IT Professionals Find a Home in the Higher Ed Classroom
Donnie Grimes wears two big hats at the University of the Cumberlands, a small college in Williamsburg, Ky., with 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
His busy days find him serving as the university’s vice president of information services, a role for which he supervises a team of 17 IT and help desk personnel. He also oversees day-to-day IT activities and evaluates and manages the rollout of technology. Recently, he directed the rollout of a next-generation security solution consisting of FortiGate 1500D and 100D firewalls from Fortinet and a virtualized FortiAnalyzer that aggregates incident logs for reporting purposes.
Beyond that, Grimes also is dean of the School of Computer and Information Sciences, where he oversees 20 staff members and 400 students, developing new academic programs and teaching a range of courses, including business intelligence, graduate-level information systems security and cryptography.
“It helps to be a workaholic,” he laughs. “The other key is to have really, really good people who I can delegate to.”
Why Grimes chooses to perform double duties is much simpler: He can’t choose between two unique passions. “I love technology, and I love to teach.”
Grimes began his career at the University of the Cumberlands as a professor of software engineering, business intelligence and networking. He later began working in IT, first as networking director. Through it all, he continued to teach.
“Being in the field of IT and in academics is really beneficial to both areas,” he says. “Because I am on the cutting edge of technology and I’m using it on a daily basis, it allows me to take that experience directly to the students so it becomes much more relevant and exciting to them. At the same time, being in the educational realm, I understand the challenges of professors and students and how they use IT in the classroom, so that informs my IT responsibilities and decisions.”
Lessons from the Front Lines of Higher Ed IT
Grimes finds himself on the leading edge of a growing trend: IT personnel taking their day-to-day knowledge, skills and perspective into the classroom.
CIOs and other IT brass have encouraged their staff members to become part-time teachers, and not just as a way to share the latest in IT practices with students. Spending time in the classroom also improves the IT function, says Wayne Brown, founder of the Center for Higher Education CIO Studies.
Brown has doubled up at Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y. He is vice presi dent for IT and CIO but also teaches an IT management course to MBA students.
“I get to experience the same thing other faculty experience when they’re dealing with the technology that we put out,” he says, noting that half of his IT leadership team also teaches on the side. “I use the learning management system they use. I use the websites that they use. I see how students use devices and applications and systems, and any issues that they have with them. All that gives me a view of technology that I would not get if I didn’t teach.”
IT personnel who teach also provide students with a perspective that is much more dynamic than anything they might read in a textbook.
“Instructors who work with technology in a hands-on role really can do a better job teaching IT because they have an appreciation for how it works in the real world,” says Nels Ekornaas, senior network engineer at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Ill.
Ekornaas leads courses on Cisco Systems networking and PC hardware. “I can go beyond the curriculum and bring in real problems that we’re dealing with right now and discuss our solutions, along with the politics and budgetary issues that are often at play,” he says.
As an example, Ekornaas points to a course focused on wireless networking.
“It goes into how to manage a network with a single access point, but I go much further and explain the state of things right now and how our IT department uses a controller-based solution where one piece of hardware can control up to 500 wireless access points,” he says. “That is really important in this field because if a student walks into an organization today, that’s the type of technology that they’re going to see and be expected to know.”
Matt Adkins, manager of the Microsoft infrastructure team at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and an instructor for face-to-face and online systems administration and database administration courses, agrees that technology curricula, no matter how often refreshed, cannot keep up with front-line realities.
“I bring real-world examples into the discussion, with tales of, ‘Hey, here’s what actually happened just last night, and here’s how we dealt with it,’ ” Adkins says. “I’m loaded with those types of examples, to the point that I have to shut myself up at some point because I could go on and on.”
For instance, the textbook for his systems administration course touches on the issue of availability as if it’s an occasional issue for IT personnel. “In the real world, systems administrators are constantly concerned about availability,” Adkins says. “I reiterate that reality every week: ‘This is how you deploy this solution to make sure that it’s fault-tolerant and highly available.’ ”
'There’s a big difference between practicing technology and teaching it'
Teaching can provide IT personnel with personal benefits beyond job satisfaction. Ekornaas says that teaching makes him a better, more knowledgeable networking engineer.
“There’s a big difference between practicing technology and teaching it,” he says.
The first time Ekornaas tried to teach the process of subnetting, he says, “I was horrible at it, and my students ended up totally confused. So, I re-examined how I approach the topic, and every class since then, I’ve had no problems teaching it. I’m probably better at subnetting in my regular job because I’ve organized my thoughts around it for teaching.”
Adkins says that being a professor provides him with the fulfillment and excitement of sharing what he knows.
“As a tech guy, I’m like a hermit in a cave, but now I get to venture out and spend time with students, and I really love it,” he says, adding that he sometimes dreams about going into teaching full-time. “These students are the fruits of my labor. They’re the ones we’re all working so hard for, and it makes what I do every day much more relevant and satisfying.”
Teaching also proves critical to career progression within higher education, and should be pursued by any IT employee who aspires to be a CIO or senior IT administrator, Brown advises.
“Teaching provides a common experience with faculty and students,” he says. “Usually there aren’t many IT people on the hiring committee. It’s faculty, students and people from other departments and, while you might not be full-time faculty, they’ll be impressed that you understand what they deal with and their mission.”