where attendees comment on the presentation as well as ask questions or post tweets.  Mr. Kang’s description of the “next industrial revolution,” where over 50 billion things will be connected to the Internet, sparked many questions about bandwidth and access from attendees living in places like Peru and Ghana.  Following the session, participants could stay in the Auditorium and engage in a live chat with Mr. Kang and other attendees.


12:00 PM

During what other conference can one do a load of laundry and wash the dishes on a break?  Just wish that laundry was virtual…At 12:55, a chime coming from my PC reminded me that the next live session was about to start.


1:00 PM

Farsheed Tari, Gary Coman, Omar Shaban and Mary de Wysocki discussed “Networking Academy Today and Tomorrow,” with an emphasis on preparing students for success in emerging careers.


Mary explained Cisco’s growing partnership with Healthcare Without Harm, a global ecosystem of care providers and public policy developers interested in making healthcare more “green.”  This collaboration could eventually provide opportunities for Cisco Academy students in the healthcare field.


Omar described initiatives supporting student employability and employment, including job resources and collaborative opportunities for Academy alumni.

I am sitting in this virtual Auditorium, next to instructors from Australia, Ethiopia, Peru and Cameroon—and all of us have front row seats!


1:30 PM

Joined in the post-session chat, talking with an international group of instructors about ways to implement the Health Information Networking course.  Translations happen in real time through a Google app.  Fifteen minutes of chat flew past!


2:00 PM

My virtual Briefcase (so much easier on one’s back than the real thing) is stuffed full of resources at this point.  Conference sessions and breakouts are available as on-demand video playbacks through Cisco WebEx or as downloadable resource files.  Colleagues from all over the world share their best practices and provide training on technical topics, and if attendance sparks interest in contacting the presenter, the Communications Center provides email, chat, and social media connections.


4:00 PM

Day One of the conference has now ended for me; however, if I want to check back in and gather more resources, chat with attendees from other time zones, or post a blog, the virtual doors are open all night long—and available on demand through mid-May.


As I leave the virtual conference environment, I wonder – what expectations do we usually have for conferences?  Does a virtual conference actually meet or exceed those expectations?  Interesting and informative speakers – check.  Loads of giveaways – check.  Time to chat with old and new friends –  check. The freedom to explore a wide range of relevant resources – check. Who needs a badge, anyway?



Close to 70 Cisco Networking Academy instructors from all over the state assembled in the University Union on October 18 for the annual MSDE Cisco Conference.  Looking out over the crowd, I tried to do a fair estimate of the average age of the attendees.  This was a diverse group of secondary and post-secondary instructors, representing brand-new programs as well as some of the longest-running Networking Academy programs in the nation.  Conclusion:  we are old!


This is a troubling observation on many levels, but not a surprising one. As the Cisco Academy Support and Training Center for our state, we are at the front line of the struggle to find and train new instructors when vacancies occur. Many of our programs, as is the case with many other Career and Technical programs, are “solo spots.” When an instructor leaves or retires, the program is in danger of leaving, too.  Fewer and fewer schools have the luxury of two or more instructors in the technology programs they offer.  More and more schools have trouble in locating and hiring new IT instructors.  Why?


The simplest culprit could be salaries: young IT professionals are well-rewarded in the business world.  But that’s not the whole story. IT-oriented Career and Technical programs like the Cisco Academy, Microsoft Academy, and Oracle Academy have been around for long enough that those young IT professionals today may well have been the high school Academy students of yesterday. Those students have moved through the IT education pathway from high school to college, and then into the post-grad world of work.  Why did they not choose to teach?  Why are they not choosing it now?


There's more than one way to work in IT - you can teach IT to other professionals. Photo Credit: University of Central Arkansas

There’s more than one way to work in IT – you can teach IT to other professionals. Photo Credit: University of Central Arkansas


There are no easy or comfortable answers to these questions.  Many of the Cisco students I taught are now post-grads, working in a variety of technology-related fields.  They still stay in touch; they do many things that gladden an old teacher’s heart, like sending me Facebook posts and endorsing me for a variety of skills on Linked In; not one, to my knowledge, is a teacher. What can be done to encourage bright young folks like these to choose teaching technology as a way of “doing” IT professionally?


Along the IT education pathway, as students begin to think about careers, job shadowing provides a valuable real-world experience. Why not job-shadow a teacher?  School systems invest a great deal of money in IT-oriented Career and Technical programs; why not develop internships with the colleges the graduates of those programs attend?  A student returning to teach within the school system he or she attended represents a great return on investment.


