The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has been designated Microsoft Corp.’s first-ever “Information Technology (IT) Showcase School,” under a new Microsoft program that aims to highlight IT excellence in higher education.

Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer made the announcement at the university’s W.E.B. Du Bois Library as UMass-Amherst officially opened its new technology center, the Learning Commons, in late October. The designation has earned UMass-Amherst not only continued funding and support from Microsoft, but also legitimacy as a leader in the field of IT–which could prove important for recruiting students and faculty and for funding new IT-related projects, school officials said.

Microsoft plans to name four additional universities as IT Showcase Schools. The company said it chose UMass-Amherst as its flagship school for the program based on a collection of university initiatives, including these:

  • A minor degree program in IT, which allows students to pair their own areas of interest with an IT minor, acknowledging the importance of information technology for any field.

  • Courses run through the Isenberg School of Management, which Microsoft intends to turn into case studies for the effective university-level use of its ConferenceXP videoconferencing and interactive Tablet PC applications.

  • The new Learning Commons, which brings together technology, library, and student support services in a single building.

  • The school’s record of encouraging women to study mathematics, science, technology, and engineering.

  • Its center for teaching, which sponsors Microsoft’s Tablet PC Community of Practice.

“Over the past seven years, we have worked closely with UMass-Amherst’s faculty and students, and we have been consistently impressed by their accomplishments,” said Ballmer. “By recognizing UMass-Amherst as a Microsoft IT Showcase School, we see the university as a true pacesetter in higher education, committed to providing an array of additional learning resources tailored to students’ specific needs. It is a privilege to help the university share its knowledge more broadly.”

Philip DesAutels, Microsoft’s representative to UMass, expanded on his company’s decision.

“UMass is working to fill the [education] pipeline with professionals who have a solid IT background and are viable people in the marketplace,” DesAutels said. “It’s not enough to have a biology degree anymore. We might not be technologists, but we use technology all day long. The curriculum at UMass reflects the need for qualified IT workers in the marketplace.”

DesAutels said Microsoft is working to get the same ethnically and culturally diverse mix of people into IT education nationwide as is found at UMass.

“For instance, if you look at the IT capstone course right now, there are 16 students enrolled; 10 are women and six are men,” he said. “Usually, those numbers are weighted much more heavily to men.”

Karen Hayes, the associate director for research affairs at UMass, said the school has “great diversity figures.” She said the national trend for women in computer science and engineering is around 15 percent of the total student population of these departments, but UMass has 20 percent. She said the numbers for women and minorities in the IT department–especially because of the school’s IT minor–are “even better.”

“Students consider themselves to be techno-phobic or tech-neutral,” Hayes said. “What we’ve done is develop a program that allows kids to get a fluency in IT and tears off the ‘scary mask'” that IT training wears in many students’ preconceived notions of the field.

Hayes said Microsoft’s support has helped UMass improve its goals of creating IT graduates that more closely resemble the diversity found in the general workforce, opening the field of IT to those who “may not be the typical video-game-playing white male.”

“Many of the female faculty in the engineering college noticed a problem with retaining female students after the first year,” Hayes said. “Microsoft gave us some funds and some PDAs [personal digital assistants] to integrate into the classes. The PDAs were really an enabler for the female students to become more comfortable with technology. They found that the PDAs were not as uncomfortable as they thought they would be. Class became a more interactive experience, and women became more connected and interested in the concepts [of engineering].”

She added, “There are a number of activities like that that help us attract and retain women and minorities.”

Microsoft’s DesAultes said another important theme the company looks for is collaboration. He said collaboration often is not a main focus at the university level–but UMass has several programs that make collaboration a priority.

Glenn Caffery, chair of the IT program at UMass, said his program integrates IT training and collaboration across the curriculum through initiatives such as its IT minor and its new Learning Commons technology center.

“The nice thing about the IT minor is we get a whole range of students with a whole range of interests,” Caffery said.

The minor offers students 55 courses from which to choose. From these, students choose six courses that relate to their individual interests. The minor is completed by engaging in a year-long capstone course.

“In this year’s capstone, we have students collaborating on different projects with community organizations in low-income areas” in and around Amherst, Caffery said. “All these students will have … the general ability to carry out these projects. But they will have to learn a lot of new technologies.”

To learn these new technologies, students will use the new Learning Commons center. The 23,000-square-foot space in the school’s W.E.B. Du Bois Library locates technology, library, and student support services in a single environment meant to foster informal, collaborative work and social interaction. The center features 164 workstations, 400 ports for laptop access to the campus network and the internet, 16 tablet PCs, eMail kiosks, and access to an array of software–from Microsoft and from many other vendors.

“Students pull things together in the Commons,” he said. “It’s a really attractive thing for students. It also enables the faculty to assign group projects with much more confidence.”

Gino Sorcinelli, director of computer resources for the Isenberg School of Management, has become known for his approach to collaborative learning–both at UMass and in Ireland.

Sorcinelli co-teaches classes with the National University of Ireland. For his course, students use Microsoft’s ConferenceXP, which delivers videoconferencing and interactive Tablet PC applications, to collaborate among themselves and with other students in Galway, Ireland.

“Working on virtual teams with the business information program in Galway, [students] take on the role of consultants and look at computer security for the companies that we assign them. Some students are asked to look at IT security for Dell, IBM, Microsoft, Accenture, Hewlett-Packard. They conduct research using various databases that our library and the library in Galway subscribe to, and they share resources. At the end of the semester–like a good consultant–they deliver a report,” Sorcinelli said.

“Students should come from my course with a better understanding of its two central themes: People are the most important resource, technology is just an enabler; and effective information systems can provide very useful information to business leaders,” he said.

Microsoft is developing the course into a case study on the use of ConferenceXP.

Richard Rogers, faculty advisor to the provost and a professor of statistics who is recognized as having been instrumental in bringing together the key elements of UMass-Amherst’s IT training curricula that led to Microsoft’s recognition, said that, although he was deeply involved, dozens of people took part in putting together the programs that made it happen. He added that the recognition would greatly benefit the campus.

“We just won the IT Oscars,” Rogers said. “There is not a lot of money involved in this award. But [Microsoft] did send Steve Ballmer by helicopter to be part of that grand opening. That gave us a big boost in recognition as the IT world starts taking notice of who out there is using information technology well.”

UMass-Amherst’s center for teaching was listed by Microsoft as another outstanding example of the university’s commitment to IT education. The center is sponsoring Microsoft’s Tablet PC Community of Practice, where faculty and staff share their knowledge about this technology. In addition, the center offers a TEACHnology Fellowship, which provides a forum for mid-career and senior faculty to share information, discuss classroom experiences, and learn from each other. This spring, the center will sponsor a campus-wide seminar on the Tablet PC and classroom presentation technologies.

Rogers said the university will use the cultural cachet gained from its recognition as an IT Showcase School to recruit students and partnerships with other vendors who want to be associated with a winning IT institution.

“With the Oscar in our hip pocket, we need to be able to leverage that recognition against being able to accomplish future goals. It goes back to the question of recruiting. When I think about the average taxpayers in the state, our recognition from Microsoft gives them a much stronger comfort level with us if they are thinking about UMass-Amherst as a good home for the educational future of their student,” Rogers said.

He added: “I also have no problem participating fully in everything the world of information technology has to offer. I have meetings set up with Apple, and we have Linux World and IBM coming round next week.”

Links:

University of Massachusetts-Amherst
http://www.umass.edu

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com