Tech firms invent a university

Confronted by a world-wide shortage of expert software designers and disappointed with the output of graduates from traditional universities, leading high-tech companies decided to take matters into their own hands. The controversial result: A new, for-profit school called Northface University.

Northface aims to graduate legions of software developers with more useful skills than established colleges can provide–in barely half the time. In the process, the founders and backers of Northface University may be developing a whole new category in higher education: the so-called “destination school.”

Northface’s strategy is to pare away liberal arts and focus on a tech-heavy curriculum. The promised result is ready-to-work software designers who won’t cost companies much to train.

Administrators elsewhere, however, question whether such a specific focus will deny Northface students more rounded skills needed for success.

“It sounds like an institution that has identified a need, but will come out with programmers instead of people really trained to think critically,” said Eric Grimson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) administrator. Not surprisingly, MIT–which now must compete with Northface for computer-science students–is skeptical of the venture.

Northface charges $60,000 tuition for an intensive, 28-month bachelor’s degree in computer science. The school is backed by IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp., and Unisys Corp., which have donated software, development tools, and training regimens.

The school’s prime sponsor is IBM, which, like the other sponsors, expects to hire some grads. IBM wants to counter Microsoft’s market dominance and educate more grads in IBM-written applications for Linux and other open-source systems. (See related story, page 18.)

“I’m jazzed about the Northface program,” said IBM research fellow Grady Booch, a member of the school’s advisory board. “Northface is producing a far better match for the skill sets IBM needs.”

The school, run by a pair of former

venture capital executives and a former technology chief at several companies, is accredited by an organization that certifies trade schools, making its students eligible for federal loans.

But university chairman H. Scott McKinley, a former Asia managing director for Chase Capital Partners, rejects all comparisons to trade schools, saying he has plans to offer a master’s degree in

business administration with a technology bent.

The school opened in January and sits in a gleaming new office park on Utah’s Jordan River, south of Salt Lake City. It has enrolled 130 students, with 90 more coming next quarter. Northface University is accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools to award bachelor and masters degrees.

The business plan calls for 1,200 graduates a year by 2007–five times MIT’s 225 graduates in computer-related fields each year, Northface executives say.

That might seem ambitious, given declining computer-science enrollments. But McKinley says he doesn’t need to achieve that figure for Northface to break even. He expects Northface to turn a profit within a year.

Great Hill Partners, a Boston investment firm, is pledging $15 million for the venture. Matthew Vettel, a principal at the firm, calls Northface a “destination school” for people certain of their career.

“It’s difficult to build an education brand, but when you have a skilled faculty and relevant curriculum, we think the marketplace will support the brand,” Vettel said. The faculty includes Terry Halpin, a former head of database modeling for Microsoft, and Tony Morgan, a Cambridge-educated former executive at Electronic Data Systems Corp. and Unisys.

Haym Hirsh, chairman of the computer science department at Rutgers University, is not a Northface believer. He doesn’t think its intensive focus can inspire the kind of “out-of-box” thinking that goes with a broader education.

Hirsh said he wouldn’t recommend Northface for teenagers graduating from high school.

“It’s all spin for themselves to put themselves on the level of an MIT,” he said. “But I think there is a legitimate need for what they’re doing”–for returning students or career changers.

At MIT, computer science students also take biology, calculus, physics, chemistry, and humanities.

“We believe our students need to have a perspective on the world,” MIT’s Grimson said. “You can’t just go hacking in your room.”

See these related links:

Northface University

Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools


Teen training part of drive to wire Miami’s low-income homes

The Miami Herald reports on local efforts to educate low-income students about computer hardware in addition to software. A $600,000 foundation grant has helped a national nonprofit organization called One Economy set up a teen Digital Connectors program which teaches young residents of East Little Havana to use and service computers. (Note: This site requires registration.)


SMU hoping to attract more female video-game developers

Reuters reports that Dallas’ Southern Methodist University is offering a women-only scholarship for would-be video game developers. SMU offers an 18-month certificate program designed by noted game developers, but the program, which normally costs $37,000, is dominated by male students.


Biometric time clock ticks off educators

The Monroe City School System in Louisiana is tossing out its teacher sign-in sheets and hourly wage employees’ punch cards in favor of biometric hand scanners. Administrators hope the technology ultimately will save on overhead and alleviate spotty record-keeping, but some educators consider the system an affront to their professionalism and say the money could have been spent better elsewhere.

“We’ve had some wage and hour lawsuits that have left the district vulnerable because of inadequate record keeping,” said Derenda Flowers, the district’s chief financial officer, in explaining the decision. “For salaried personnel, it’s more of an attendance issue.” She declined to elaborate on the lawsuits.

Rather than haggle with workers over the amount of money reflected in their paychecks each week, Flowers said, the district wanted a more consistent means of monitoring employee attendance.

