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Distance IT Learning: Can Real Skills be Gained “Outside” the Classroom?

Distance IT Learning: Can Real Skills be Gained “Outside” the Classroom?

By Patrick Haller

Andy Wasser, Associate Dean at Carnegie Mellon University, has been instrumental in building the university’s Masters of Information Systems Management, Masters of Science in Information Technology, and the Masters of Science in Information Security Policy & Management programs. These programs have earned the reputation of being the highest ranked graduate level Information Systems programs in the US, and have educated top IT talent from around the world through a unique distance learning methodology that teaches over 200 students a year.

The program is offered as a dual Master’s program in partnership with Tech de Monterrey and has helped adult learners expand their professional networks while imparting knowledge that is immediately applicable to their daily tasks. Wasser, like his colleagues, is not only an instructor, but he brings many years of real-life experience to the virtual classroom.

Wasser discussed with Nearshore Americas the particulars of creating and sustaining such a program, and the stark differences between Latin America and other countries when it comes to IT education and global competitiveness.

NSAM: What is involved with designing, implementing and teaching distance IT education programs?

Wasser: Carnegie Mellon has a unique retro style for distance education. What has to be noted is that when you get to a prestigious school we are not talking about scale. I have slightly over 200 students in the Master of Science of Information Technology (MSAIT) distance learning program. There are things that the bigger and for profit institutions like Kaplan, Phoenix and Drexel can do because they have 25,000 students and can spread costs across students, but we can’t because we don’t have the scale. Our strength is that the guy who is teaching you Supply Chain Management, Risk Management, etc. is immersed in his subject. We know that the faculty is a world class faculty; great instructors, researchers, experts in their field.

We video tape the entire class from beginning to end – nothing is edited. The student gets the full video of the entire lecture, plus transcript, plus slides, in a package and interacts with faculty member through all of the delivery vehicles. This has the following benefits:

1. As a student I hear word for word what the Masters students on campus hear. It’s not MIT light or Columbia light.

2. When they do a straight video the faculty member comes across like Al Gore – very wooden. But with a class of students in front of them they are more animated. There is a certain level of genuineness in this mode.

3. It is streamed and they also get the DVD which is a very effective delivery vehicle.

NSAM: What makes an ideal student for these classes?

Wasser: The students in the distance classes are technology professionals with over three years of experience. Database administrators, managers of application systems, business analysts, data analysts, architects, project managers. It’s not just three years of being a software engineer. The discussion threads are very robust. They are sort of sharing the group pain of what they face during their day to day life in their profession.

NSAM: How long are the classes?

Wasser: Classes are either seven or 14 weeks long with an additional test week. Three hours of lectures per week – but it is interactive. We focus on the class content itself and tell a story so that at the end the student will say that was a great course.

NSAM: Are there special courses for CIOs?

Wasser: The CIO Institute is taught out of Arlington, VA. It’s not packaged for distance learning yet because one of the main benefits is the interaction amongst the professionals. And the professors learn a lot that they take back to their other classes. Since it is in Arlington, there is a bit of focus on the federal sector.

Classes are delivered as workshops Monday through Wednesdays, with a total of eight workshops over 24 days of classes. People from Japan, or from Mississippi, fly in for the classes.

NSAM: How about from Latin America?

Wasser: Close to zero from Latin America. We have been approached by Tech de Monterrey to put some of these classes together for Mexico City and Monterrey but the problem is that pesos don’t translate into dollars very well. And we have to pay our professors in dollars.

The dual degree program was going to be pretty expensive by Mexican standards, but then it doubled at Tech de Monterrey because of the currency valuation. And the students need to pay in dollars.

NSAM: Do all students need to speak English?

Wasser: All degree programs are in English. It is amazing that when we talk to universities in China, France, Germany and say that we need to do it English and they are in English – when it comes to Graduate Education programs are in English.

NSAM: Do you find the same to be true with Latin America?

