IT’s Academic

Sixteen years ago, the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) became the first school in North America to offer a four-year degree program in something called information technology. This ground-breaking program moved away from the theoretical base of traditional computer science curricula, focusing instead on the applied aspects of computing. Although RIT’s program was a great success, it was almost a decade before other schools began to follow suit.

These early programs at schools such as Brigham Young University (BYU), Georgia Southern University (GSU) and Purdue University all emerged with the same purpose in mind: prepare graduates to fill a quickly growing hole in the computing job market.

As companies began relying on the Internet and corporate networks to meet more of their organizational needs, employing computer specialists who could manage and integrate network systems became a business requirement, said Dr. Han Reichgelt, associate dean of the GSU College of Information Technology.

“Most of the students who came out of the computer science programs were very good when it came to taking on programming positions but did not necessarily know how to keep a network up and running — same thing for students out of information systems programs,” he said. “So, in that particular area, there was a need to be filled.”

Despite the downturn in the IT market during the early part of the decade, students have responded to this need by overwhelmingly choosing IT programs over their computer science counterparts.

At GSU, for example, about 400 students have declared a major in IT, whereas only about 180 students have enrolled as computer science majors. Reichgelt said this popularity could correspond to the major’s stress on application, as well as its lack of theoretical requirements.

“It seems to provide a focus on technology, which many of these students are really interested in, without forcing them to go into the various theoretical foundations of the technology,” he said. “In general, IT programs require far less mathematics than computer science programs, and many students, whether we like it or not, simply don’t like doing a bunch of math courses.”

Instead, the courses generally focus on hands-on skills students can use on the job. Initially, students were offered a limited range of courses in network administration, Web technologies and systems integration, but in more recent years, many schools have expanded their IT curriculum to include an emphasis on security, storage and information assurance.

Reichgelt expects to see future programs focus on IT infrastructure, with courses that teach students how to integrate applications, platforms and machines, as well as technology acquisition.

Joseph Ekstrom, an associate professor at BYU, said the future also will bring more specialization, as students begin to learn IT skills earlier, and the needs of companies get more complex. He said he expects to see an increase in research focused on network deployment and new techniques to deliver systems to the end-user.

“Things have specialized to the point where the field is just too large for one four-year degree, so there’s more and more of them,” Ekstrom said. “IT is specializing.”

- Tegan Jones, tjones@certmag.com

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