Area Industry Leaders, White House Business Council, Convene at UMass Boston’s Venture Development Center to Discuss Tech Worker Shortage

In a recent article entitled, “In high-tech, another kind of job crunch,” Boston Globe Staffer Katie Johnston reported the view of many in the area that Massachusetts must do more make the area a more inviting place to put down permanent roots after graduation for students with tech skills. Ms. Johnston writes: Massachusetts has developed a technology labor shortage, one that could undermine a vital sector that helped pull the state from the last recession and is driving its recovery. Demand for high-tech talent is so great that workers are turning down six-figure salaries and companies are offering five-figure cash bounties for successful referrals – a stark contrast to lackluster hiring that has created a large pool of long-term unemployed and kept the state jobless rate at historically high levels.

The story has facts and figures in support of this, and plenty of indications that technology is a field here in Massachusetts that can be the source of a great and rewarding career. You should scan this story if for no other reason than to help weigh the advantages of a technical education and career opportunities in the region. But of interest to me, too, was the fact that the story referenced a recent meeting of technology industry leaders with the White House Business Council at the UMass Boston Venture Development Center (VDC). The White House Business Council, the article notes, was created by President Obama in 2009 and has met with executives in 175 communities around the country this year. The VDC venue for the meeting was chosen because some believe UMass Boston’s approach — of getting talented tech students aligned with leading area companies while still studying can motivate more of these students to remain in the area after competing their studies. What exactly does UMass Boston offer?

There are three very relevant program centers within UMass Boston. These are The Entrepreneurship Center, which manages a skill-based entrepreneurial specialization in the College of Management, the only MBA-level specialization in the region with a required internship course in the core. The Venture Development Center is a start-up incubator housing high tech and life science companies from Boston’s leading universities and industries. In conjunction with the Entrepreneurship Center, the VDC supports paid internships for students at 30 leading venture-backed start-ups inside and outside the incubator. University College houses Boston area Advanced Technological Education Connections (BATEC), a National Science Foundation-funded ATE Regional Center of Excellence in Information Technology that has focused on the knowledge, skills and attributes for IT pathways and intersections and enhanced transferability with community colleges in the region.

Preview of August 18th Presentation on Soaring National Use of Social Media in Higher Ed

Dr. Nora Ganim Barnes is Chancellor Professor of Marketing at UMass Dartmouth as well as Center Director of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research. Since 2007-2008, she has been producing groundbreaking research on the use of social media tools and techniques in higher education nationwide. Her specific emphasis has been on how colleges and universities are using social media to recruit students. As she explains, her initial study explored this fundamental question — How does a college or university recruit in this new, highly networked, constantly “on” world?  That study has been repeated every academic year since and now provides a longitudinal look at the adoption of social media by colleges and universities.   On Thursday, August 18th, as part of the UMassOnline Speaker Series, Dr. Barnes will visit the UMassOnline offices in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, to present the most recent findings by her and Ava M. Lescault based on 456 higher education sector interviews conducted during the 2010-2011 academic year. The 9am event is open to the public and offered at no charge.

If you are in any way associated with student recruiting in higher education and if you want more insight into the social media tools being used by students and faculty today — and why — you won’t want to miss this chance to hear the findings and engage in direct Q&A with Dr. Barnes.  Social media adoption is soaring in higher education, Dr. Barnes notes. She explains: For the “always connected” generation, multi-tasking, hand-held devices and nearly constant communication are normal.  Millennials, the generation born after 1980, are far less likely to have land-line phones, but they have Facebook profiles, a Twitter presence and send and receive as many as 50 texts everyday (according to a recent Nielsen Report). Their involvement with technology exceeds any other generation and presents an enormous challenge for those targeting this hyper-connected group. For US institutions of higher education, the competition for these students is fierce and survival ultimately depends on engaging them through the use of social media and new communications tools.

And, did you know, higher education’s use of social media is outpacing that of business. The following comes from a news release about Dr. Barnes’ recent findings, issued by the Society for New Communications Research where Dr. Barnes is a Senior Fellow and Research Chair: The research shows that colleges and universities continue to quickly embrace social media as their adoption of blogging outpaces the Fortune 500 (23% have a blog), the Inc. 500 (50%) and Forbes top charities (64%). Meanwhile, this latest research shows that 66% of colleges and universities have a blog at their school.