Wasser: The students are generally from wealthier households and have gone through K – 12 with bilingual education. But I am disappointed with Latin America when you look at China, for example and how many students speak English. When you get to Latin America it is abysmal.

I also teach global sourcing and we talk about EBL – English as a Business Language. If you are in technology, finance, consulting and certain other industries – everything is global – that’s the way it is. One of the problems why English isn’t picked up more South of the Border is that there is so much critical mass. If you are from Norway, and you are speaking your local tongue and you want to do something like watch a movie, you have to pick up another language. But if you are from Venezuela; you can do pretty well just speaking Spanish.

NSAM: How is the dual degree program with Tech de Monterrey coordinated?

Wasser: It is a hybrid program that is taught in English. Students spend a week on campus in Pittsburgh where they get to know each other and us. Then they go back to their home country, and they take a class with us and a class with Tech de Monterrey. We all use Blackboard as a common platform. It’s like having two sets of grandparent, where one lets you jump on the bed and the other doesn’t. Whereas we are more relaxed in some respects, Tech de Monterrey is much more rigid and you can tell the difference.

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NSAM: Is there a way to gauge effectiveness of the distance learning classes?

Wasser: Yes, we have the same programs on campus. For example, I teach IT Global Sourcing and we read the papers of on campus students and distance learners and surprisingly enough the students who are balancing all these things (the distance learners) – kids, work schedule – life – take it more seriously than the students that are younger have nothing going on except their studies.

NSAM: It is also part of professional growth rather than just a degree.

Wasser: Yes, the person coming to campus is looking for a change. The distance student is someone happy in their job, but is looking to career advancement.

NSAM: Do you find that employers are paying tuition?

Wasser: Sometimes the employer pays a certain amount. We started at the request of GM and they paid in full for their employees – but a high potential employee. We did that 11 years ago and GM has stuck with this program. And when they went through the dark days, of all the things they cut they never cut this program and we talked about that. They said that the only way they would come back would be to keep their best and brightest, and the only reason the best and brightest stayed with them was because they were getting this Master’s degree.

NSAM: How is academic learning applied to the real-world?

Wasser: There is a lot of experiential learning. Right now we have Thomson Reuters conducting an Innovation Case competition, and ComScore is coming in a few weeks to do the same thing. We do project work with ebay and the Pittsburgh Penguins – this is not learning for learning sake – it is applied learning. On the distance side we do a project with the employer as the client because we want to hear the students say that they are learning something today that is applicable to their job right now. When Andrew Carnegie started this university metallurgists were going into the steel mills and working there. It has always been experiential.

NSAM: With so many new technologies developing daily, how can IT managers choose what is right for their organizations?

Wasser: Observe the enterprise architecture: look at your current state of affairs where only you and your organization know what is needed. Create separate data marks, a spin-off, redundant systems, overlapping data then try to paint picture of the world you want as you want it be. What’s more interesting is what the steps are going to be from the current state to the future state. As you try to map that out, you realize that by time you get to the future state – the future has moved. What is really important are the first six steps in the path; by time you get to three or four you have to remap. Getting people to change is not a technological issue – it is policy; culture, incentives and the like. It takes change agents to get it done. It comes down to leadership.

NSAM: And sometimes the leader leaves or is reassigned –

Wasser: In the CIO institute we talk about how in the military sector the CIO is reassigned, and then the new CIO sloshes the projects of the old CIO and comes up with their own projects, but they never get done. There is a need leadership and consistency of thought that says that it is a five year initiative or create six-month initiatives so that each module can stand on its own.

NSAM: Who or what is the biggest enemy of the IT department?

Wasser: I think the biggest enemy is the lack of context. People are told to do this or that but they don’t understand the business drivers. If you understand the problem and what is being achieved you can come up with new ideas, but if you’re not given the context, you are an order taker and going through a lot of steps and effort but not solving problems. If the sourcing company is in India and they are following all the policies and rules, but don’t understand what makes that company tick – they are not a partner. There really are a lot of organizational dynamics that need to be understood.




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