May 29 2018

New Multidisciplinary Program Bridges the Gap for Future IT Pros

Pittsburgh Technical College moves to integrate IT, information systems and security disciplines.

As the academic chair for the School of IT at Pittsburgh Technical College, I’ve always found it odd that traditional IT instruction often does not incorporate the real-world practices of industry. Not only should there be a stronger synergy between the campus and the professional field, but there should also be more consideration for how IT education is executed and taught. Tech employers often say they value graduates who received an education from multidisciplinary, STEM-focused institutions. 

However, it is increasingly common to silo IT disciplines through highly specialized degrees that deviate from this collective learning experience. It is even less common for students to receive the hands-on, applied instruction favored by advocates of “agile” approaches. For this type of strategy to work in industry, silos must be transparent so that innovation and synergies can exist. I believe the same is true for academics, especially if we want to educate students to think out of the box — or, as the old Apple advertisements suggested, “Think Different.”

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New PTC Program Combines IT, Security and Information Systems

When I completed my master’s degree in internet information systems, the computer information systems department at the university asked me if I wanted to teach an undergraduate class in networking, in part because I already served as a network administrator for its downtown campus. In preparing to teach, I noticed that the textbook examples, while relevant, did not mirror the experiences a professional would encounter circa 2002. Even though the labs were still true hardware labs with physical computers and switches, I understood that students needed more to be successful. Today, these same classes are taught using simulation software rather than physical hardware and network equipment. Even so, when I teach labs for these classes, I actually haul my own networking equipment with me to show students.

When working in industry, I rarely see an IT or software professional who works only in IT or software alone. Typically, professionals have multidisciplinary experience and expertise in a particular niche. I have seen too many institutions blow up these individual niches into major programs, but the downside is that students — when it’s time for them to graduate and find jobs — may be so niched that they lack a true understanding of the full market environment. I have always told my students that it’s important to be niched, but it’s equally important to understand the entire industry. Too often, School of IT departments split themselves into silos, with separate department heads overseeing IT, information systems and security.

At Pittsburgh Technical College (PTC), I wanted to create a bachelor’s program that would teach students the intersection of three disciplines: IT (hardware, networking and administration), network security (cyber forensics, governance) and information systems (programming, project management and design/business intelligence). The resulting degree is a B.S. in information systems and technology. Our first class entered the program in October 2017. 

Students Gain Hands-On Experience in Virtual Machine Solutions

Developing the right curriculum and hiring the right instructors were only two of many considerations we faced in developing this degree. We also wanted to ensure that students received a well-rounded education at the associate’s level, in their first two years leading up to the bachelor’s. Ultimately, we developed a partnership between PTC’s IT department (i.e., the administration and infrastructure side) and the School of IT — a partnership that came together naturally to bridge the gap between the classroom and industry. 

Previously, our associate’s degree in network administration used a traditional client server application for networking and hardware, using mostly MS Server and physical computer equipment. This included servers on racks, external removable hard drives and desktops within labs. Campus IT staff agreed to help the School of IT host a VMware server stack. Our current environment consists of 52 gigahertz of central processing units, 2.25 terabytes of RAM and 60 Tb of storage area networks on HPE Nimble. Our students gain significant experience in using this as a hands-on sandbox and applied learning tool. As one employer recently told me, “Most companies wish they had this environment for their own use.” 

From day one, all students in the School of IT have access to VMware and learn how to manage and troubleshoot a virtual network. Students engage with an internal Help Desk queue managed by the IT department. Faculty in our network security and computer forensics programs created a security lab environment outside of the VMware and PTC networks, where students can run malware and create real-life hacking scenarios

College Bridges Academic Knowledge and Industry Experience

We believe that investing in technology and partnering across disciplines are key for student success in the classroom and after graduation. Another initiative we created, a Software Development Club, gives students experience in developing games and other software, similar to the way projects get kicked off in industry. This also serves to bridge academic knowledge and industry norms, and I encourage all faculty members to use technologies in the classroom that will be relevant to what students will see in the field. For example, we have worked with Cisco Academy, Oracle, IBM and other companies, and we have created courses in cloud computing and the Internet of Things that give students access to multiple IoT devices. 

To succeed, initiatives like these require stakeholders to embrace shared objectives without letting egos interfere. For some institutions, bridging the gap between industry and academics may also require a culture shift. At PTC, our investment of time, effort and other resources pays clear dividends for our graduates. Their combination of classroom knowledge and hands-on experience lets them hit the ground running when they enter the workforce, and they are capable of using the same tools they have seen in our classrooms. With our first students graduating this spring, and our second cohort starting the program this fall, I feel confident they are receiving an IT/IS education that is stronger and more integrated.

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