Re-skilling through the Open University to get into IT

Ian Kelly, a 34-year-old IT specialist, is preparing to take the next step in his career, and turned to the Open University to improve his skills.

Ian Kelly, a 34-year-old IT specialist, is preparing to take the next step in his career.

From his LinkedIn profile, Kelly took an HND in computing as a mature student at the University of Plymouth and held a variety of posts as a sound engineer, working at smaller and larger gigs around the country. He says: “I gave that up, did some travelling and reassessed what I wanted to do.” 

He came to London and through The Leadership Recruitment scheme from Scope, got a job on the Olympics in HR, then moved to City Hall, before landing a job at Lehman Brothers in technology just as the investment bank went bust.

By now it was 2009. The UK was in recession and Kelly faced a year out of work. He recalls that no work came up due to the credit crunch: “I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I have always wanted to work in IT.” 

However, like many people trying to break into the industry, Kelly faced the problem of lack of experience - most jobs required some level of experience: “If you don’t have the experience, you can’t get a job. So I was looking for anything to get some experience.”

Kelly finally got an opportunity working for the Thomas Poplington Trust. He started as a recruiter for volunteers. But while there he also managed the IT at the Trust's resource centre in Balham, which had six computers. “Once a month I maintained the computers and began gaining a bit of experience,” he says.

Kelly wanted to work full-time, but he secured another part-time job as a technician at Joseph Clarke School, working 15 hours a week supporting 150 users.

During Christmas 2010, he decided he needed to get training: “I wanted to do a CCNA [Cisco Network Associate], but the two-week training courses are very expensive, and there is probably a steep learning curve in a two-week course. So I chose the Open University’s CCNA course, through the Cisco academy, which lasted about seven months.” 

Kelly says he could not take two weeks off to do any of the expensive intense training courses. But he has spent many weekends and evenings studying. He uses online material, Flash movies and online quizzes to support the training.

The Open University use theses quizzes as part of its assignments. Kelly says: “You also get access to a tool called packet tracer, which lets you simulate networks on a PC, so you can configure and practice setting up a network.” 

He took this one step further and actually acquired a Cisco 2950 24-port switch on eBay: “For a couple of hundred quid you can pick up some used kit on eBay, log into it, and get some hands-on experience, such as putting three routers, one on top of the other and figuring out how to wire them up.”

Through the Open University course Kelly also had access to a networks lab at Kingston University with real routers and switches, where teams of students worked as a group to plug-in the routers and configure the test networks.

Passing the CCNA means maintaining an average of 83% in the assessments, which is quite high, Kelly admits. But the course has equipped him with skills he is now applying at work. For instance, he is using the CCNA skills at Joseph Clarke School to upgrade the network to gigabit Ethernet.

The training has also helped him secure another job: “My brother told me the Media Trust was advertising for an IT post in August 2011, while I was finishing off my CCNA. This was my break to get into an organisation with decent technology like Exchange Server.” 

He is now supporting 90 staff, who are heavy users of IT. And if something does need changing, rather than having to follow step-by-step instructions, he has the knowledge to understand how to fix certain issues, such as re-hashing the access list on a Cisco router.

Kelly is also keen to expand his training. He says: “I want to sign up to a Cisco Network Professional (CCNP). It is kind of degree level, which goes beyond the CCNA foundation.”

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Surely this article is more of an advertisement for CCNA that it is the Open University. I too looked to the OU in search of courses that would update my skill set.

What I found however, were really outdated subjects on technologies that were replaced a long time ago. For example, their main web development module is centred on Microsoft Classic ASP - this is no longer supported by Microsoft and was replaced with ASP.NET around 12 years ago. The Windows Server admin module also teaches Windows Server 2000 - again 12 years old, replaced ~3 editions ago and no longer supported by Microsoft.

I fear for the less well-informed, because they may enter into these courses with both time and money in the hope that it will equip them with the skills the market needs. Unfortunately this is not the case and in fact will only teach them technologies that were the norm over a decade ago.

I contacted the OU to ask them if they had any plans to update their course content and they quite happily confirmed that there are no plans for a syllabus refresh.

It is great that the person in the article studied and passed for his CCNA, but that could have been done outside of the OU quite easily. I have studied and passed a number of Microsoft, Oracle, Sun (RIP), OMG exams just through books and online material - it is all quite possible!

Potentional students beware - the OU may have a number of great courses outside IT, but be careful you are not paying good money for something that will render you useless as the end of it.