UMassOnline Speaker Series Guest Jim Fong On Using Data to Drive and Gain Support for Marketing Decisions

UMassOnline Speaker Series presenter Jim Fong, at our facility in Shrewsbury on Friday, July 15th, put into words a possibility that many in academic marketing dread even thinking about: a lack of understanding or trust in marketing decisions. A long-experienced and proven marketing researcher and consultant who is currently, among other things, the Founding Director for the University Professional and Continuing Education Association’s (UPCEA) Center for Research and Consulting, Jim’s presentation included his use of relatively sophisticated research models as well as low barrier and low cost methods that can be put to immediate use in any sized marketing unit within higher ed. But his message was simple… and impactful. To summarize his view and paraphrase his words, he believes academic marketing professionals risk a loss of trust among the university’s leadership team if marketers base their decisions on subjective feelings versus honest and objective metrics. He said that without hard data in support of a marketing decision, marketers can’t be held accountable which can lead to a lack of confidence in marketing and marketing decisions.

Indirectly, he also noted that any resistance to objective metrics can be hard on marketing professionals, too. He recounted, for example, his first few months several years ago in a new job when he spent sixty days observing things, to the point at which he said some of his new colleagues probably began to wonder and question what he was doing there. But what he was doing was seeing the marketing strategists, competitive and market research analysts, marketing account managers, creative staff and others that he managed struggling to cope in a culture that was decidedly not data driven. The chief symptoms of this disorder: meetings after meetings after meetings, decision deficits and delays, and the risk of bad decisions.

In contrast, Jim’s presentation included a variety of examples in which the use of objective marketing research metrics — many gleaned in quick and simple ways — helped provide the data to enable marketing to make educated decisions on marketing activities and budget while supporting these decisions with data. Through data driven decisions comes support for these decisions as well. The path becomes much clearer, priorities can be set and decisions can be made with good insight which comes from research and good data. Anyone in academic marketing, at whatever level of metrics advocacy, can be enlightened by Jim’s examples as well as his advice about how data should be delivered. “Sometimes information is very subjective and it gets delivered in an unstructured way… almost conversationally,” he said. “There should be no verbal reports but data dashboards and scorecards.” Today, he said, we need to treat marketing as a science.

Digital Distractions

An interesting article, “10 IT Skills that Today’s High School Kids Have – Do You?” by Randy Muller offers some of the technologies and tools with which high schoolers are comfortable. Some of these seem typical, like blogging, Facebook, Linux, gaming, and texting, but others like tech support, programming and hardware would seem to require more sophistication than what we normally ascribe to our kids’ skill set. I think the article hits the nail on the head in it’s conclusion:

What is surprising here is not that High School students are IT savvy, but to what extent and breadth their knowledge extends. It is remarkable seeing how quickly a teenager can figure out the inner workings of a smartphone while the adult fumbles learning just how to turn the phone on in the first place.

I think the reason high school students can “figure out the inner workings of a smartphone while the adult fumbles” is because they are not hindered by the context of the device, in this case a phone. One who grew up with a phone, mounted on the wall in the kitchen, is hindered by the context — the purpose for which the devise was introduced — of that object. That kitchen phone could not take pictures, send messages in multiple formats (I guess I could use the touch-tone to send Morse code), reference other devices (having Dad get on the other line when I called home from college was about it), so why would the “phone” in my hand do these things? Because I lack any expectations for this functionality, finding it in context is challenging.

I often give, as an example of this, a conversation I had with my mother, who worked in retail throughout her career. In this discussion, I put together a scenario where my mom overhears a conversation where a shopper is talking socially with her friend, while interjecting that she cannot find something she saw in an ad that was on sale: “Oh, yes our vacation was great,” says the shopper, “it’s so nice to have all of the family together and forget about work for a while. Now where are those shirts that I saw on sale?”

Upon overhearing the question about the sale item, my mom looks up to see, two shoppers walking down the aisle chatting as they search for shirts. I asked my mother, “Would you walk up and ask if the shoppers needed some assistance (interrupting their conversation)?” My mother said, of course.

I then asked my mom, what about if, when you looked up, you saw one shopper talking on his/her cell phone. Would you walk up and ask if he/she needed help (again interrupting the conversation)? My mom said, no “they are on the phone.”

This is remarkable to me, and I think, highlights how my mom carries with her the context of that kitchen phone. First, in my mom’s perception, the phone is a limited resource. That is, the phone (even if “cordless”) is in a fixed location requiring both parties to “get to the phone” at the same time. How often throughout the day can we synchronize our busy lives to be at the phone (that’s why answering machines became so popular, BTW, why do we still need those?)? I can very well imagine my mom, not wanting to interrupt because, well they finally “got a hold of each other” and they have “better things to do rather than sit by the phone all day waiting for a call.”

