Analysis: Real-World Learning for Real-World Problems

Chris Gloede

A lot of the youngsters that I encounter in the business world seem to think that the learning process stops at graduation. Many are so sure of themselves--because they've taken a couple of networking classes--that they rush headlong into situations without any consideration of the damage they may cause. That attitude makes me wonder what's being taught at universities these days, especially to those pursuing degrees in Computer Science.

I had the opportunity to find out recently, when my company was asked to install and configure some rather sophisticated ERP software at a major university and the experience has left me more optimistic.

The purpose of the installation was not for production use, but for educational purposes. This was great news to me and immediately sparked my interest. As I asked more questions I was even more impressed. The curriculum designed around this software reached well beyond the "techie" IS majors by combining IT support and real-world business applications into a packaged learning experience.

This university and some others are starting to take their IS majors to the next level by installing real-world business applications that are used by students in various business courses-such as accounting and inventory management--and using IT students to support them. I'm not just talking about word processing, spreadsheets and e-mail either. At this school they're deploying multiple iterations of ERP software, currently about as complex as it gets from the perspective of a business support infrastructure.

The ERP suites we installed will be used by business students to better understand the role these applications play in their particular fields of study. What a novel concept! These youngsters will graduate from school with an idea of what will actually be expected of them. As a result they'll be better able to provide an immediate, or nearly immediate, positive impact on the companies hiring them and they will in turn, have a greater appreciation of all they do not know.

The courses designed by the educators at this particular university include some basic client/server material along with the specifics of installing, configuring and maintaining these elaborate systems. The only things missing are simulations of corporate politics that make almost everything more difficult than it should be, and the sense of urgency and the pressures associated with the real world. Since it's basically impossible to simulate these problems, we can only hope they're discussed in class in order to prepare these students for what they'll encounter on the outside.

While I've heard that other universities are starting to do much the same thing, I'm still quite impressed with this program at Virginia Commonwealth University. I'm looking forward to some new generation of young know-it-all's who've actually been trained in something that I can use. As a result, I'm more likely to hire students from this school. They've looked at the marketplace and are truly working to deliver to the need.

For the rest of those schools out there who don't see a need to expand their Computer Science curriculum beyond the mechanics of Information Systems, no offence, but Golf 101 and subterranean basket weaving are of little help to most businesses.