College Finds Flexibility & Growth with Certification IT Curriculum

by Janet Pinkerton | May 06, 2013
College of DuPage Professor Clyde Cox coaches students during CIT 1111, the college's Computer and Internetworking Technologies course that corresponds to the CompTIA A+ 220-701 exam.

Ten years ago, the College of DuPage, in Glen Ellyn, Ill., began to redesign its computer hardware and networking curricula to embed the goals of IT industry certifications into the program. The college sought to grow the program by offering clearly defined ways for its diverse student population to gain IT career-relevant skills and industry credentials.

The college's Computer and Internetworking Technologies (CIT) program now offers two Associate in Applied Science (A.A.S.) degrees and 10 certificate options built around CompTIA and other IT industry certifications. As a result, from 2006 to 2011, the CompTIA Academy Partner's CIT program grew nearly 13 percent annually, expanding into additional classrooms and labs, plus four off-site locations.

Teaching to Industry Needs

In 2002, Professor Clyde Cox was new to the College of DuPage when he realized his department, then named Digital Microprocessor Technologies, needed to change its approach. The wake-up call came when recently laid-off Bell Labs IT employees — many with master's and doctorate degrees on their resumes — came to his college office, looking for ways to re-start their careers.

"For these people to get another degree was absolutely ludicrous," said Cox, who was previously a Bell Labs networking engineer. "We realized that we had to rethink our curriculum and go with certifications."

So with the backing of college administrators, Cox worked with his colleagues, Professors Joanne Wagner and Tony Chen, to begin the laborious process of redesigning curriculum. Renaming the program Computer and Internetworking Technologies (CIT), the three professors worked to use industry certifications as a model for the knowledge and skill outcomes each course would offer.

Chen firmly believes that students need specialized courses that prepare them for their careers. "You need to get ready earlier and sooner," he said. "CompTIA certification exams serve as a third-party validation that a person has the skills employers look to hire for a job."

The department had long taught toward the Cisco Certified Network Administrator certification, but in 2002 added a CompTIA partnership. Courses that trained students for the CompTIA A+ certification began in 2003. With each year, the department added courses that addressed more certifications, including CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+.

"Student response was pretty immediate," said Cox. "Every time we added something, the classes got bigger and bigger."

Booming Student Interest

If I'm teaching CompTIA classes, I know the material is up-to-date. I know CompTIA is watching that.

Clyde Cox, Professor of Computer and Internetworking Technologies, College of DuPage

The college's current Computer and Internetworking Technician A.A.S degree prepares a student to pass numerous certification exams from CompTIA, Cisco and Microsoft. Degree-required courses teach to CompTIA A+, Cisco CCNA, Microsoft MCITP, CompTIA Network+ and the CompTIA Security+ certifications. Electives include courses for the Cisco CCNP and the CompTIA Project+ credentials.

The CIT also recently began offering an Information Systems Security (INFOSEC) A.A.S. degree that's certified by the Committee on National Security Systems and the National Security Agency. The INFOSEC degree includes courses for CompTIA A+, CompTIA Security+ and, as an elective, CompTIA Linux+.

Cox likes how structuring his curriculum around industry certifications keeps courses relevant. "If I'm teaching CompTIA classes, I know the material is up-to-date," said Cox. "I know CompTIA is watching that."

Expanding enrollment for CompTIA A+ courses five years ago prompted the CIT program to offer courses at two off-site locations, including a dual-credit program at Naperville Central High School.

Enrollment in the college's CompTIA A+ courses has climbed from about 145 in 2003 to 740 in 2012, and Cox estimates the CIT program has grown 12.5 percent annually from 2006 to 2011, requiring the program to add classrooms, laboratories, and additional faculty.

In fall 2012, the CIT program began offering courses in two additional off-site locations (for a program total of four), and the college became a Pearson VUE testing center, allowing students to take their certification exams on campus.

The CIT program strongly recommends, but does not require, that students take the exams for the certifications associated with their courses, and the college does not track students who take or pass certification exams.

Addressing Diverse Needs

Operating within a community college, the CIT program addresses a wide variety of student goals. Thirty-eight percent of CIT students are "traditional" students, recently out of high school. The "non-traditional" balance includes workers seeking to upgrade skills, unemployed individuals seeking to gain new skills, participants in employer training programs, and high school students earning dual-credit.

Only 18 percent of CIT students pursue an A.A.S. degree; the rest take courses as they can and need, with some earning one of the CIT program's 10 certificate options.

The certification-centric CIT curriculum provides "nice entry points and exit points for people looking for specific specialty needs," said John Kronenburger, Associate Dean of Technology for the College of DuPage's Business and Technology division.

"The industry-centric curricula provide very defined goals and specifies outcomes that students can obtain in each course," he added. "They are very focused towards what people are doing in the real world."

Working within the local community, the CIT program has built cooperative education / internship programs with companies such as Argonne National Laboratory and Chicago Computers, as well as a referral network for student job placement. The CIT program aims to further expand its network within the community. "The employers who know us, love us, and love our students," said Kathy Kotowski, the academic and career advisor for CIT students who also works as the department's liaison to local businesses.

College of DuPage faculty and administrators are working to align the hardware/networking oriented CIT program with its software/programming-oriented Computer Information Systems program to offer courses and programs that launch the next-generation of IT professionals. The goal, says Kronenburger, is to optimize the two programs and more finely tune courses to address newer IT technologies such as computer forensics, cloud computing, virtualization, and mobile applications. CompTIA, Microsoft and Cisco certifications will continue to be an integral part of the program, Kronenburger said.

"The fact that we have classes that prep for those certification exams help students develop skills that are in demand," said Kotowski. "It's giving them a credential that's definite, objective, measurable."

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