Second, a call — especially long distance — was expensive. When I made that call home from college my mom would always remind my dad that “Patrick’s calling long-distance.” Obviously we needed to keep the call short and conversations direct or face a high monthly phone bill. In addition to concerns about long distance, when cell phones came out they were very expensive to buy and use. It was OK for my wife to have one (she is a critical care physician), but not for regular people — “oh, who needs to call you in an emergency?” my mom would ask. Again, I see the rationale for current perceptions on cell phone use tied to a legacy context: associating the cell phone (for emergency communication) with pagers (remember those) or radios (walkie-talkies, not AM/FM radios — another legacy context here, too). If she didn’t need a walkie-talkie, why would my mom need a cell phone? Obviously, the shopper is on an emergency call, if he/she is using a cell phone.

However neither of these issues are relevant anymore. Carrying a phone with you all of the time, means you (and everyone) is always “sitting next to the phone all day,” for good or bad. Indeed, having my phone with me means I have all of my contacts with me all the time: I’m essentially walking down the aisle of the store with all of my friends next to me. It is no more a barrier to contact someone through the phone than it is to look over and start talking to them in the aisle of a store. Everyone I know is with me all of the time. As far as cost, well I do not know of anyone who pays for long distance — either at home or through their cell provider (anytime/anywhere minutes). And even if you have cost considerations, there are plenty of telephony options available though web access on that “telephone.”

However, I should not simply pick on my mom, I’ve seen plenty of other examples where legacy services and systems contextualize current technologies, their deployment and their application (administration):

  • Faculty at institutions with campus-wide wireless and laptop initiatives who do not want students using their computers in the class because of the distractions.
  • Campuses who have spent considerably on emergency notification systems that send out alerts via cell, SMS, IM, and email, but want students to turn off their smart phones while in class.
  • Campuses writing policies for each new technology: first laptops, then smart phones and now tablets (iPads).

Meanwhile the Today show is warning parents of “digital distractions,” caused by multi-media, gaming and social networking: “Kids can become addicted to these things, kids can get into trouble, kids can be made very anxious.” Smartphones and the Internet, “changes the way kids interact with people,” continues one of the Today show’s guests. I agree with this last line, these tools do change the way people interact. But like the examples above, we cannot apply our previous use (and understanding) of legacy technologies to today’s lifestyle. I really see no difference in watching sports (GO BRUINS!) on t.v. with my friends on the couch, and watching the same game while IMing/texting/tweeting with those same friends scattered across the U.S. In fact, I’ll go one better. While at game six of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Garden (jealous?) I was texting and IMing with friends. I was gloating that I was there and they were not; I was sending pictures of Roberto Luongo on the bench after he was pulled, and; I was debating the plays and penalties via tweets. I can clearly hear my mother bemoaning me should she have seen me on t.v. during the game, “Oh look at Patrick on his phone during the game! Why would he buy those tickets if he’s just going to stare at that stupid phone and miss the game!” However I would argue, all of this added to my enjoyment of the game. My phone, twitter, texts, IM’s and photos did not detract from the game, they enhanced the game. Through social media and the tools that enable it, I was able to attend the game with at least 20 of my friends, and I would even say their experience with the game was enhanced as well.

It is very difficult for all of us to separate the historical context (i.e. the applicability and value of some tool) of legacy devices/technologies from which our current tools and use of those tools emerged (again, from that kitchen phone to the iPhone). However just as our tools continual improve thorough technology, which leads to new abilities and affordances for us, they force us to re-factor not only our use (how we use them) but their usefulness (why we use them).

With all this in mind, I wonder how the legacy of in-person, face to face education affects online learning, and even more challenging, if/how traditional design, development and distribution technologies such as learning management systems impose a context, and thus a legacy on current online faculty and students?

University Without Walls Sees Largest Graduating Class in its 40-Year History

UMass Amherst University Without Walls (UWW) has announced its largest graduating class ever. The UWW graduating class of 2011 consists of over 250 online students who hail from 21 states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, and the Virgin Islands, China and the United Kingdom. These UWW students are graduating with bachelor’s degrees from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a diverse and impressive list of degree concentrations made possible by UWW’s commitment to allowing their students to design their own course of study in a wide range of academic areas. Ranging in age from their 20s into their 60s UWW’s 2011 graduates have proven once again that it’s never too late to complete your college degree.

