By Richard Koubek
The times of the professor working solely within the confines of campus are bygone days as we academicians embrace the practicalities of new performance standards, rapid technological advances and simple economics.
In 1997, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) launched a new standard that seismically shifted our educational focus away from what we teach in the classroom to what our students learn. Core to this initiative is the collection of feedback and input from companies who hire our students, measuring student success along learning outcomes.
While industrial advisory boards for departments were a long-standing tradition, this impetus codified the role of industry feedback in shaping academic curriculums. As a result, departments administered a flurry of industry questionnaires and industrial advisory board meeting agendas were modified to include time for curriculum feedback discussions. All of the above, being well-documented in our accreditation submissions. This, for the most part, satisfied ABET accreditation standards and allowed the academy to resume business as usual.
It appears another paradigm shift in higher education is fast approaching for at least three reasons. First, technology in the workplace is changing more rapidly than the technology in most academic programs. Second, the economic downturn has taken a toll on departmental funding available for long-term investments in curriculum design and, third, institutions are struggling to keep up with the demand for computer scientists and engineering graduates across the country. No matter how tight the feedback loop, it ultimately always will be too slow.
As a result, the academy is slowly opening the doors of its inner circle and inviting our industry colleagues “into the kitchen.” Here, feedback is replaced by participation when it comes to curriculum design decisions. Evaluation becomes engagement, and serial input becomes simultaneous discussion and debate—in the hopes of creating a melting pot of ideas and innovation.
This goes beyond bringing guest lecturers in classes, asking opinions on our graduates’ performance and collaborating with an industry partner on a course. It is one in which academic faculty and industry representatives work together as a team, bound together by their joint interest in the curriculum of the students – and future employees.
I am watching this unfold presently in LSU’s computer science program. This fall, the computer science faculty launched a major effort to revitalize the undergraduate curriculum. IBM recently announced a new service center in Baton Rouge. The collaboration was born. The faculty invited IBM and other industry representatives to the table for curriculum discussions. IBM has made available experts from around the world to participate. The meetings are held jointly and the discussions are lively. Both groups are taking a risk, but the potential outcome is enticing: a rigorous academic curriculum that is intensely contemporary with industry—verging on an outcome well beyond each of us individually.