Certification in Academia

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There’s a quiet debate raging within colleges and corporations across the IT industry about certification’s place on college campuses. On one side is academia, which wants to educate the whole student on a broad range on IT topics, not necessarily one vendor’s product. On the other side are the corporations, looking for future employees who already have the product knowledge necessary to quickly (and cheaply) jump into their IT departments. And in the middle are the students, who want to gain a broad range of IT knowledge, but also hope to have that first job lined up for the day after commencement speeches.

In general, most traditional, four-year universities don’t offer courses that align with specific certifications. Typically, those types of courses are left to the technical schools and associate’s programs. According to Brian Cameron, assistant professor in the information sciences and technology (IST) department at Penn State, certifications are only found at four-year universities in the continuing education office.

“I come from the industry, so I appreciate having the certification with the four-year degree,” Cameron said. “Unfortunately most Big Ten, Ivy League institutions, most folks in academia, do not share that sentiment. They see certifications as the purview of the tech schools and the associate degree programs. At Penn State, you can get certifications through your continuing education office, which is geared toward working professionals. But there’s just that reputation that certifications are more the purview of the tech schools and associate’s schools. That kind of permeates through academia no matter where you go. And you can debate whether that’s correct or incorrect until the cows come home, but that’s just the way it is.”

Cameron said one of the reasons many traditional universities don’t offer certifications within their IT programs is because it’s not necessary: Most of their graduates already have job offers when they graduate.

“With the experiences that they get in the curriculum, most of the students are coming out with four to six job offers. So it’s not like there’s a placement problem that would spur the students to go get certifications or try to get something else to make themselves more marketable,” Cameron said. “I think it also depends on where the student wants to go. Most of our students aspire to more senior levels within an organization. Maybe not right away, but they aspire to be fast-tracked within an organization. So maybe they’ll start out as an analyst or maybe a more technical role, but they quickly gravitate toward more of an architect program, or project management or consulting roles. So in those roles, a certification is less important than if you’re going to be an Oracle DBA or a network guy, and you need to have various Cisco certifications and things like that. So for the roles that most of our students aspire to, the certification isn’t as important as the education degree and the experience you get through internships.”

According to David Overbye, Ph.D., dean of curriculum at DeVry, a lot of the push to incorporate certifications into college curriculum comes from vendors promoting their products and corporations, which want to hire trained, experienced graduates who require little training.

“There’s a battle going on between corporate desire not to spend money on training and trying to get universities to do that job, and the university’s desire to educate but not necessarily train students,” Overbye said. “We want to educate the whole student.”

Meeting in the Middle
One of those areas where many corporations seek trained students is within storage. According to Alok Shrivastava, senior director for education services at EMC, storage is a growing area that does not yet have education programs to support it.

“We saw a unique problem in the storage industry as a whole,” Shrivastava said. “If you consider operating systems, database, networking enterprise storage or information storage and application, we found that these pillars, other than information management or storage, are pretty well covered by different programs at the universities as well as other public training programs and providers. Information storage is sort of ignored and neglected somehow. We talked to other colleges, and we found that the industry has grown to a $60-plus billion industry without any educational support. That’s a huge gap. That is really visible. In the industry as a whole, it’s a challenge because as the data sizes are increasing, the complexity of designing, architecting, managing the storage and infrastructure is becoming more complex. And there’s no education for this or educated people that our customers can hire from. Typically they have to rely on the job training within the company and whatever they can learn from each other, and that’s the only way it’s being done. If you look at the overall picture, that presents a huge challenge.”

To address this gap, EMC developed a new storage program in conjunction with international universities to educate college students on storage concepts. In addition, EMC launched a storage certification to align with the course.

“Because we wanted to cover the college students, rather than training them on our product, we actually focused on creating the courseware in such a way that fits into their curriculum,” Shrivastava said. “We call it an open course in that it does not focus on any one product but talks about the concepts, the theory behind the different types of storage technologies. We use our examples, but that’s the extent to which it goes. That is very much in line with what a college or university would teach.”

Although EMC developed the curriculum, the company does not teach the courses. Instead, it provides the content and knowledge transfer to university professors, who then teach it to their students. “We feed them the updates and keep it up to date, but then it is up to the college to drive it into their programs,” Shrivastava said. “It’s a lot more flexible than other programs out there. We’re doing it really to create a workforce. A lot of college students would benefit from it because there is a gap of these professionals, and these students who have graduated with this knowledge, they will benefit from addressing that gap.”

For students who want to add more storage knowledge to their resumes, the certification track corresponds to the curriculum. “Around this program, we launched a track called the storage technologist track,” Shrivastava said. “The course aligns with the track. They have a choice to go through certification. We launched them together. We saw a few students who have gone through that. I would expect in the next six months or so we’ll see a lot going through as the awareness about the program increases.”

The curriculum and certification will produce the types of employees many companies are currently looking to hire, Shrivastava said. “I’ve talked to a lot of customers, and everyone appreciates the effort,” he said. “This is something that we’re doing because we believe in it, not because there’s any money behind it. We did our own survey, and the number-one preference for them for hiring was certified professionals. Getting experienced people is a tough task. So the next best preference is ‘Well, if I can’t get an experienced person, I might as well get a knowledgeable certified person.’”

EMC’s pilot school for the program in the United States was Penn State, which has already completed one semester of the course. In addition to Penn State, the program was launched internationally. Shrivastava said 26 colleges and universities have already signed up in India. Another two in Ireland have signed up, as well as one college in Mexico.

At Penn State, Cameron worked with EMC to deploy the pilot program to its IST students. The course, which was offered i

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