The most important benefit derived from increasing the number of young people choosing to teach technology is that intangible that separates good from great teachers:  passion.  Teaching the thing you love is the best of both worlds.  The work of communicating that passion for IT to another generation can be frustrating and challenging—but never boring.  We need to do a better job of presenting education as a viable career to young people who have the IT “bug.”  If we do, Cisco Academy conferences in the future will sport less gray hair!



This was a great summer for growing tomatoes—and for implementing new technology and innovation in professional development for Towson University’s Cisco Academy Support and Training Center.


With Cisco’s evolution to a new support and training structure now complete, Towson is free to explore new ways to meet the needs of instructors. Our traditional model of localized Maryland support can grow to include Cisco academy programs nationally and even globally.  With Cisco Academy curricula currently offered in over 160 countries and engaging over one million students, this presents a great opportunity.


New Cisco Curricula
Instructors’ needs are growing:  in January 2013, Cisco began the process of developing and releasing new curricula aligned to changing industry standards and certifications.  The first release was IT Essentials:  PC Hardware and Software 5.0, mapped to the latest CompTIA A+ certification objectives. Phased release of new CCNAv5 Routing and Switching courses began in June with Introduction to Networks, followed in early August by Routing and Switching Essentials.  The remaining CCNAv5 courses are slated for release in the November/December 2013 timeframe.  These new courses align to redesigned CCENT and CCNA certifications that take effect on October 1, 2013.  Both secondary and post-secondary academy programs face choices and challenges for the 2013-2014 school year:  particularly for college-based programs, transitioning from “old” to “new” curricula involves individualization of instruction in order to meet students’ needs.


Towson University’s Adaptation to Cisco’s Changes
Towson responded to these challenges over the summer with innovative instructional practices and technological upgrades.  All summer training integrated the “old” and “new” content and emphasized the use of transitional resources provided by Cisco.  Instructors in CCNA classes experienced a “flipped classroom” approach to the content; hands-on labs became the core of the training and the basis for classroom discussion.  Cisco’s NetSpace learning platform allows students and instructors to view and engage with curriculum via tablet PC or even smartphone, making preparation for the classroom a 24/7 possibility.  No boring PowerPoints for this group!


All instructor training provided by Towson’s support center utilizes a blended model.  After enrolling in a course, instructors move through a targeted content overview that includes readings, activities, and remote support.  Hands-on in-person training follows.  Instructors learn how to make application of knowledge the focus of their Cisco classrooms.  Workshops in instructional methods utilize alignment tools to help instructors embed Common Core and STEM standards in lessons.


Towson University’s NetLab
However, the greatest summer change, and the one that enables Towson to expand its support and training model exponentially, occurred in infrastructure.  Over the summer, Towson deployed a NetLab.  This is composed of physical routing and switching equipment with a server appliance “front end.”  To use it, an instructor logs in over the Internet, schedules lab use, “dials up” the desired lab, performs the lab, and logs out.  The equipment is scrubbed and ready for the next user.  This capability supports hands-on training that is completely remote yet completely “real”.


Netlab access provides hands-on lab experiences over the Internet. (Photo credit: Flickr)

Netlab access provides hands-on lab experiences over the Internet. (Photo credit: Flickr)

Was it a successful summer?  Enrollment in summer training increased by 20% over last year; instructors from as far away as Rhode Island participated; remote training and support capability moved to an exciting new level.  What we did on our summer vacation opens the door to new opportunities for the Cisco Academy Support and Training Center.



A roomful of people watch and listen as a presenter recites word-for-word the content of an interminable series of PowerPoint slides that attendees could read for themselves. Too often, this scene constitutes a “professional development opportunity.” However, the only thing being “developed” here is attendees’ ennui, as yet another “opportunity” is squandered.

Effective Professional Development

Effective professional development models effective instruction; attendees are participants, not observers. Activities allow participants to expand and experiment, conceptualize and create. It’s about producing results, not distributing handouts. Like good lessons, good PD should raise more questions than it answers.


Fortunately, trainers can leverage the power of technology to make professional development more individualized, interactive, and productive. Towson’s Cisco Academy Support & Training Center is redefining objectives, exploring new methods, and putting more of the power in participants’ hands.


Blended Delivery Model
Some training utilizes a “blended delivery” model: participants conduct independent overview and analysis of courses they will be teaching, guided by targeted readings, labs, activities, and webinars. After their independent work, participants are brought together to focus on instructional strategies and hands-on activities. Collaboration and sharing takes in-person training time to a new level; the PD experience actually models the classroom experience instructors hope to bring to their students.


