Master strokes

Postgraduate study is a decision not lightly taken because of huge demands on time, money and the sacrifices in family and recreation, but it does open doors. Tim Mendham looks at the coming crop of courses.

Put it down to the need for practical training, student demand, the lure of free software or even shortfalls in university funding, but whatever the reason, vendors are increasingly being seen on campus, even in the lofty realms of postgraduate study.

Charles Sturt University, for example, offers its IT Masters program, which has a range of courses for IT networking professionals, system developers, security specialists and managers that draws on technical input from Microsoft, Cisco and Sun as integral components.

Microsoft has a range of partnerships with tertiary education institutions that deliver a variety of graduate and postgraduate courses, while also supporting the academics that deliver these courses by offering training to keep staff in touch with technology developments.

Under the MSDN Academic Alliance banner, Microsoft also offers a range of programs and resources for tertiary institution staff, including in-depth labs, curriculum workshops, faculty summits (such as attending Microsoft's TechEd conference and Microsoft's Redmond campus), online curriculum repositories, academic developer relationship managers, university relationship managers from Microsoft research, and facilitating licence subscriptions for staff and their students for the latest development tools, operating systems and server software.

In Australia, the MSDNAA now has 93 members (mostly university faculties), up from 23 members in January 2003.

Cisco has implemented the Cisco Networking Academy program in 27 Australian universities and 47 TAFEs. Most of these deliver the program integrated within undergraduate degrees and some within postgraduate degrees. Many universities are utilising it at stand-alone, fee-paying, diploma level.

All 27 universities are using the CCNA curriculum and eight are using it at CCNP level. Cisco says that it provides all the curriculum to non-profit, government or community-funded educational institutions at no cost, as well as providing discounted Cisco equipment and underwriting the trainer-training costs.

It adds that it allows tertiary institutions considerable flexibility in delivery and therefore does not have direct access to how the curriculum has been integrated into postgraduate degrees.

In 1997, SAP Education launched its University Alliance Program with a view to incorporating SAP's solutions into undergraduate and postgraduate courses of study so that students may be exposed to latest SAP knowledge and skills. As at October 2003, 10 universities around Australia are currently participating in the program: Sydney, Macquarie, UTS, UWS, Monash, Melbourne, Victoria, QUT, South Australia and Edith Cowan.

The institutions themselves are willing participants in such ventures, although by no means do all have any vendor content in their postgraduate (or even undergraduate) programs.

University of Queensland gives credit for CCNA and MCSE diplomas towards its conversion masters program, both for programs taught at UQ and those given at some vendor sites.

Cisco and SAP components earn credit within QUT's Master of IT programs.

UTS offers an MSc in Internetworking which includes Cisco subjects and provides coverage of CCNA and CCNP, although not the certification itself. The Cisco material is incorporated with other UTS material to form award courses; these are not stand-alone courses and even Cisco-based subjects have some UTS content (and some subjects have no Cisco content).

UWA has vendor participation in its final-year capstone project unit, with software developers from Motorola mentoring students, who work in teams of six on a significant project. Postgraduate projects may be undertaken with industrial input.

Sydney Uni receives industry support for the programs in Electrical and Information Engineering from Cisco (course materials and funding), IBM (course materials and software), Microsoft (course materials and software), and Cadence (IC design tools).

UNSW's School of Information Systems, Technology and Management, uses some Oracle products in the skills components in some of its database courses, which are part of the Master of Commerce program, and academic staff have the opportunity to attend Oracle training courses in the products used.

Swinburne's School of Information Technology has a range of associations with particular IT vendors, including IBM Rational and Microsoft that provide advice and support for several postgraduate subjects in the Master of IT, and the Master of Science in Network Systems includes industry certification material such as Cisco CCNA and CCNP and Microsoft MCSE.

And Curtin University's School of Information Systems has had "the odd, one-off short course" for staff in new areas, such as a course on Oracle from the vendor. They have brought in the occasional consultant-run course as well, usually on campus. Staff members have also been sent to external courses from time to time. "What little we have done for our staff has not been part of any degree course."

And the academic status of vendor-oriented courses?

In most cases, they are not recognised as postgraduate Masters-level qualifications in their own right. However, many elements of vendor-courses are incorporated into degree courses, and as such they achieve some level of academic acceptability.

Dr Alison Anderson, assistant dean (postgraduate studies), of QUT's Faculty of Information Technology, says "One would have to ask (and we do) in what sense are these programs 'master' level? Universities are continuously reviewing the quality of their courses and one of the tasks at this faculty is to articulate what we mean by a 'masters' degree. This involves elements of critical thinking and high-level problem solving and it is hard to see how a vendor program would develop attributes like this."

Dr Nick Spadaccini, head of the School of Computer Science & Software Engineering at the University of Western Australia, thinks such courses can be recognised, "and if properly organised there is no reason why they shouldn't be".

