Over recent years technology has fuelled and supported an evolution in college education across the world. Julia Lowder, CEO of Computer Systems Institute (CSI), discusses alternative models of education and how they have put technology and globalization at the heart of learning.

A survey by the Wall Street Journal and NBC concluded that ‘Americans are losing faith that four-year college degrees are worth the price of tuition.’ Similar reports, including one from Goldman Sachs, have fuelled this discussion further, suggesting that ‘a college degree is getting so expensive that it might not be worth the money anymore.’

Let’s take a step back to understand where this increasingly widespread idea has risen from.

Historically, companies offered their employees the necessary training to operate the internal systems and technologies. Today, many employers expect new hires to have the foundational skills necessary prior to joining the company; they are certainly more likely to be get the job if they already have experience of using the relevant systems. Students have been coming out of college with a high level of theory and knowledge but not necessarily the skills required by their future employers. Without these skills students are struggling to secure employment and employers are complaining about the lack of skilled workers.

From patient management systems in hospitals, to customer relationship management (CRM) systems in businesses, the technology used in different sectors is so varied that it is now up to colleges to work closely and continuously with industry to understand what skills need to be included in the students’ curriculum. For this reason, many of our teachers at CSI also work in the industry that they teach in and therefore have the knowledge of what technologies are currently being used, and are able to report from the front lines when a change is coming. Our program advisory committee regularly meets with organizations whose work is closely aligned to the courses we run to gather advice on what we should be including in our curriculum. For example, we have been collaborating with a full service technology agency, UTECH. The agreement that we have with them not only means that we are able to gain insight into the technology used by its staff but also that CSI students will have the unique opportunity of working on a real-life software project as a part of their curriculum.

Interview and Soft Skills

Another skills gap that industry is lamenting are the personal communication skills needed at interviews and in the work place. While colleges can train their students on some job skills likely to be listed on job applications, and work to secure internships for them, I am confident that not having the necessary soft skills is usually the reason why someone doesn’t get a position. If you do not have the skills at the interview to indicate that you are able to communicate with managers and your team, you are unlikely to do well.

Students also need to understand each company’s work culture including principles such as work ethic, arriving on time and completing tasks set, on time. These foundational skills are being cited amongst the biggest barriers to finding and maintaining a job.

In order to meet this need, CSI has included courses such as customer service and professional development into the curriculum to ensure that students have the opportunity to explicitly learn and practice these very important skills. All programs are taught using integrated technology so that students have the opportunity to utilize the software and systems that the jobs that they will be seeking in the future require. All programs incorporate academic and skills focused content to help students develop a deep and practical knowledge of their area of study.

There are many resources available on these topics, including training sessions and videos of what to do and what not to do at an interview. Our institution vets these resources in order to provide our students with a library of high quality, and up to date content. However, as you would expect, much of the important training is carried out face to face; simply watching without practicing is not sufficient.

Before we present our students with an opportunity for an internship or job, we work with them on interview techniques and help them to create an excellent cover letter, resume and reference sheet. We developed an online system that guides students through the process with prompts to design their resume professionally and correctly.

An increasing number of colleges are now including these vital aspects of learning throughout the curriculum.

Learning communities

An area of education and training that is rapidly gaining prevalence is the concept of learning communities. These have become the gold standard for a cohort-based, interdisciplinary approach to higher education.

Learning communities have existed in some shape or form as long as civilization has; they have become more efficient and effective as different tools have become available - from pen and paper to computing technology. These communities are all about the sharing of information. Even online review sites like Yelp are, to a certain extent, learning communities; people share their experience to help others who are seeking the information that they have.

Looking back to my initial reference to reports that ‘a college degree is getting so expensive that it might not be worth the money anymore’ we also have to consider the rising cost of this education. Students come to the US for the highest quality education from respected colleges with the expectation of securing excellent employment afterwards. While at CSI we help them develop the necessary skills outlined previously, the cost of many colleges can be exclusive. For this reason, the use of learning communities has expanded with the use of technology, especially in academia, to unite learners across the world. Like an increasing number of colleges, we have been collaborating with a learning institution in another country: The Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics. It is a large educational and scientific complex which plays a leading role in preparing its students in the fields of computer science, radioelectronics and telecommunications in Belarus.The school has 20,000 students, and our partnership creates an excellent learning community that is beneficial to both sides.

BSUIR faculty in collaboration with CSI faculty have developed curriculum that is rigorous, focused and created to meet the high-level requirements of BSUIR, while at the same time meeting the needs of companies who would be hiring the graduates in the future. The students studying at CSI benefit from the well-developed curriculum, study collaboratively with the BSUIR staff and faculty who are available to them as a resource.

The four one-year programs have been designed in conjunction with the University, and we meet regularly to refine the courses. Our students and theirs qualify for a degree from BSUIR due to this innovative partnership. What’s the advantage of this? It’s all about cost and quality. Degrees are now so expensive they are out of reach for many students. This collaboration, which we are increasingly seeing in higher education around the world, is a fantastic alternative.

The technological revolution today is taking colleges beyond the ability to simply train their students on the theory of their chosen subject. Technology is giving colleges the opportunity of broadening the horizons for students across the world.

If we are to narrow the skills gap between employers and potential employees, we have to consider all potential methods of learning, and continue to evolve with the workforce. At CSI we are working closely with employers to understand the technology they use and the skills they require in order to ensure that our students enter their jobs fully prepared.

Technology also allows colleges to support students who simply haven’t previously been able to afford a college education. Student exchange programs and collaboration on curriculum development are very popular. Increased ability to communicate means that US colleges could now work seamlessly with universities overseas to train their US based students for degrees designed and awarded by these highly respected international universities but few are doing this.

In many ways, Higher Education is leading the way of globalisation because often academic pursuits trump (no pun intended J) politics. Academicians want to share and collaborate and work across political lines. Technology supports the growth of these communities which provide opportunities for the sharing of information and data. CSI recently held an online seminar for the BSUIR staff and faculty exactly on the topic of Building Learning Communities. Conversely, BSUIR staff have visited students dually attending programs at CSI and BSUIR to promote the value of collaboration and innovation. This pilot program is looking to showcase that this is an innovative and affordable high-quality solution to bridge the skills gap.

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