Developing Programs for Thriving Industries: Insights from the Case of Computing
As higher education evolves to address a changing landscape, it is imperative to focus on purpose and growth. A key ingredient is postgraduation success, which begins by introducing and providing pathways for students to enter thriving industries. Technology and computing-related careers are lucrative and represent some of the most in-demand skill sets.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that STEM occupations will grow more than two times faster than the total for all occupations in the next decade. A high demand for computer-related positions is largely the cause of this expected increase (Zilberman & Ice, 2021). Employment in computer and information technology occupations is projected to grow 13 percent from 2020 to 2030 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022).
In Georgia, employment projections for computing professions rise to 15 percent over the next 10 years. The growth of computer-related fields and rising student interest prompted our team at the University of West Georgia (UWG) to expand our offerings. To develop programming and curriculum that uniquely meets the industry need, we provided an overview to 20 different private-sector partners across several industries, including communications, financial services, and health care. We met with half of that group to discuss details and fine-tune the program to produce the right talent.
This process led to a few key recommendations in the development of programming for a growing, in-demand field. These are related to the thriving technology area of computing, but they also may have applications for other high-growth industries, such as health care, and corresponding areas of higher education.
Make it flexible and accessible
In today’s market, businesses seek candidates with broad skill sets and a portfolio of relevant, meaningful projects. Employers highly value critical thinking, and at UWG, we create opportunities in which students can learn to adapt and apply their education to various scenarios. We learned that companies desire students who are better prepared to bridge information technology and business operations. Progressive companies have blended these functions, and industry leaders expect students to have the foundational learning of both.
Flexibility is essential for dynamic and growing industries, especially in technology. Change is constant. Businesses may look for different skill sets in as few as four to five years. Higher education needs to equip students for emerging positions and foster the spirit of lifelong learning to support them as they advance their careers.
Our conversations with industry partners while developing the computing degree at UWG highlighted the importance of general education core requirements. A traditional, intensive education in computer science with a long list of math and science prerequisites is not as valuable to most businesses as a broad understanding of the field of computing because of the limited exposure it provides. Coursework in the foundational knowledge of cybersecurity, application development, information technology, and coding was important to many of the employers. This design, along with no prior experience required to enroll in the program, creates a more inclusive environment with the potential to garner interest from students who may not have previously considered a field in computing or technology.
As companies seek to further diversify their workforces, it is important to create practical programs and teach for various levels of experience. We need to remove barriers in traditional “gatekeeper” courses in math and lab sciences and look for opportunities to foster inclusion using more flexible prerequisite courses, especially within technology-related fields.
Consider the following to ensure flexibility and accessibility:
- Are opportunities available for students who have limited to no prior experience with the topic to enroll and have a successful learning experience?
- Can you provide flexible options for your students so that their courses match well with emerging industry needs? It is particularly important to design the program so that it can evolve alongside changing industry needs.
Integrate experiential learning
Applied, hands-on learning creates pathways for success as it enables students to launch or advance their careers before graduation. Greater exposure to the needs and demands of a thriving industry can also occur through these experiences.
Higher education has touted the benefits of an internship or senior capstone project for many years. With a competitive and dynamic marketplace, we ensure students have elements of experiential learning throughout their college career. At UWG, we aim to provide professional experiences to students each year—not just as seniors. This includes industry speaking engagements, coursework developed in partnership with regional businesses, internships, and interactive projects that take a semester or more to complete. This approach was inspired by the Gallup–Purdue University study that identified the “Big Six,” or six aspects of the college experience that relate to long-term life outcomes and life preparedness. Students who worked on an experiential project that took a semester or more to complete were more likely to feel prepared for life outside of college (Seymour & Lopez, 2015).
Incorporating experiential learning throughout a program also requires an investment. It is incumbent upon academics to build relationships with industry leaders. These connections take work, and conversations must be ongoing. Institutions need to be known as great partners.
Consider the following when incorporating experiential learning:
- What opportunities exist for students to meet, learn from, and network with industry professionals?
- Do you as administrators or educators have a regularly scheduled time set aside to connect with local and regional businesses? Ongoing communication and partnerships improve curriculum and facilitate opportunities to be the broker of internships and job opportunities.
Interesting things happen when cross-collaboration takes place. Partnering with other departments or another higher education institution opens doors to growth in unexpected ways.
Cross-collaboration can also meet the need for technology skills–based gaps. If students’ first exposure to computer-related programming and learning occurs during college, we are unlikely to expand and meet the demand for computing fields. Early educators have an important role in these initial introductions to technology, but many of them do not have significant personal experience or a background in technology.
The UWG faculty within the College of Education and the College of Arts, Culture, and Scientific Inquiry collaborated this year to develop programming for a new computer science endorsement program that supports K–12 teachers who are now expected to integrate computational thinking into their teaching. This type of internal partnership with external benefit supports a pipeline issue within Georgia and its neighboring states. As technology continues to advance with computational problem solving in a variety of sectors, more opportunities for similar programming will arise.
Partnerships with other institutions can be powerful collaborations that leverage resources, especially in evolving industries. As a member of the University System of Georgia, UWG has a long history of working beyond its campus to provide contemporary academics and rich student experiences. We recognize that mutually beneficial partnerships are important catalysts for learning and growing the field of computing.
Soliciting feedback from our corporate partners helped us refine our initial curriculum and create a program that will result in tangible positive outcomes for our students, an important priority for our university. These core components of our programming can be replicated and improved upon in a variety of subject areas, ideally creating even more positive outcomes in the field of higher education.
Consider the following for collaborations:
- What industries commonly work together in a professional setting, and can you replicate similar opportunities?
- Can you foster partnerships with other higher education institutions to best leverage expertise and resources?
- Will courses provide students opportunities to solve unique or complex problems that go beyond those with simple solutions that might be listed in the back of a textbook?
Investing in thriving industries like computing unlocks growth potential not only for our institutions but also for our students’ postgraduation success. As higher education expands programs and curricula for these fields, our efforts need to be inclusive, reaching a broad range of prospective students and equipping them with practical knowledge and experience. A collaborative mindset to leverage existing resources will accelerate this endeavor. Pulling together these key ingredients can equip your institution to best serve your students and position them for success to launch or advance a fulfilling career upon graduation—if not before.
Seymour, S., & Lopez, S. (2015, April 8). “Big Six” college experiences linked to life preparedness. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/182306/big-six-college-experiences-linked-life-preparedness.aspx
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022, April 18). Computer and information technology occupations. Occupational Outlook Handbook. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/home.htm
Zilberman, A., & Ice, L. (2021, January). Why computer occupations are behind strong STEM employment growth in the 2019–2029 decade. Beyond the Numbers, 10(1). https://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-10/why-computer-occupations-are-behind-strong-stem-employment-growth.htm
Jon Preston, PhD, is the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of West Georgia, where he leads academic planning and policies. Jon earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from Georgia Tech and his doctorate in computer science from Georgia State University.