The view from academe

Some institutions see this as a positive move, while others have some reservations.

Peter Scope, Cisco Systems' business development manager, Networking Academy Program, says the trend has been increasing for a few years.

"TAFE institutes have seen this and are taking to it within the vocational sector with no issues whatsoever. Universities also have seen that this type of partnership fills a void that they have not been able to fill, that of industry-recognised accreditation/certification. It is seen that for universities to gain advantage, to attract students, they must not only offer the quality, research-based curriculum but also give employment initiatives as a bonus. This is a major benefit to graduates who regularly find that having a degree is simply not enough, that practical and business skills are virtually mandatory."

David Wilson, associate dean (Education), from UTS's Faculty of Information Technology, agrees that the trend is increasing, but implies that it is the vendors hanging on the coattails of the academics: "The vendor certifications are recognised within the IT industry but lead to fairly narrow jobs and job prospects. When the industry certification is built into an academic award with broader more conceptual university content then students/graduates get the best of both worlds."

Of course, vendors benefit in other ways from the relationship. RMIT points out that vendors realise that by providing full versions of their software to universities free of charge, for academic purposes, graduates will enter the IT workforce with skills in the vendor products. It quotes the free availability of the Unix operating system for over 20 years as "the most striking example of this phenomenon". Over time, it suggests, graduates have in a large measure influenced the propagation of Unix.

It does, however, warn that, "The software of today will not be the software the student will necessarily use in 10 years time."

Spadaccini thinks the involvement of industry is important to identify trends. Beyond the practical aspects of vendor-based study, "there is the opportunity for industry to reflect the trends of what is being used and applied in the industry. Academics will be in a position to relay the latest in research and what new developments are or will be coming along".

Anderson begrudges that "there is a trend which is a result of universities being starved of funding as well as student demand. But the long-term benefit to universities is that it makes them think about what they do that is different from vendor programs. Students want immediately applicable vendor-specific skills, but one of our jobs is to give them that as well as the higher-level skills that would mean they are not necessarily chained to one set of technology platforms."

But some even deny that there is a trend at all.

Professor Simon Kaplan, head of the School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering at the University of Queensland, says it's "not really a trend that we see. It was a good idea when IT was 'hot' but seems to be not so popular among our students now." Of course, he adds, UQ may see more "academic" postgraduate students anyway. "The point of Masters-level education should be lifelong learning; focus on specific technologies that does not teach underlying principles which helps students to 'teach themselves as technology evolves' seems inappropriate to us."

Dr John Venable, head of the School of Information Systems at Curtin University of Technology (where the idea of vendor participation was considered but rejected) says that the main issue is the difference between "education" and "training".

"Training is for providing specific practical skills. Education shapes the overall knowledge, including theory and principles, as well as practical skills. Many of the practical skills needed tend to come and go in a field as dynamic as IT. It is the role of universities to provide the education, including the ability to acquire new and updated skills. Vendor organizations can have a role in providing skills, but cannot have the length of contact and the structure of a degree program needed to provide the overall background to understand the field and enable life-long learning."

Tertiary postgraduate courses

With or without vendor participation, the academic cycle continues. The following are new IT postgraduate courses and programs at some Australian universities for the rest of 2004 and 2005.

Central Queensland 2004: Two new Masters degrees in 2004, both are going through final CRICOS code approval for a July 2004 start - a completely redesigned Master of Information Systems with two specializations (technology management and business and technology); and a Master of Information Technology with three specializations (e-commerce, information security and software development). New initiatives can be introduced within the overall structure and old ones retired if no longer needed. The IS specialization will meet the knowledge requirements of the Security+ certification, and CUQ will be announcing a similar certification for the project management component of these programs shortly. Both degrees have ACS accreditation.

2005: Health informatics will be a major new offering and CQU has gained input from international and national bodies in its quest to design a program of most use to its graduates. An advanced, one-year coursework and project (research and industry) is also being considered. Other programs are yet to be announced.

Curtin 2004: Already introduced a ground-up revision of the entire postgraduate curriculum in IS/IT/eBusiness, with some units to be introduced next semester. The courses were all standardised to create the following sequence for skills and knowledge upgrading: graduate certificate, postgraduate diploma, Professional Masters, and Master of Commerce. Also introduced in semester one was a new suite of programs in logistics and eBusiness, and in semester two, revised programs in logistics and supply chain management (limited IT content).

2005: New suites of postgraduate programs will hopefully be introduced in June in logistics & IT management and logistics & strategic procurement (at graduate certificate, graduate diploma and Professional Masters levels). Master of Commerce level programs are still being considered in light of new requirements from the Curtin Business School (the parent division of the faculty).