Image credit:  chelmsfordpubliclibrary

Image credit: chelmsfordpubliclibrary


Totally-Remote Training
Totally-remote training faces one huge obstacle: how to replicate hands-on activities in a virtual environment. For Cisco instructors, practicing IT skills through hands-on labs is critical. How can Towson’s support and training facility meet the practical needs of instructors in classrooms located all over the country? One answer will come from implementing NDG’s NetLab solution this summer. Physical networking equipment needed for hands-on labs will be housed on campus. A server-based application provides a “front end” for instructors to access the equipment over the Internet, schedule practice times, and run labs. The application then “scrubs” the equipment for the next user.


Image credit: ciscosaudi

Image credit: ciscosaudi

This approach reflects the reshaping of the entire Cisco curriculum, learning platform, and Academy community structure that has been taking place over the past year. In Cisco’s new NetSpace environment, Academy courses are less scripted and more modular, allowing instructors to create unique instructional flows to meet their students’ needs. Instructors can create individualized professional development plans and choose from a menu of web-based training offerings to complete them. Social media, blogs, and forums allow instructors and students to form “communities of interest” to share understandings and to explore problems.


In all of these examples, the shift of “PD power” is obvious: participants have the ability to shape, focus, and define their training to suit their needs. This kind of professional development actually “develops” some very important professional traits—creativity, experimentation, a sense of discovery—that will serve these instructors well in the classroom.



It is the eternal “Catch-22” of being young and trying to get a start on a career: every potential employer says you are a great candidate, but you cannot be hired because you lack experience. How can you get that experience if you cannot even get in the door?


One way to beat the “lack of experience” challenge lies in gaining an industry certification while still in high school. Walking into a job interview with proof of certification in one’s pocket immediately puts a job applicant one step above non-certified candidates.


Photo credit: Flickr user Susanne13

Photo credit: Flickr user Susanne13


That little piece of paper validates that the possessor has demonstrated mastery of the most up-to-date skills in a career field that may be rapidly changing. Consider the IT industry: giants like CompTIA and Cisco regularly revise their industry certification examinations to reflect every new skill required in the field. A valid certification truly is “industry standard.”


Pursuing and achieving an industry certification allows high school students to acquire and practice some of the most critical college and career-readiness skills, such as critical thinking, focusing, and the ability to prioritize. Most certification tests occur in high-stress, timed environments: radically different from the typical high school test. Preparing and sitting for a certification examination is a reality check for a young person’s career aspirations. Few experiences can reinforce the concept of “no pain, no gain” better than persevering through the A+ or CCENT test, and few can build more pride and self confidence.


Gaining an industry certification signals to both potential employers and prospective colleges that this is a young person who is not afraid of challenges. That certification paper says, “Here is someone who is thinking ahead, who can set and achieve goals, who can bring initiative and commitment to the table.” The proof is in the paper!



Those of us who still remember a world before digital communications may recall the thousands of notes that passed between students in class:


“Hey! What’s new with you?”
“Hi. Nothing much. How about you?”
“Not much here either.”


Not very enlightening. And of course, the horror of horrors, the shame of exposure: “Miss Smith, you’ve been very busy writing today while the rest of us were reading this chapter. Why don’t you share what you’ve written with the rest of the class?”


Young people do have an urge to connect, to share experiences, to validate their feelings—preferably with others in their age group. Even if those moments of connection are nothing more than a verbal “ping,” the digital equivalent of “Hey! What’s new with you?” the urge is compelling. With cellphones and texting, satisfying the urge is now easier than ever.


In most classrooms, there exists a tug of war between teacher and students about controlling the use of cellphones. Schools post “No Cellphones” warning signs, students sign “no phone use” behavior contracts, and instructional time is lost every day engaging in endless battles over cellphone infractions. Young people, on the other hand, have become absolute wizards at one-digit surreptitious “texting while learning.”


There are no winners in this war.


Image credit: alamy.com

Image credit: alamy.com


Why don’t we try a different approach? Why not welcome the cellphone and its technology into the classroom, and instead of casting it as a weapon in a generational war, harness its power and use it to support learning?


This does not mean giving up on having rules in the classroom concerning proper use of cellphones. However, imagine how the atmosphere in the classroom would change if students and teachers worked together to develop innovative ways to use cellphone capabilities! Try these as examples:

  • Homework via cellphone video: the teacher sends a video “challenge” to students, and each student shoots a short video “answer.” This is not pie-in-the-sky: the new Cisco Networking Academy NetSpace learning platform supports this use of cellphone video.
  • Instant capture of great ideas: students take cellphone pictures of notes from whiteboards, or of problems to solve on their own. Particularly for students with poor handwriting skills, the picture truly is worth a thousand attempts to reproduce the handwritten words.

Every good teacher understands that a collaborative classroom is a productive classroom. When students view their classroom as a place where they and their teacher are working together to explore and learn, they are far less likely to engage in passing digital notes in class. Why don’t we start asking our students to help us develop productive uses of this powerful technology, instead of battling over its use?

