How High Tech is Taking Over Higher Education

How High Tech is Taking Over Higher Education

Minnesota schools are expanding data analytics offerings and developing other programs to meet changing workforce needs.

When the Mall of America installed free Wi-Fi throughout the shopping center in 2015, its leaders thought providing the service would benefit customers. It was assumed it would allow shoppers to access store websites and mall maps and to tweet about MOA without eating into their data limits.

But it wasn’t until they partnered with the Carlson Analytics Lab, part of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, that they realized that free Wi-Fi could be a boon for them, too. The lab used connections to the MOA Wi-Fi network to help identify mall foot-traffic patterns, how much time people spent in certain stores, and an approximation of event attendance. In turn, MOA tapped this data when making key decisions, including lease negotiations with tenants.

These examples illustrate how the huge troves of data on consumers are being sliced and diced to improve how businesses function. Emerging technologies have the power to reshape everything from the way that retailers market their goods to customers to how health care diagnoses are made to providing social service interventions for vulnerable people.

“It’s the perfect storm of data tools, computing power, and business appreciation for analytics,” says Ravi Bapna, associate dean of executive education and a professor of business analytics at the Carlson School.

That’s made big data a big business. The International Data Corp, a Boston-area-based consulting firm, estimated revenue for data analytics would exceed $150 billion worldwide in 2017 and is expected to reach $200 billion by 2020. And with huge growth in an increasingly sophisticated sector, businesses are hungry to hire new employees who understand and can clearly disseminate that data.

Minnesota’s higher education schools are responding to that need. With most of the state’s colleges and universities tapped into employer networks, they’re quickly building out data and technology programs with the goal of training the next generation of Minnesotans for emerging and lucrative career paths.

Building programs for the future

While emerging technology programs at Minnesota’s higher education institutions run the gamut in structure and target audience, the common thread in their formulation is incorporating input from the business community.

“[We] are very industry-facing, and our curriculum matches their interests,” says Don Weinkauf, dean of the University of St. Thomas’ School of Engineering. “It’s in our DNA to listen to them and adapt to their needs.”

For St. Thomas, that means seeking advice and suggestions from more than 100 industry representatives, including local companies that include Target, HealthPartners, Thomson Reuters, and Cargill. They and other employers talk about their business strategies and where they are seeing gaps in worker skills, so the university can act quickly to update its course offerings.

Data analytics arose as an academic area for the school several years ago, Weinkauf says, when industry reps told St. Thomas that they were having trouble finding workers with that skill set. The school used that information to develop a curriculum and launch the master’s in data science program in just six months. Four years later, it has 270 students.

The approach St. Thomas took resembles a model similar to other schools. St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, which has a graduate school of about 5,000 in Minneapolis, introduced a master’s in business analytics after conducting a review of its MBA program. The assessment included employer input, a curriculum review, and student interviews. St. Mary’s saw a need for a program that focused less on traditional MBA topics like finance and accounting and more on the ability to interpret data, according to associate professor Matt Nowakowski.

The program, just a year old, has a full slate of students.

Not your father’s data analyst

Data science and data analytics are hardly new topics. But in the past, programs and employers focused on data analysts who could do programming and crunch numbers. There’s been a shift toward data interpretation, as procuring the data itself has become easier. Business executives’ appetite for that data and analysis has grown.

That means that workers in the field need to be trained how to understand the data and then tell a compelling story about it, says the Carlson School’s Bapna. “We need to spend more time and effort on creating data translators,” he says. “There are plenty of people who are technically very good [with data], but we want to round them out to be curious, ask the right questions, and communicate the value of data to other business people who aren’t as technical.”

Nowakowski of St. Mary’s echoes these observations. With such easy access to large pools of data, the issue is not computing power but providing people with the skills to analyze it.

“Back in the day, being able to run a program in DOS and running the stats was enough,” he says. “We’re teaching new business students how they can make informed decisions with data.”

The K-12 pipeline

While many higher education institutions are quite naturally looking at their own programs, perhaps none is taking as holistic an approach as Minnesota State, the system of 37 public colleges and universities.

A dozen of the system’s institutions offer data analysis programs at the two- and four-year level, and some of its four-year universities have a master’s in data science and management. But what’s quite unique about Minnesota State is its eight Centers of Excellence, which includes the Minnesota State IT Center of Excellence. Formed by the Legislature in 2005, this initiative is intended to tackle Minnesota’s high-tech workforce gaps now and in the future.

