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Universities Respond to Growing Demand With Custom-Designed Technology Programs

February 1999
By Michelle L. Hankins

Shortages of available, technically skilled employees influence curricula, while colleges battle the challenge of keeping coursework up-to-date.

The rapid advancement of technology is causing continuous change in academic institutions tasked with preparing the work force of the next century. An incessant and increasing need for technically proficient personnel has placed a burden on institutions of higher education, demanding that they produce employees who can handle information technology systems that now permeate virtually every aspect of the business world.

To accomplish this task, colleges and universities must keep pace with today’s technology while anticipating what will come tomorrow. This challenge is leading universities to integrate innovative teaching methods and update degree courses and offerings.

At universities, professors and administrators echo their greatest challenge within academics: keeping up. No longer is education about teaching students the technology they need to know and use. Now, there is a requirement to couple a foundation of theoretical knowledge and use of current technology with an ability for continuous learning upon which students may constantly build as the field changes.

To address this challenge, educators are using alternative instructional methods to supplement the conventional classroom and textbook methods. Universities are rethinking traditional methods of learning and are engineering distance education programs that offer flexibility for advanced students who often balance work and home life along with their education. Recognized technical experts are being called in to provide information to students and to advise professors and departments as they develop a curriculum. Courses are being reevaluated and changed constantly to fit the needs of students.

One university adopting educational programs to prepare the current work force for uses of technology is Marlboro College. The school’s advanced degree program, called The Graduate Center, moved into its Brattleboro, Vermont, facility in September 1997, enrolled its first students last January and graduated its first class last December.

Students enrolled in the center’s programs receive an intensive education in Internet strategies and technologies for incorporation in business and educational settings.

Paul LeBlanc, the center’s founder and president, maintains that the program was launched to meet the demand for people who are specifically trained to lead Internet strategies. In developing the program, LeBlanc consulted with industry professionals to assess their needs. Among industry executives he found a lack of both a developed Internet strategy and a specific person tasked to design such a plan.

Often, LeBlanc says, businesses operate with internal expertise in a compartmentalized way. Each person specializes in one area that could contribute to an Internet strategy as a whole; however, no single person is capable of integrating every aspect of the business for a purposeful strategy. LeBlanc’s goal was to create a program with a single-minded focus, providing graduates with a macro-level knowledge that could be used to incorporate multiple areas of expertise toward a business Internet strategy.

The center currently offers two degrees: a master of science in Internet strategy management and a master of arts in teaching with Internet technologies. It will add another degree, a master of science in Internet engineering, this fall.

LeBlanc describes these programs as a “hybrid educational solution.” Geared toward working professionals, the program provides schedule flexibility by offering courses through a pseudo-distance learning atmosphere. The program is a mix of on-line interaction through chat rooms and electronic mail combined with classes every other weekend to provide hands-on learning at the center’s facility. Students also use the World Wide Web to post work on-line.

The courses at The Graduate Center are taught by working professionals that LeBlanc characterizes as being on the cutting edge of their field. Through a regimented 10-course program locked into three trimesters, students can obtain, in one year, a master’s degree that combines strategy perspectives with practical technical experience and knowledge.

Designed specifically to provide a cross-disciplinary education, students receive training and education that include strategic project planning, foundations of technology management, legal and ethical Internet issues, effective web site design, marketing and network systems. A capstone project completes the degree.

Most of the students currently enrolled in the program are employed across a range of fields varying from graphic design to law to health care. The center began its first classes with 24 students and will grow to six times that number, educating an estimated 160 students in its third year of operation.

LeBlanc admits the biggest challenge in providing this type of technology degree involves keeping the curriculum current. An advisory board of high-level business executives and experts feed their knowledge and ideas into the program to keep curricula up-to-date. The center offers a program that is characterized by “agility and responsiveness,” LeBlanc says.

For the future, the center’s administrators are considering a fully on-line version of the program that could be offered to students worldwide. Initial plans include locations in the Asia-Pacific region. Through the master’s in teaching with Internet technologies program, LeBlanc also hopes to extend the skills gleaned by center students to the high school level. Still a relatively new program, there is “a pioneering spirit among students in the class,” LeBlanc says.

At American University (AU), “There is a real demand for MBA (master of business administration) students learning how to use technology in the area in which they want to work,” according to Marketing Professor Gary Ford. Ford teaches at AU’s business administration school in Washington, D.C.

