Masters of the Internet

Suddenly, it seems every educational establishment in Australia is offering Internet related qualifications. Courses range from basic training to product-specific certification to masters' degrees and beyond. The question is, however, are they really worth it?

Some of Australia's most respected institutions have adjusted their postgraduate offerings and even renamed major schools and departments as they position themselves to meet the expected demand.

Has the education industry merely jumped on the late 1990s marketing bandwagon that says anything Internet-flavoured will sell, or are we seeing the genuine needs of employers and employees being met by a responsive industry?

There's certainly a student demand for Internet-oriented higher education. Most institutions offering Internet-specific degrees and diplomas report that these courses are popular. Some use strict entry requirements to limit intake.

Others are heavily oversubscribed. And when postgraduate schools offer Internet related subjects as electives, they tend to be among the most popular options.

For example, Michael Fry, dean of faculty at Sydney's University of Technology (UTS) said demand was so great he could have filled his Internetworking course three times.

Enthusiasm for learning about the Internet isn't restricted to higher education. TAFE courses addressing Internet subjects are popular with students and employers seeking to reskill staff. Meanwhile private organisations like Microsoft are offering Internet training courses and certification for IT professionals. Mark Duckworth, business development manager for Microsoft training and development, says one of the fastest growing parts of the giant software company is its certification business. And the fastest growing part of the certification operation is for Internet related subjects.

At first sight, it may seem odd that students are queuing for Internet qualifications. After all the IT job market is running hot and demand for Internet-skills is so strong that anyone with business-savvy, programming experience and an understanding of what words like e-commerce mean can command a good job and a substantial salary. Add design skills to this mix and, well, the world's your oyster.

But the world is changing. The Internet is maturing and the days of gifted amateurs with an eye for the main chance are numbered.

The Internet jobs market is still relatively new. While there are many people with more than ten years experience of using the Internet, there are few who can claim to have worked in Internet related occupations for more than five years -- it didn't commercialise until around 93 or 94.

The first wave of Internet workers came mainly from academia, information technology and media backgrounds. Early Internet activity was mainly related to the distribution of content. Web sites were largely made up of HTML pages. While design skills were important, managing and producing such sites wasn't exactly rocket science.

More recently, the arrival of e-commerce and the more frequent use of back-end technologies linking pages to databases have meant Internet workers need more sophisticated skills. It's not simply a question of IT. Business and design skills are also needed.

And there's another issue. The nature of companies using the Internet has changed. True, there are still freewheeling entrepreneurs operating online, but major corporations are gearing up for e-commerce, intranets, extranets and other related projects.

Managers of these companies are looking to staff their Internet projects with skilled professionals. One way they can make sure they are hiring the right people is look for appropriate formal qualifications.

The world's education industry has been quick to respond and Australian institutions are already in the game.

Associate Professor Jeffrey Sheen, Director, Graduate Commerce Program, Faculty of Economics, University of Sydney, said his program now offers a Master of Commerce degree and Master of International Business degree in Information Systems.

There are also graduate diplomas in both subjects. The Economics Faculty and the University's Basser Department of Computer Science run the courses jointly.

The degrees are the ultimate in cross-discipline higher education. They need to be. Sheen said: "People who construct Web sites or manage business online can't just be IT people.

"There are many IT people working in this area, but they have to deal with important questions such as marketing and business strategy. They need comprehensive business skills along with the kind of design skills that few business or IT people have."

An important aspect of the Sydney University approach is that it goes beyond straightforward vocational education. Associate professor Sheen said: "We're in the business of providing people with a vehicle so they can gain a broad business education. We're giving people life-long skills and the structure to accumulate knowledge." He contrasts this with vocational courses that deliver immediately applicable skills, which, by their nature, must become less valuable over time.

The Sydney University masters courses are highly flexible. Commerce students have to complete 12 modules from a possible selection of around 150 courses in 17 areas. However, up to four exemptions are possible. Information systems is just one area, others include subjects such as marketing and management. The core includes subjects such as accounting and microeconomics.