Both the main UMass Amherst Commencement and University Without Walls Senior Recognition Ceremonies held on May 13 and 14, 2011 were a huge success with approximately 100 UWW graduates and 550 friends and family traveling from near and far joining a crowd of over 20,000 to celebrate at the Amherst campus for commencement weekend.

UMass Amherst University Without Walls is one of the oldest and most prestigious bachelor’s degree completion programs in the nation. At UWW, students can design their own degree, take fully online or blended (some online, some classroom) courses that fit into their busy lives, and earn college credit for the learning they’ve gained through life, work and training experiences. Started in 1971, UWW understands the real life challenges faced by adult students and are committed to providing them with outstanding one-on-one support and guidance from their first class through graduation.

Entrepreneurship as a Job Growth and Career Move Strategy

A recent email from the Economic Development Council of Western Mass highlighted the many organizations in Western Massachusetts that are built to stimulate economic growth through entrepreneurship. I was stunned to see just how many organizations were listed and was of course thrilled to see UMass Amherst’s own Entrepreneurship Initiative (EI) mentioned as one of the critical resources.

Students flock to EI courses each semester to hone their “elevator pitch,” networking skills and business plans. A quick visit to the EI site will show you that EI has given many a budding business the jump start they need.

This interest in entrepreneurship isn’t just a Western Mass phenomenon. President Barack Obama’s new “Start Up America Partnership” shows that even the federal government understands the value. On the Start Up America site it explains, “New and young firms (those less than five years old) have been responsible for creating all of the net new jobs in the United States during the past three decades. The need for additional jobs is greater than ever in this country, and entrepreneurs provide the best path forward for creating these jobs.”

So if you’re pondering y our next career move, why not give that business idea you’ve been contemplating a second look….or have Paul Silva, UMass EI lecturer, member of the Board of Directors at Angel Capital Association and CEO at Valley Venture Mentors, help you give it a second look? This summer Paul is teaching two classes online that are just perfect for the budding entrepreneur:

10th Consecutive Year of Growth in Online Learning Reported by UMassOnline

Based on reports provided by the five University of Massachusetts campuses, UMassOnline announced recently that for fiscal year 2011, the University’s online course and program offerings saw a 16% increase in revenue, from $56.2 million to $65.2 million, and a 12% increase in enrollments from 45,772 to 51,097 year over year. This marks the 10th consecutive year in which UMassOnline, founded in 2001, has reported on behalf of the University double digit growth in both enrollments and revenues from online and blended programs developed and offered by the University’s five campuses (Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, Lowell and Medical School in Worcester). UMassOnline, which is the online learning consortium for the University of Massachusetts, provides technology and marketing services in support of these offerings.

According to UMassOnline Chief Executive Officer Dr. Ken Udas, highlights for the year included at least five initiatives from across the campuses as well as within UMassOnline as it seeks to keep pace on behalf of the University’s campuses with trends, technology, and marketing in the rapidly evolving world of online higher education. In overview, he said, outstanding progress was made in new programs from the campuses, new partnerships, new technology directions, new forms of institutionalized outreach and dialogue, and expanded marketing.

Sloan-C July Symposium to Feature Open Textbooks Panel

In July in San Jose, California, at the Sloan-C/MERLOT Fourth Annual International Symposium, several panelists will gather to address trends and developments in open textbooks. The panel is entitled “Building Communities of Practice to Encourage Open Textbook Use.” In case you may not be familiar with the open textbook mission, one of the panelists, Nicholas Smith, the President of DynamicBooks, provides this overarching explanation in the news release: “The vast majority of instructors feel supported yet constrained by the “hard-wired” nature of the textbook as a predefined collection of content. Textbooks aren’t really malleable and customizable. Instructors see themselves as publishers who want to add their own content to a textbook as well as modify what’s already there. For these reasons, we need to move from the old paradigm of “album” in which students have to purchase works in an all-or-nothing proposition and in which instructors are prevented from making changes to the new world of “playlists” that contain customized content that meets the specific needs of a course. Students don’t want to pay for content they don’t use.”

Even if you can’t or don’t plan to attend the Symposium, if you are interested in open textbooks, especially if you are a higher education faculty member (whether teaching online and/or on campus), you might want to scan this release. Yes, the release focuses primarily on the panelists and the planned topics for discussion, all good in my opinion. But of permanent, general, value are links to some online resources championing the open textbook cause.

One is the Community College Open Textbooks Collaborative. As the news release notes, this organization …is funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This collection of 15 educational nonprofit and for-profit organizations, affiliated with more than 200 colleges, is focused on driving awareness and adoptions of open textbooks to more than 2000 community and other two-year colleges.

