IBM's Academic Initiative

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Over the years, IBM, as a corporation, has had a mixed record in making its technologies known and available to institutions of higher learning. There have been many efforts—both from within the larger IBM Corporation and from without through user groups such as COMMON—to bring comprehensive and effective curriculum and training to IT students and professionals.

At the same time, a worldwide set of goals for academic teaching is vital to companies like IBM because, without sufficient education and training, the most advanced technologies—such as the System i5 and WebSphere—too often suffer from a lack of understanding by burgeoning IT organizations. Moreover, without an adequately trained workforce coming from academic institutions, companies that wish to implement the known strategic advances of IBM products must often struggle to obtain personnel who have the knowledge to efficiently use the products that companies like IBM bring to market.

The Role of Colleges and Universities

It's a complex problem that is at the heart of the IT industry within the United States. For instance, college and university enrollment in IT curriculums in this country is at a historic low. Yet, this is not the case in countries with emerging economies, like India and China, where university enrollment in IT curriculum continues to soar. Firms looking to hire IT professionals must look to places where the talent is being trained, and too often the lack of personnel with skills increases the pressure on U.S. domestic firms to outsource.

Wouldn't it be nice if a profession in the field of IT within the U.S. had the same allure to students that it currently has in other countries? Wouldn't it be wonderful if IT within the U.S. regained its strategic importance to U.S. firms, to help management make better strategic decisions for the benefit of the organization?

The Evolution of the IBM Academic Initiative

IBM's new Academic Initiative may prove to be one of the important linchpins in the resurgence of IT within the U.S., as it is already helping more than 250 institutions worldwide by providing curriculum, resources, and equipment to train the next generation of IT professionals.

What is the IBM Academic Initiative? What is the System i5's role in this initiative? How will students at colleges and universities use its resources? How does this initiative relate to the requirements of IBM certification and the availability of trained personnel?

A Piece of the PIE

The IBM Academic Initiative has its roots in older educational programs and projects that IBM began making available in the late 1990s. One of the first of such programs was IBM Partners in Education (PIE), which provided colleges and universities with a means of obtaining deep discounts on IBM AS/400 equipment for the purpose of educating IT students. If a college or university worked with an IBM Business Partner to install and administer an AS/400, IBM would provide a deeply discounted lease at 1%, with free access to both software and curriculum to train prospective AS/400 students.

The PIE program was highly successful for the AS/400 at numerous institutions of higher education, and it continues to this day under the auspices of the IBM Academic Initiative. Yet too often in the past—when IT educators at a college or university were offered this opportunity to obtain an AS/400—the prejudice against non-UNIX or non-Microsoft operating systems made the placement of an AS/400 an uphill internal battle. And, as budgets at these institutions became increasingly tight, the IT curriculums offered by many were scaled back to include only the most widely popular platforms.

Then, in the beginning of 2000, IBM's management began to recognize that it had a crucial business need to educate the educators at these institutions. As a result, a call was issued within IBM for "ambassadors" (IBM employees who had connections with colleges and universities) to begin addressing IBM's relationships with academic institutions.

At the same time, IBM began to realize that, within each IBM brand, fledgling educational programs were often already providing bits and pieces of educational curriculum, but these disparate pieces presented no overall scope of what the entire IBM organization thought was strategically important. When this was recognized, these various brand-specific educational groups—each funded by a separate IBM brand—began to collaborate to develop a larger umbrella strategy for working with universities and colleges. This umbrella group would later be called the IBM Scholars program.

IBM Scholars

IBM Scholars was positioned as a collaborative channel by which colleges and universities could partner with IBM and with other educational institutions to bring curriculum and resources into the university classroom. This included more than mere product-related training courses: It also included larger computer science-related curriculum based upon the real needs of business organizations in the non-academic world. For the first time, educational institutions could collaborate with one another to construct curriculum based upon a full range of IBM resources to provide comprehensive IT training and education that was not product- or platform-specific. In addition, they could begin to pool hardware resources—provided by IBM—into networks for further future collaboration amongst themselves.

The IBM Academic Initiative Is Born

In 2005, the IBM Scholars program was renamed the IBM Academic Initiative. The IBM Academic Initiative is now a collaborative project that provides curriculum resources and access to IBM software and hardware, using the Internet as a backbone to enable opportunities for faculty and students. Faculty has access to evolving curriculum on the latest technologies, getting a leg up toward training students of IT.

