PRISM Magazine On-Line  -  January 2000

By David Brindley

Keeping IT Real

Computer science enrollments are booming—they more than doubled between 1995 and 1998, accoIllustration by Hal Mayforthrding to the Computing Research Association. But corporate technology managers fret that this influx may not help refill the shallow IT talent pool, because too many college grads aren't ready for swimming in the deep end. They aren't entrepreneurial and don't understand the strategic and commercial applications of technology, businesses say, which is worrisome because of the rapid growth of e-commerce. Many IT schools have listened and learned, however, and they're now working with business on new curricula aimed at producing graduates who can speak in plain English as well as in Java.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha just opened its $70 million Peter Kiewit Institute with the stated goal of "collaborating with business," says Terry Corcoran, spokesperson. Its corporate backers read like a blue-chip who's who: IBM, US West, Boeing and Union Pacific to name a few. A key factor is giving students real-world exposure and experience through internships, experts-in-residence and seminars featuring top executives. Seminar topics include socializing, teamwork, conflict resolution and job interviewing.

Further east, Penn State recently opened its School of Information Sciences and Technology. Nestled among its core curriculum are courses in leadership skills, teamwork and communications. "It's very similar to what our business school teaches its MBAs," says Charles C. DuBois, spokesman. Among its corporate partners are Microsoft, Lucent, Lockheed, Procter & Gamble, and AT&T. "They've been telling us what they wanted and we've listened," he adds.

Some educators have sought to fill the gap and make a buck, too. A number of for-profit tech schools sympathetic to business needs have also opened their doors, including the Center for Business Information Technologies in New York, and the NIIT Academy, in Atlanta.

But the skills shortage may slow this trend as well. Schools say it's hard to find qualified teachers, especially since the most talented are often lured by the big money to be had outside of academia. "The market is very competitive," admits DuBois. Penn State has so far gotten the people it needs by paying top salaries underwritten by endowments. And the businesses signing those fat endowment checks probably aren't complaining. If it helps fill the skills gap, it's a valuable investment.

Virtual Course Makeovers

The promise of high technology is greater efficiency and lower costs. But within academia, that has not always been the case. For many schools, computer technologies "represent a black hole of additional expense" as schools try to keep up with the latest equipment, according to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Center for Academic Transformation. Most schools don't put computers to their best use, and instead "have bolted on new technologies to a fixed plant, a fixed faculty and a fixed notion to classroom instruction."

To help solve that conundrum, the center is administrating a Pew grant program in course redesign. The $6 million, three-year program will issue 10 awards annually, of about $200,000. Recipient schools will each redesign a course using technology to cut costs and increase student retention.

Among the 10 first-round projects that began this fall, Pennsylvania State University is redesigning its Elementary Statistics course to make it interactive and provide more hands-on experience and one-on-one assistance for students. The plan should result in a 30 percent reduction of the cost per student, from about $176 to $123.

Meanwhile, the State University of New York at Buffalo is reconfiguring its Computer Literacy course by decreasing the number of lectures per week from three to two, and adding Web-based collaborative learning projects and tests, as well as face-to-face help in labs supported by undergraduate learning assistants. The school is also testing two redesign strategies, which should result in 54 or 60 percent cost reductions.

Most of the courses up for a virtual makeover are large, introductory classes with high enrollments. It's reckoned to be easier to reach the most students in these courses. Also, most intro courses use standardized curricula and, because they are often considered fairly ineffectual, there's plenty of room for improvement and cost-cutting.

Now, if they can only program a few bad jokes into each cyber-lecture.

New and Notable
The New New Thing

The New New ThingIn The New New Thing, Michael Lewis chronicles the exploits of Jim Clark, the Stanford computer science professor — and hero to many  entrepreneurial-minded engineers — who created Silicon Graphics and  helped start Netscape.

Here is an excerpt:

    "At some point in the early 1990s the engineers had figured out they didn't need to build new computers to get rich. They just had to cook up new things for the computers to do. The thrill was in the concepts; the concepts were the recipes. The notion of what constituted "useful" work had broadened. All across Silicon Valley you found office buildings crammed with young technogeeks cooking up recipes that they hoped would turn the economy on its ear. The role model for this activity was Jim Clark."

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