It’s no secret that a flood of new technology is disrupting data centers everywhere, leaving CIOs scrambling to keep their organizations — and themselves — a step ahead of the innovation curve. But they’re not the only ones feeling the heat. Instructors of IT-related courses at colleges and universities are also diligently fighting to bring in the latest technology to keep their courses relevant and their students prepared for professional life. The question is, with the tech landscape changing so quickly, how can schools provide the hands-on instruction students need without breaking already tight budgets?
The answer for many institutions is alliance programs from hardware and software vendors, which donate technology for virtualization, cloud computing, Big Data and other key areas to campus computer labs.
Betsy Page Sigman, a distinguished teaching professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, augments her classes in data management and Big Data with technology provided by SAP, Splunk, Tableau Software and Qualtrics. Sigman is also the co-author, with Erickson Delgado, of the forthcoming second edition of Splunk Essentials.
“I want to make sure students are familiar with the current tools out there because the world of data is changing so fast,” she says.
Preparing Students for Their Careers
Many educational assistance programs provide more than just technology. The Splunk Academic Partner program, for example, supplements copies of open-source data collection and analysis software with classroom learning materials. EMC’s Academic Alliance offers technology and educational materials for server virtualization, storage and cloud computing. The NetApp Academic Alliances Program includes storage and data management technology, along with web-based courses and software simulators for students.
Industry experts say these programs fulfill an important need. “Colleges and universities can avail themselves of current and emerging tools that students will use once they enter the marketplace,” says Jim Flanagan, chief learning services officer at the International Society for Technology in Education. “For whatever careers students are preparing to enter, higher education should be a lab for exploring these new technologies. As long as students are made aware of the relationships behind the tools they’re using, it’s an awesome opportunity.”
Creating Win-Win Experiences
At Georgetown, Sigman uses Splunk to give undergraduate and MBA students hands-on experience managing large volumes of data. “Students learn how live-streaming data actually comes in from websites and apps, including the many different kinds of data generated by e-commerce sites,” she says. “I have them bring live Twitter feeds to their laptops so they can analyze the information.”
She calls vendor alliance programs a win for institutions, vendors and students alike. Colleges and universities can base courses on the latest and greatest technology, whereas vendors ensure a new crop of graduates will be familiar with their technology. But the biggest winners may be students themselves.
“By actually working with data, students develop a much better understanding than if they’re just learning from a book,” Sigman says. “As a result, students are more knowledgeable going into their internships. If they eventually go on to manage people in the workplace, their direct experience working with data can help them bridge the gap between the technical and the managerial worlds. The students who are thinking about a job after graduation are very appreciative of the opportunity.”
Promoting Workplace-Ready Skills
For the past five years, North Lake College, a two-year institution in Irving, Texas, has used VMware software and EMC applications from the EMC alliance program. NetApp has provided the college with data and storage management applications for about three years.
In both cases, the free technology supports two elective classes: one devoted to server virtualization and storage, the other to cloud computing, according to Gregory Newman, a faculty member and program coordinator. Together, the classes serve a critical need for talent that he sees in businesses everywhere. “The software that students work with is exactly what many commercial companies are running to support their business,” he says. “Students develop the multiple skill sets needed for virtualization, storage and cloud computing.”
The technology also supports the virtual computing lab Newman created to give students access to the software even if they’re not on campus. “As long as they have Internet access, students can access their lab assignments,” he says. “Learning doesn’t just happen on Monday and Wednesday nights when local students come to class. It happens every day of the week. I want them online in the virtual lab when they’re not in the class.”
Prioritizing Industry Alignment
This virtual instruction has had a ripple effect on enrollment. Newman says a number of international and distance-learning students are among the 100 people who take the courses each semester.
“My whole goal is for the person who’s in the Australian Outback who has a computer and Internet access to be able to take my courses and better himself,” Newman says. “Or, for the local mom who works eight hours a day to come home, jump online and retool her skills for cloud computing.”
Hands-on training is also making the program’s graduates more attractive to employers, Newman says. The courses have even attracted degreed students from four-year universities who didn’t have access to the new technology in their former curricula, he says.
“Education and industry have to be closely aligned,” Newman says. “Students must come out of college with the technology skills that industry wants on their resumes. If not, corporations will look to the global talent pool.”