Now, instead of a patchwork of individual educational initiatives derived from each IBM brand, the IBM Academic Initiative works to coordinate curriculum and resources so that, as each brand develops or updates a piece of technology curriculum, it is providing a comprehensive approach for IT training at the university level.

Academic Initiative in Action

This has led the IBM System i5 Academic Initiative to its most recent landmark announcement with the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. On February 22, IBM and the UNL jointly announced extensive plans to foster new collaboration and innovation among the academic community, IBM, and IBM's partners and customers. The University will serve as a worldwide hub for advanced teaching and remote access by other universities on IBM's System i5.

Other recent IBM Academic Initiative announcements have included these:

Collaborative initiatives between four information technology companies and seven American universities to accelerate research for open source software

No-charge access to DB2 software, which educational institutions can use with IBM DB2 Express-C in development and deployment

New academic curriculum aimed to improve the teaching of services innovation

By providing collaborative resources along with the curriculum to teach the principles of innovative technologies, the IBM Academic Initiative has positioned itself to shepherd the next generation of IT professionals toward the very areas where business is clamoring for innovative resources. It is enabling faculty and students to keep abreast of the latest technologies, while making IBM's own voice heard and understood. In other words, instead of selling the IBM story, it is teaching both the teachers and the students with hands-on examples.

The Challenge: Bringing It All Back Home

Considering the scope and potential of the IBM Academic Initiative, it appears that IBM has at last grasped the nature of how generations of IT professionals are exposed to new ideas and principles. They learn—for better or worse—through whatever hands-on experiences are offered in college.

Consider, for example, that in the final years of the 20th century the Microsoft Windows generation became convinced that client/server technology was going to be the salvation of IT. It was an understandable leap of faith because, after all, Microsoft Windows was the only platform most of them had ever really explored. By comparison, the IBM Academic Initiative is now offering opportunities to expand this provincial mindset within the academic community. But it still has many other challenges facing it. One of these challenges is IBM certification.

IBM Certification

IBM Certification was initially created by IBM as a skills-validation program for Business Partners and customers to vouchsafe that individuals working on a particular IBM platform were actually qualified to do the work. Within the U.S., certification has been embraced to a far lesser degree than in other countries, where IT workers are eager to demonstrate that they have achieved a level of competence. In fact, in many universities in other countries, a student can achieve levels of certification as a part of the academic process within the IT curriculum.

However, as of this writing, the curriculum that is being created by the Academic Initiative is not directly mapped to actual certification requirements, and according to people within IBM, it may be many years before this sort of connection between academic curriculum and certification curriculum can be reconciled.

There are various reasons—both historical and structural—why there should not or could not be a one-to-one mapping of courses to certification requirements. To mention a couple:

  • Business certification is often based on job function, while academic curriculum is more often based upon a broader understanding of underlying principles.
  • Business certification on a particular platform is aimed at making certain that an individual has mastery of particular skills, while academic curriculum is more often aimed at exposing the student to ideas for creative problem-solving.

Nonetheless, for both the academic student and the IT professional, there is a basic conundrum: Where do I invest my few educational dollars to achieve the best result? Do I go to a university and obtain the latest technological education? Or do I seek non-academic courses that will lead me toward certification?

Individuals within IBM that I've spoken to are aware of the issue and are working on the discrepancies, but don't expect to see comprehensive academic courses offering IBM certification through a university in the near future.

The Future of the IBM Academic Initiative

Considering the history and the success of the programs that have evolved into the IBM Academic Initiative, we can expect to see continual advancement, not only in what IBM education is being offered at colleges and universities, but how it is being offered. Instead of IT labs constructed of terminals and cables, the IT departments at universities and colleges are continuing to evolve into virtual workplaces where the physical presence of a server is no longer apparent. In fact, through collaborative software products by IBM Lotus, one can expect that the actual physical classroom itself where lessons are taught will soon fade away. Homework projects too will become collaborative efforts, with the class broken into teams to complete projects. Lessons will be pre-recorded and archived as Webcasts, and the entire curriculum from one year will be canned and saved for review by students in a following semester.

It's good to know that IBM is once again diving deeply into the academic community to make its presence known and its products and ideas shine. And with this creative Academic Initiative, we can hope to see a stronger group of IT graduates, better trained on the latest technologies, gracing our work environments in the years to come.

Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press, LP.