“Our goal is to partner with students, educators, and industry to meet market needs,” says Wilson Garland, executive director at the IT Center of Excellence.

It does this with a combination of developing degree offerings, hosting cybersecurity competitions, summer camps, intern programs and teacher assistance.

Among those offerings is the center’s partnership with Metropolitan State in St. Paul, with a “cyber range.” “Think of it like the cybersecurity equivalent of going to a shooting range to practice your shot,” Garland says. Those interested in being trained in cybersecurity can use the cyber range to practice their skills in a closed-off system that can mimic a workplace network.

Even before students enter undergraduate or graduate programs in tech fields, Minnesota State is eyeing ways to build a pipeline of students, especially from the underrepresented groups of women and people of color. That means doing work at K-12 schools across Minnesota.

“We’re really putting an emphasis on the high school level and even engaging with kids in middle school,” Garland explains. “But there are some big gaps, because Minnesota lacks state requirements for computer science at the high school level.”

That lack of a requirement leaves Minnesota lagging, as many states, including neighboring Wisconsin, embrace coding as a skill as fundamental as reading or basic math.

The Minnesota State IT Center of Excellence is trying to help students catch up by providing teachers with an “IT exploration curriculum” that covers five areas of tech during a semester. It also is bringing in professionals to mentor students and hold camps that provide students with a device that they can program throughout the summer.

With women and people of color still comprising a minimal proportion of the high-tech workforce, the IT Center of Excellence is taking extra steps. The center hosts competitions for girls and gives awards to young women who’ve attended coding camps or launched their own businesses based on apps they’ve created. Garland adds that they’ve partnered with Minneapolis North High School, whose vast majority of students are African-American, to offer after-school programs.

“There is no one silver bullet” to ensuring a full pipeline of future high-tech workers, Garland says. “It’s a one-at-a-time sort of thing.”

Multiple challenges

With the explosive growth in data and associated training to access and analyze it, there’s no shortage of growing pains.

One of the top concerns is building a sustainable pipeline of talent that can meet the ever-growing needs of employers. This is especially the case in an aging state like Minnesota that faces looming talent shortages.

“We need to make sure we’re luring enough kids from the K-12 system and getting some career changers,” Garland says.

But even if the student supply expands, the education market itself has a dizzying array of options for different types of training: certifications, badges, company-specific training, two-year programs, four-year programs, and master’s and doctorate programs.

Combine the numerous options with the need for program overhauls every few years as technology rapidly evolves, and it’s no wonder there’s confusion.

“People don’t really know what they need to build a portfolio,” says Weinkauf at St. Thomas.

Still, those who complete courses can reap benefits from employers eager to hire them. That dynamic can pose challenges for higher education institutions. Nowakowski says that some students end up exiting programs after just a few courses because their value already has skyrocketed with employers. While it’s not yet a major issue in Minnesota, there is concern that professors and teaching staff will get lured to high-tech companies that can pay higher salaries than education institutions can offer.

One worrisome trend for the Carlson School’s Bapna is the relatively weak enrollment of American-born talent in its programs. “About two-thirds of our 90 MS-Business Analytics students are international students from India or China,’” he says. Most end up staying in the United States because they can earn a much higher salary here than back home. Bapna expresses concerns over U.S. immigration policy, including President Trump’s policies.

Enrollment in Carlson’s programs “could all change if immigration policy changes,” Bapna says. “If the environment turns more unfriendly to foreigners, these students may choose not to come. That’s why it would be better if we had a solid base of domestic students.”

Looking ahead

While training people to analyze data makes up the bulk of popular programs today, there’s a consensus among those in Minnesota’s higher education sector that the future is artificial intelligence and machine learning. That too will shake up industries and how students are taught.

“AI is probably the hottest term in business right now,” Nowakowski says. “As it is adopted, it will weave itself into everything from accounting to business strategy to HR management.”

Some schools, like St. Thomas, are already preparing for the artificial intelligence revolution. Weinkauf says they’ll launch an AI certificate, alongside an Internet of Things (IoT) certificate, for the fall semester.

While the media often portrays AI as self-driving cars and Amazon drones delivering goods, Bapna says that the big focus from business—and accompanying training—is likely to have a bigger impact on less sexy areas of business like the manufacturing process.

“If you have enough sensors, you can track a lot of data and really fine-tune the manufacturing process,” he explains. “You’ll see the smart companies finding ways to use this to lower costs and increase revenue.”

Andre Eggert is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and former online and e-newsletter editor of Twin Cities Business.