The second organization is the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Teaching (MERLOT). Again, from the news release, this …is a free and open online community of resources designed primarily for faculty, staff and students of higher education from around the world to share their learning materials and pedagogy. MERLOT is a leading edge, user-centered, collection of peer reviewed higher education, online learning materials, catalogued by registered members and a set of faculty development support services.

MBA Grads Need Soft Skills to be Effective

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlights how a number of leading MBA programs including Columbia, Stanford and UC Berkeley are incorporating soft skills into their programs. This made for interesting fodder during a recent car ride with colleagues to a meeting. We discussed how the old school, type A, MBA grad is still alive and well, and barking their way around corporations.

Thankfully that approach to leadership isn’t as widely accepted as it once was.  Indeed, according to this article many of the changes underway by leading business programs are in response to employers needs and their desire to move away from this model; employers have learned that leaders without soft skills can’t in fact lead. According to one recruiter, this has even changed the way candidates are interviewed. One-on-one interviews to assess expertise in functional areas have been replaced by interviews where, “…candidates work in groups to solve a business problem and [the recruiter] monitors how they interact with each other and deal with disagreements.”

One take away here would be to look closely at any MBA program before you enroll to see if they’re teaching these skills. Also, according to Jeff Davis who teaches the UMass Donahue Institute’s Leadership Excellence Certificate, effective leadership training can be found outside of your MBA or BBA program. However Jeff cautioned that soft skills aren’t always labeled soft skills, so you need to look closely at any training program to see if their content fits the bill.

In Jeff’s program, for example, he never labels anything ’soft skills,’ but he covers critical soft skills areas like ’self-management’ which includes  topics such as self-awareness, emotional intelligence (i.e., awareness of others), and sensitivity as a leader both by learning how to read the environment and people’s emotional states. He also explores ‘management of others,’ including hands-on practice with giving performance feedback. So even if your MBA or BBA program did fall short, there are still ways to get the skills you need to wow them at that next interview.

China Via the Great Circle Route

After the obligatory delay, I was rerouted on a flight to Chicago (then on to Tokyo and finally Beijing 8 hours after I was to have arrived originally.  Unfortunately, the second flight was forced to make an emergency landing in Buffalo, NY due to a cracked windshield!  Sufficiently daunted by the escorting flotilla of emergency vehicles once we touched down in Buffalo, I decided to return to Boston and give it a try the next day.

The third time proved to be the proverbial charm and the two legs of the journey (Boston – Washington; Washington –
Beijing) went off without a hitch.  As our flight from Washington crossed over the North Pole, I found my mind unable to crowd out the thought of what would happen if the windshield on that plane would crack atop the world.  Fortunately, however, my travel stars were in alignment today and no such misfortune arose.

On this my first visit to China, I was struck by the enormity of everything on which I first laid eyes.  I am sure that this syndrome afflicts most other first-time visitors to China.  With a population somewhere north of 15 million according to China Daily, from the air Beijing sprawls almost as far as the eye can see.  It is partly the allure of scale that has attracted UMassOnline to China.  I am attending the second CCEA – UCEA China Forum (see picture: UCEA President Kay Kohl and Dean Hu Dongcheng of Tsinghua University Exchange Gifts) in large part to seek out potential partner institutions that UMassOnline could work with to offer our online portfolio to Chinese students.

But, these events are always about more than business.  They present a golden opportunity to forge personal and institutional connections and to bridge divides of culture and language that for too long have presented seemingly impenetrable barriers.  If the United States became the great power of the 20th Century, can there be much doubt that China is the great ascendant power of the 21st Century?  How our two countries and their social, cultural, and educational institutions transcend great barriers of distance, history, and culture will be one of the intriguing and important questions of our time and that of generations yet to come.  Exchange meetings such as the China Forum for continuing educators play a small, but unquestioned role in fostering the understanding that is essential to the exchange of goods, ideas, and, yes, educational programs.

Traveling the nearly 14 hours to China via the Great Circle route reminded me of the vast distances that online learning seeks to conquer.  For as much benefit as is derived from international travel–and it is substantial–it simply doesn’t scale as a mechanism for educating large numbers of people.  eLearning, when the spice of the occasional personal visit is added, holds great promise of shrinking those great circles to dimensions that humans can surmount.  Surely, anything that helps to bridge cultures, educate the masses, and make this fragile planet more livable is worthy of our very best efforts.