Similar to the programs at Marlboro, AU calls in professionals from the field to team-teach courses and present the most current information and practices to students. Ford is partnering with outside businesses such as Virginia-based Claritas Incorporated to add knowledge of industry software and training to the educational experience. Representatives from Claritas provide a software license to the university at a reduced cost and then prepare the teaching materials for the software. Executives from America Online, Dulles, Virginia, are also part of other team-teaching efforts at AU that are bringing industry expertise to current and future technology employees.

Courses at the university provide database knowledge and marketing strategies as well as information about how to best manage the Internet for business use. Five classes in conjunction with the program are offered through a series of sessions that last approximately seven weeks, instead of the typical 15-week programs that most universities offer.

About one-third of the students enter the program with undergraduate degrees in business, while the remainder are from a variety of other disciplines. Approximately 40 percent of the students are foreign-born.

Ford agrees with most university officials that one of the academic environment’s greatest challenges is keeping up with the pace of technology. “Staying current in an area that’s moving so fast,” Ford says, is difficult in an environment in which it takes time to gather educational materials. “Things you have discovered may be out-of-date before you teach them to students,” he admits. Ford believes this will remain the biggest issue for educators of technology students.

To address this issue, professors keep informed about trends that are being discussed in the business press and include these materials in courses, Ford notes. The department maintains a relationship with various trade associations relating to such topics as electronic commerce. Guest speakers are often invited into classes, and speaking events with executives provide up-to-date information from those in the field. “Not only do the students learn, but the faculty learns,” Ford contends.

At the University of Rochester in New York, the Center for Electronic Imaging Systems is what center Associate Director Michael Kriss deems a “catalytic center” offering leading-edge research in electronic and imaging systems.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the New York State Science and Technology Foundation, whose funds are matched by corporate grants, support the center. NSF’s recent $500,000 grant will allow for the addition of five courses and two laboratories as well as improvements to nine existing courses. Many of the courses include topics such as the physics of color imaging, digital video and photography, computer vision and virtual reality, medical imaging, display technology and image transmission.

Unlike many other college programs, the courses are being offered to undergraduates regardless of their degree program. Students may receive a concentration in electronic imaging that would allow them to receive a master’s degree by their fifth year. To do this, the center pulls course study from many departments.

Apart from being a research hub, the center maintains a strong relationship with industry through special interest groups and a business innovation team. Through this team, the university provides an opportunity for both small and large businesses to develop and test new technologies. This has proven to be a valuable resource, particularly for small businesses as they turn to universities for necessary expertise that might otherwise be out of reach because of budget and staff restrictions, school officials offer.

Business powerhouses are benefiting from the innovation team, too. Often, they use the research and development resources of the university as a second test for their technologies or to outsource certain projects.

Special interest groups at the university provide outreach efforts through seminars and other technical events that are often open to the public. Industry experts speak at these events.

Kriss says the center’s goal is to produce “a person with a master’s degree with a very rich set of tools.” The program is designed to create a solid structure of core requirements. Basic knowledge of mathematics, physics and programming are a requirement along with staying current in the field.

Industry, he says, has a huge stake in university programs. They are dependent on academic institutions for qualified, capable employees that lead to their business success.

 

Academia Offers a Research Gold Mine for Small Businesses

With a staff of about 115, Trek Incorporated, a small business in Medina, New York, is finding nearby universities a valuable resource for its technology development needs. The 30-year-old company recently turned to the University of Rochester for solutions about producing electronics technology that could compete with the cheaper costs of a similar foreign-produced product.

Jerzy Kieres, engineering and research and development manager, notes that there are benefits for small businesses that utilize universities to fulfill their research and development needs. The university provides faculty and students, often graduates and doctorate degree candidates, with the basic knowledge and experience to test the technology. Kieres believes this is a win-win situation for universities and small businesses. Students receive practical experience in the field, while businesses avoid the burden of maintaining entire expensive departments of specialists to accomplish the same tasks that the universities are capable of conducting.

The company also works closely with local universities to provide co-operative educational opportunities to qualified students. Kieres points out that several of the company’s current employees have come from these programs. He believes what students need is a combination of the theoretical knowledge in their field along with an understanding of the practical tools and technology required to complete a job.

In working with universities on any level, Kieres believes success comes from clearly defining the objectives of the business and keeping regular correspondence with the university as it fulfills the needs of the company. Whether it is for meeting research and development demands or for supplying future employees, “small businesses need to realize that help is there,” Kieres says. “Somehow both sides need to know they exist, and that they can be useful to each other.”