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Overheard: Colleges, Computing and a Conundrum

At a time when highly-skilled tech jobs are going unfilled, U.S. colleges and universities are reviewing their approach to building IT and information system skills into undergraduate courses. David Rosenthal, the chair of the computing and decision sciences department in the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University, says students aren't flocking to career opportunities that need better promotion, but a bigger problem is lack of interest.

Your department at Seton Hall teaches information systems and quantitative courses in statistics, operations and research. Are students gravitating to these programs?
We wish that was more the case than it is. A trend that's been happening since 2003 or so is a decline in kids studying computer science and information systems. My notion is that it's starting to turn around a little. But it's not like the turn up is as sharp as the turn down was. I've heard anecdotally that, at other schools, it is getting better, that they are getting students to study or concentrate in computer science/information systems. We haven't seen that turnaround yet in our school.

A lot of industry speakers talk about the need for science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) talent for the modern economy, so why isn’t that translating to enrollments?
I can guess and I have searched through a lot of literature, but I do not have a good answer to that particular question. I know the same effect is seen in high schools as well as at the university. Some of my kids did take programming courses in high school, but the number of students from those classes is also much lower than in years prior. I don't know what was in the water and I don't have an explanation for it. While we do have a concentration for undergraduates in information systems, at the MBA level we've tried to expand who takes these courses by melding these courses with other functional areas.

How are you doing that?
For example, we've tied classes with a marketing curriculum. We have a course in sports management and I've taught a course in information technology in sports management. You try to take the application and mold it in with the technology and that's worked pretty well. We have had more students with majors in other functional areas pick up a minor in IS, and when they get out and look for a job, it’s another academic credential they can sell themselves by.

What about statistical and analytic skills generally?
We see those things as growth areas just like everybody else does and we're a little challenged because the math skills of a lot of kids aren't great, and it's not just about skills. They're also turned off by math like they seem to be with computer science and engineering in general. We try to make those things more palatable and interesting with learning that is more hands-on as opposed to just teaching them the formulas and proofs.

In a lab or tool session?
There is a mixed mode approach some institutions are pursuing that’s different than the traditional 75-minute lecture where I get behind a podium and write things on a board. That’s not working, it’s certainly not optimum and we really need to get students doing stuff in the classroom and learning actively. I've been teaching for 20 years and the level of attention is much lower than it was, and even in good classes, when the 50th of 75 minutes rolls around the listening level just goes down. In a mixed mode approach, if a class is going to meet twice a week for 75 minutes, we're going to have one class of lecturing and another class of what we used to call a lab. Or, in one 75-minute class I am going to do 30 minutes of lecturing and the rest as some in-class exercise. That lends itself well to statistics or something mathematical and computer work that is qualitative also.

Does the mixed mode applies to mainstream courses also?
Yes and mixed mode has traction and support from foundations that have seeded schools around the country with money. Some take large volume classes, Psych 101 for example, and where before they might have 10 sections of 230 kids each and they tried to get them to instead of having that many class sections to make it mixed mode where there is some instruction from an instructor but there are online materials where the kids are doing work during the class period. The approach, which I support, retains learning outcomes and reduces costs for big state universities that are being challenged to keep costs down.

With the rise of consumer tech and the facility people are claimed to have with this, you’d think computer science would be its own attraction.
I would say a lot of kids overstate what they know about technology. They think being very efficient using a browser or navigating through Windows is the end all and be all. Many of them never go beyond that, and studies have shown that kids with the perception of being really technologically adept really aren’t past a certain point. You think kids know this stuff and figure they like it enough to pursue a career in it. But I'm not sure they don't view the technology like driving a car. I can drive a car, but it doesn’t mean I'm going into automotive engineering.

You have a SAP program and lately are implementing some donated business intelligence software from InetSoft. What would you like to get out of the InetSoft academic alliance?
It’s not yet integrated though I have worked with it and like it. I’d like to see students become more experience in add-on tools people use with data, whether it's analytics and applying statistics and analysis, or creating a quick visualization of how the business is going. Instead of putting up a slide, I am hoping I can show them how they can tie this independent tool into some back-end database in a fairly easy way, show them the interfaces they’re likely to encounter and learn much more by being able to fiddle with it. It's not a big headline, it’s getting more involved with data, visualizations, and how these things tie together in the real world.

Are students seeing the value of immersive use of analytic software tools and how they might lead them into careers?
My personal opinion is that universities in general are not making full disclosure of the possible routes to employment. You're going to be an English major, and of course we need English departments. We also know about the kids who graduated with different degrees last year and where we think they went and that should be communicated. Universities are not intended to be vocational schools, but at least we can tell them what an experience will prepare you for. We're not going to know what every kid did but I think it's beholden on us to know.

We see esthetic and scientific approaches to data more often these days, but could there be a stigma in universities that information systems and technology are more of trade education than arts and science?
Since I am teaching information systems as opposed to pure computer science, I have a bit of leeway to say, look, this isn't the guy sitting at a terminal coding for 12 hours a day. That's a legitimate job of course, my Ph.D. is in computer science and I actually love to do that kind of work, but I need to dispel the notion that careers in information systems are nerdy or boring. There is a stereotype of people who work with computers that starts before university, and a kid's mind is usually made up well before they get here. You can be a math major now and actually study interesting and fascinating problems and earn a good wage for doing it. But nobody's advertising this and somehow the myth gets perpetrated.

Click here to read a related about how software vendors are trying to support academics with free software for college lab studies. And click here to check out an Information Management slide show of universities taking a cutting-edge approach to BI and analytics.

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