New England: 2005: Plans to re-badge the Information Systems stream in the Master of IT as a new degree called Master of Information Systems.

QUT: 2004: The nested graduate certificate structure previously announced has been approved and will be available for direct entry from mid-2004.

RMIT: 2004: New subjects include software requirements engineering, software reuse, Web development technologies, Web media technologies, and Web services. New program is the two-year Master of Applied Science (Information Systems), an extension of three existing Masters.

2005: New subjects include computer and Internet forensics, advanced Web technologies, mobile computing, enterprise architecture, Web scripting for programmers, and advanced topics in bio-informatics. New programs planned include a Graduate Diploma in Enterprise Architecture aimed at IT professionals with three to five years experience as software developers, analysts, or architects, and a joint Masters is being developed in collaboration with both the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the School of Business IT, covering subjects offered in the Master of Technology (Internet and Web computing), the Master of Engineering (IT), and the Master of Business (IT).

Swinburne: 2004: Two new postgraduate programs for semester two this year (subject to accreditation):

  • Master of Information Technology (Information Technology Management) will allow students to study a relatively non-technical program focusing on strategic business and information systems issues (project management, e-commerce, ERP systems, knowledge management, security, IT strategies, data modelling and software process improvement), and is designed to support future senior information systems management roles in organizations.

  • Master of Technology with optional specializations in software engineering, information systems, Internet computing or IT management. (A graduate diploma exit point is available after completing eight subjects.) The program requires no previous IT qualifications and allows students to choose between a broad-based IT program, and several programs of study that are designed to cover a particular specialist area of IT. Those without a tertiary qualification, but who have several years relevant work experience, can enter at Graduate Certificate level.

2005: Swinburne will be reviewing its range of badged specializations in its Master of Information Technology in response to market demand, and in consultation with its Industry Advisory Board Swinburne will be adding a range of new subjects to address the key emerging areas of .NET development, knowledge management, process improvement and ERP systems.

Sydney: 2004: No specifics on new courses, although current units include foundation units of study (including engineering software requirements, computer design, real time computing, and software project management) and specialist units of study (including advanced communication networks, e-commerce systems, computer and network security). Graduate certificates available for 2004 in the School Of Electrical And Information Engineering include Integrated Systems, Photonics, and Computer Systems Engineering. Graduate diplomas include computer systems engineering.

The School of Electrical and Information Engineering collaborates with the Faculties of Science, Economics and Business to offer the Master of Information Technology, offered in a number of streams including computer engineering and telecommunications.

2005: The School of Electrical and Information Engineering will offer Masters of Engineering Programs in Wireless Communications and Computer Networks.

UNSW: 2005: The School of Information Systems, Technology and Management will be introducing a new Master of Information Systems degree for IS/IT professionals with a minimum of three years relevant work experience who aspire to management roles in industry. The courses to be offered in the new MIS include a broad range of technical and management themes: IT and business strategy; managing and delivering IT services; IT quality and project management; security of enterprise IT resources; managing integrated enterprise systems; IT management project (industry-based project); contemporary issues in IT law; managing the human side of organizational and technological innovation; interpersonal and career skills for the IT manager; and accounting and business analysis for IT managers.

University of Queensland: 2004: Masters in Systems Engineering builds on UQ's Masters degree in software engineering to create systems engineers, who it says are much in demand in defence and complex industrial projects.

2005: Masters of Science in Computer Science (postgraduate masters coursework program for people with undergrad IT or engineering degree) as well as upgraded subjects in software engineering, bioinformatics and web services for our masters degrees (both conversion masters and coursework masters for IT graduates).

UTS: 2005: The current MSc in Computing will be re-badged MSc in Professional Computing and includes specializations in human-centred design, data mining, computer graphics and gaming, software engineering, IT management, e-business technology, and organizational systems. Aimed at computing/IT graduates with two to three years industry experience.

A new MSc in Advanced Computing will be introduced with new advanced subjects focussed on the Faculty's research interests The Grad Dip IT and Masters in IT (conversion courses for graduates from other disciplines) will be changed to allow direct entry to the MIT.

Western Australia: 2005: No intentions for new courses, although new topics and material can be introduced into the "Advanced Topics" units if the opportunity arises.

Western Sydney: 2005: Three new or revamped courses will be introduced in 2005:

  • Master of Information Technology (e-business) introduces students to the technologies used to develop e-business applications and associated security issues, enterprise business applications, business process modelling and management methods, and contemporary issues related to e-business such as legal, social and intellectual property
  • Master of Information Technology (Web engineering and design) will address all issues related to Web sites, applications, and services development. This course has been successfully run by UWS for past several years and has now been revised to bring it up to date with changes in Web technologies, their applications and methodologies.

  • Master of Information Technology (IS management) aims to prepare students for positions as IT managers and senior professionals.

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