School employees in Monroe, La., are being asked to give administrators a hand with the sign-in process. (Photo courtesy of MesaTime)

“We needed something that would hold up in court,” she said.

Sandy Lollie, president of the Monroe Federation of Teachers, said she has received a number of calls from both salaried and non-salaried employees who are concerned about the new system. “They are already grumbling pretty loudly,” she said.

Hourly workers and paraprofessionals, many of whom don’t receive health benefits at their positions, have been especially vocal, said Lollie, who added, “I see neither the need nor the justification for us to spend that kind of money. I don’t think it’s fair.”

Monroe isn’t the first school system to use biometric technology to streamline administrative functions. Many districts are using fingerprint and hand scanners to process students in the lunch line, for instance. But Monroe might be among the first districts in the nation to use the technology to verify when employees arrive and leave for payroll purposes.

The district paid $100,000 to outfit 19 school buildings, its central office, and all other administrative facilities with biometric time clocks provided by MesaTime (formerly Progressive Business Solutions), a Monroe-based company specializing in attendance and time management solutions for businesses. Monroe is the first school system to have purchased the technology from MesaTime, said company president Robbie Jester.

Under the new system, every city school employee, from the superintendent on down, must enter an employee number on the machine’s keypad and place his or her right hand, palm down, on a sensor for verification.

“Only you can sign yourself in,” said Neville High School Principal Brent Vidrine. “No one can sign in for you.”

In the past, he added, teachers could ask colleagues to cover classes should they be late for school, and teachers could sign one another in and out.

This year, the Hand Punch 3000 Biometric Time Clocks will use biometrics–a statistical analysis of biological observations–to take a hand measurement to verify the employee’s identity.

“If something is wrong with your right hand, you put your left hand in palm up,” said Lisa Coleman, who manages the district’s information systems.

School-based computers transmit employee data to a computer at the central office. Administrators then can access the information online.

Aside from saving human-resource staffers time, automating payroll procedures, and keeping more accurate records, Flowers said, administrators also might use the technology as a tracking device to locate busy district employees who float from building to building during the course of the school day.

For teachers and other salaried employees, Lollie said, the technology raises several questions.

“Are teachers supposed to clock out at three o’clock?” she asked. What about the time most teachers put in after school for faculty meetings, planning, and other required activities–not to mention the work they do from home? Just because teachers leave work early or arrive a little late on occasion doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t doing their jobs, she said.

The nation’s largest teachers union contends Monroe could have found a better way to spend district funds.

“Surely the Monroe City Schools & has better uses for its school budget than the latest technology to check time cards,” wrote National Education Association spokesman Michael Pons in an eMail message to eSchool News. “Teachers and parents would much prefer to see funds spent to [hire] teachers, provide professional development, purchase up-to-date books and materials, or provide learning technology that will help students.”

Pons added, “Teachers are professionals and should be treated as professionals. Even if there were demonstrable evidence there had been widespread cheating, there are [more] cost-effective measures, such as enforcing existing rules.”

Flowers said she thinks the system “will more than pay for itself” in administrative cost savings over the life of the machines.


Monroe City Schools


National Education Association


Microsoft Partners in Learning bringing Michigan into fold

An Associated Press stoy, carried by The Detroit News, reports that Michigan has become the second state to participate in Microsoft’s U.S. Partners in Learning project. Microsoft has pledged up to $4 million over the next five years to help Michigan develop web sites that focus on improving test scores.


Peer-to-peer in crosshairs as feds fight cybercrime reports that the U.S. Justice Department has taken new steps to protect the internet from identity thieves and spam. The current crackdown focuses on users of peer-to-peer networks.


Mass laptop effort under way at three Bay State colleges

The Boston Globe reports that three state colleges in Massachusetts will require their students to have laptops this year. The state expects all students to have laptops by 2009. Dell Inc. is supplying the discounted laptops at a cost of $1,200 per student, and some are receiving financial aid to help them pay for the computers. (Note: This site requires registration.)


Online college experience ideal for busiest students

The Savannah Morning News reports that increasing numbers of college students are enrolling in online courses because they have full-time jobs that make it difficult to get to class. Indeed, many online students show up on campus only for their orientation and testing.


Kansas teachers hurry to catch up to tech-savvy students

The El Dorado Times of El Dorado, Kansas, reports on the local school district’s tech training program for high school teachers, whose junior and senior students will have wireless laptops this year. Even though the district is committed to integrating technology, many of its teachers have moderate or basic computer skills.


College uses ‘penalty box’ to keep network safe from viruses, an online student publication at the College of William and Mary reports on the school’s request that students take special measures to protect their computers from viruses. To achieve this, the campus IT staff quarantines students’ PCs in a holding area until they access the school’s authentication web site. Computers that fail to authenticate are flagged on the network and eventually land in an area called the “penalty box.” At this point, the computers must be cleaned by IT staffers before they are allowed to connect again.