Global telecommunications firm Alcatel Inc. has created a cost-free, vendor-neutral course that teaches networking fundamentals to high school students.

Offered at no cost to schools, the course–called Fundamentals of Communications–introduces students to the impact of networking in the workplace; the global direction of voice, video, and data convergence; and the value of information technology in the market place.

“Coming from an education background, I really wanted something that could be for every district–and not having to pay for it was tops on my list,” said Greg Kovich, North American education director for Alcatel and former technology director of the Munster, Ind., school district.

Unlike similar courses offered by Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems–which have enjoyed great success in high schools as the need for high-tech workers continues to increase–Alcatel’s course is vendor-neutral, so students learn broad industry standards rather than a single company’s product.

“If you bought a car and you could only buy gas from the dealer where you bought the car, it kind of limits the potential of that car,” Kovich said.

Fundamentals of Communications “actually developed from a focus group of key customers in education,” he said. After working with various educators, the company decided to leverage its expertise in data and voice networks to create a course for high school students.

“We already had classes set up to train our customers on networking and how to configure [networks],” Kovich said. “We knew that we could leverage our engineering expertise to help educators take their students to the next level.”

After successfully piloting the course in a south Philadelphia high school, Alcatel is ready to expand the program to 20 schools across the country.

Saint Maria Goretti High School For Girls, a Catholic tuition-based school in south Philadelphia, has been offering Alcatel’s Fundamentals of Communications course to 21 students since September.

Mary Ellen Kelly, who teaches the Alcatel program at Saint Maria Goretti, was attracted to Alcatel’s program because it addressed networking, was vendor-neutral, and could be completed in one year.

“We are looking for innovative programs here. We want to encourage women in technology,” said Kelly, who added that the course has boosted her students’ confidence.

Alcatel supplies a textbook binder divided into 39 modules, as well as a supplemental CD-ROM that is narrated and shows diagrams. Kelly said she spends two class periods on each module.

Alcatel’s Fundamentals of Communications is a theoretical class that looks at networking from a simplistic view. “We take the students though all sorts of communication and let them understand all levels of communication,” Kovich said.

The course content begins by explaining drum beats and smoke signals to teach the point that mankind has always wanted to communicate, Kovich said. By the end of the program, students will understand the implementation and use of telephones, data switching, local area networks, virtual private networks, fibre optics, and other topics.

“When the students come away from the course, they may not be able to configure routers and switches,” Kovich said, but they will understand and be able to communicate intelligently about networks. “We’re not trying to make Alcaltel engineers.”

When students eventually enter the work force, he said, they will be able to “effectively manage their technology staff” and “leverage technology infrastructure to satisfy their business goals.”

Alcatel also provides two guest lecturers during each semester, a field trip to a networking site, two days of training for the course instructor, tips of the day, and optional networking equipment, which Alcatel plans to offer either free or with steep discounts.

“You don’t need networking equipment to do this class,” Kovich said. “But if you would like to go from theory to the hands-on, then you would need some equipment.”

Now that the pilot at Saint Maria Goretti has come full term, the company is trying the program in 20 different schools across the country.

Kovich told eSchool News that Alcatel has selected only half of the 20 schools so far. School administrators interested in Alcaltel’s Fundamentals of Communications program should call (800) 995-2612 for information about how to participate.