Nancy Null

Nancy Null

Who should go to college?  Who has the best chance of earning a degree?  Ask many folks that question and they will tell you students who take Advanced Placement courses in high school are the best prepared to be successful in college.

It isn’t that simple. Perhaps the better question should be what are the best predictors of student success in the transition from secondary to post-secondary education?  They’re the same predictors of success in careers:  productive work habits, creativity and innovation, communications skills, and critical thinking.

Students learn in different ways and not all benefit from  sitting in chairs listening to lectures.  Many  learn by engaging in active education; they learn by doing.

It’s time we viewed “college and career readiness” as a singular, central building block to a multiple-choice future, not as two separate sets of skills and standards.  Compare the Common Core State Anchor Standards in Language Arts to the Career Ready Practices of the Common Career and Technical Core, and this becomes obvious.  Research strategies, written and verbal communications, critical thinking and reasoning, perseverance, organization and management, and the productive use of technology dominate both sets of standards.

Today’s high-performing Career and Technical Education (CTE) student just may possess the best skillset for college success.  CTE programs apply mathematics, science, and language in complex and demanding ways; students prepare for and sit for industry certifications that adults find challenging.  Which requires the larger commitment:  simply taking an AP class; or completing 1500 hours of professional work beyond classwork, and earning a professional certification?

Many secondary students decide to ground their long-term goal—doctor, teacher, engineer–in a CTE program of study that provides them opportunities to “try on” that profession and gain practical experience prior to college work.  The high school graduate of a Biotechnology, Teacher Academy, or Pre-Engineering CTE program acquires and practices the academic, technical, and workplace skills that constitute “college and career readiness.”  These students already understand the primary fact of our changing career landscape: truly successful people are committed to lifelong learning.

The value of AP courses is not necessarily over-rated; the AP pathway can lead to enormous benefits for dedicated, high-achieving students who want to get a head start on college.  High school students who post high GPAs when taking AP courses, and who pass the AP exams, are definitely well on the way to college and career success.  However, high school students who post high GPAs when taking rigorous CTE programs are equally attractive candidates.  If colleges truly seek a diverse, energetic student population who has the potential to become the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, they should actively recruit both groups of students.  The Towson University Center for Professional Studies (CPS) has partnered with the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) to strengthen professional development for instructors in the CTE programs.  We understand the value that these men and women play is working with the next generation workforce. 

After all, the goal is not “college” and “career” readiness; it’s “college and career” readiness!

Today’s CTE students learn advanced business planning and project management skills.  Culinary students run large-scale catering operations, and Cosmetology students manage customer services in salon and spa environments.

Today’s CTE students learn advanced business planning and project management skills. Culinary students run large-scale catering operations, and Cosmetology students manage customer services in salon and spa environments.

Nancy Null

Ask any employer or college professor which characteristics support success in work or learning, and the answers will be similar:  communications skills, critical thinking skills, and project management skills will be at or near the top of any list.

One example of a local high school Career and Technology program helping to build those skills is the Cisco Networking Academy at Friendship Academy of Science and Technology (F.A.S.T.), located in Highlandtown.  Willie J. Sanders, Jr., the Cisco Academy instructor, describes the way his students learn and practice real-world life skills.

F.A.S.T. takes a real world approach to preparing its students for career and college readiness.  In addition to teaching high school students advanced computer hardware, software and networking skills, F.A.S.T. requires them to perform professional tasks related to the industry.

Colorful graphics enhance the Academy classroom.

One such project currently underway is the building of a computer lab in the lower level of the school. This is the sort of project implemented by many networking academies, but what makes this particular project unique is that students at F.A.S.T are mirroring the business side of a networking project.

A class of 11th and 12th grade Cisco Academy advanced tech students forms the project team. The team elected a student project manager to lead them. Together they analyzed actual school system IT proposals for the lab, which helped them identify the key elements and structure of a professional proposal document.

The student project manager assigned roles based on student interest, and the team is working diligently on designing solutions for the school’s proposed lab. This has included everything from designing blue prints of possible lab layouts, to performing cost analyses, to assisting the school’s administration in purchasing decisions.

The goal of this project is to create tech and business-savvy IT professionals. Project- based learning like this places the students of F.A.S.T. at an advantage as they enter college IT programs and the work force.

Today’s high school graduate enters a rapidly changing world, where their future employment and learning opportunities may be based on career choices that don’t even exist today.  The communications, critical thinking, and project management skills F.A.S.T.’s Cisco Academy students are learning and practicing will serve them well!

Students explore their creative as well as technical interests.