University of New Orleans computer science professor Irfan Ahmed has received a 2-year $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to study how peer instruction techniques can improve cybersecurity education. Unlike the traditional lecture approach to teaching, peer instruction encourages every student to actively participate in discussions with fellow students.

Cybersecurity is one of the most strategically important areas of computer science, but also one of the most difficult to teach effectively, according to Ahmed. The vast majority of cybersecurity failures are the result of poor understanding of the security landscape and an inability to adapt to new threats, he said.

“We hope that peer instruction will be effective in improving learning outcomes in class and creating a mindset necessary for combating ever-evolving and more sophisticated cyber-attacks,” said Ahmed, an assistant professor of computer science and the grant’s principal investigator. “This will help students to develop the outside-the-box thinking that takes into account the incentives and capabilities of both the attacker and the defender.”

In a peer instruction classroom, lecture is interspersed with multiple choice questions, which are designed to provoke deep conceptual thinking in students and engage them in meaningful discussion with their peers. This approach has shown some promising results in computer science by reducing failure rates and improving retention in the major. But the current focus has been limited to theoretical and introductory programming courses.

According to Ahmed, there are substantial differences between teaching a standard computer science course and an advanced cybersecurity course. In this project, Ahmed, along with UNO computer science faculty members Vassil Roussev and Golden Richard, and Stanford University’s Cynthia B. Lee, will develop and evaluate the effectiveness of peer instruction methodology for cybersecurity education.

A number of sectors—including the military, law enforcement and private industry— will benefit from a larger, highly skilled cybersecurity workforce, particularly in light of recent trends that show an increased number of sophisticated cyber-attacks.