The only real restriction is that students must pick four units from one area which then becomes their major.

Microsoft's approach to Internet education is to provide skills certification as part of a broader certification program. In most cases Microsoft certification revolves around Windows NT. Certification is by exam, with the main qualification being MCP (Microsoft Certified Professional).

Students can add Internet specific modules, which, in effect, are a guarantee of their ability to perform certain specific product related functions. This would lead to a MCP+I qualification. Mark Duckworth says the courses are highly technical and don't cover theory, though this may change in the future.

Microsoft's certification operation is outsourced. This means students can either study using Microsoft press books or attend courses.

A number of private sector organisations such as Com Tech run Microsoft courses; however, public sector education also offers courses.

Duckworth said: "The majority of MCPs are university graduates, but there are now schools offering our courses to year 11 students along with a number of TAFEs. Universities such as ANU, Ballarat and Charles Sturt teach some modules as part of degree courses and students can sit the exams if they wish."

This last approach is very popular with some employers who want ready-to-run employees. Often IT graduates need further training before they are of use, with appropriate Microsoft certificates and a degree, a graduate can be thrown in at the deep end.

Microsoft isn't the only company to offer proprietary courses through the public education system. For example, the UTS graduate program in Internetworking has links with the Cisco Networking Academy and certification from proprietary courses can count towards a master's degree.

Overseas, postgraduate Internet education is moving into more exotic territory. For example, Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University offers a master's in e-Commerce. At a cost of $US38,000 students can take a one-year course, which, according to professor Michael Shamos, is "more valuable than a Harvard MBA". He boasts that his graduates are unlikely to be unemployed and will command substantial salaries.

Australia's Monash University has recently changed the name of its business school to the School of Business and Electronic Commerce. Within that school the Centre for Electronic Commerce offers distance education certificates and diplomas in e-commerce along with a batchelor's degree and Ph.D research. At present there is no specific e-commerce master's degree, though courses in the school can be heavily weighted towards e-commerce.

On the whole, IT vendors are keen to employ graduates and postgraduates with Internet-specific qualifications. The consensus is that technical skills combined with some business and design education are a good mix. IT users may be less eager.

It's not that they don't want people with Internet skills, it's that their need for people with real-world experience is greater. In particular, they need people with technical skills and a broader business background.

For now, the door is still open for those experienced gifted amateurs who can show a solid portfolio.

Are Internet qualifications worth it?

Of course learning is an end in itself. However, employees wishing to convince employers of the value of Internet training need to justify the cost and time involved in gaining further qualifications. So, is it worth getting a formal Internet qualification?

According to Robert Collins of the Icon recruitment consultancy, going to the effort of gaining extra qualifications is not always worth the effort. He said: "Some companies prefer to hire people with postgraduate qualifications, but at our end of the market business experience matters most. Our clients want more than code-cutters; they want people who have a range of experience in one area. Having said that, some companies expect to see higher degrees for people wanting to progress to higher levels."

Collins says that the value of an Internet qualification depends on your goals. For example, he said, "If it's just to make money, then people doing postgraduate qualifications probably won't catch up with those who are gaining experience."

Sydney University's Jeffrey Sheen disagrees. He said he had seen some rough figures from the Graduate Career Council which estimate that a person with an undergraduate degree can expect to earn between $5000 and $10,000 a year more than non-graduates, while people with higher degrees can expect to earn a further $5 to $10,000. Given the cost of a master's degree, that means in financial terms the qualification will pay for itself in about two years. Of course, he points out that financial reward is not the only reason for studying.

Down in the hands-on territory of Microsoft's MCP courses, they can put exact numbers on the value of certification. A survey by IDC Australia shows an MCP is worth $1732.50 per Windows NT server per year to an employer. With an average of 16 servers per company that's a sound investment by any standard.