Successful Strategies for Aligning
Higher Education Programs,
Curricula, and Lab Experiences
with Workforce Needs
The workshop’s third panel included three presentations on the nature of the learning experience within educational institutions and the mutually advantageous alignment with those industries that employ workers who are capable in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The three panelists were William Rudman, executive director of the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) Foundation,1 vice president of education visioning for AHIMA, and a representative from the National Network of Business and Industry Associations; Sanjay Rai, senior vice president of academic affairs at Montgomery College; and Christine Ortiz, dean for graduate education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A discussion moderated by Daniel Atkins, professor emeritus of information and professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, followed the three presentations.
Before getting to the main subject of her presentation, Ortiz commented on two of the major changes that have taken place in MIT’s doctoral training programs in recent years. One change has been the move from a binary apprenticeship model of one student working for one professor to one of global collaboration among laboratories and across disciplines and employment sectors. The other change has been the integration of
1 A 501(c)3 charitable affiliate of AHIMA.
basic and applied research across the entire institution, though from MIT’s perspective the actual translation of basic science into applications is still quite slow.
Today’s students, Ortiz explained, do not want to be an electrical engineer or a physicist, but what they do want is to solve big problems. “They are problem-focused rather than goal- and degree-focused,” she said. This desire on the part of students fits well, she noted, with the way in which research is now conducted at MIT. Today, research projects are interconnected, rapid, data-intensive, distributed, and focused on large, complex systems. As an example she noted that MIT is investing heavily on convergence and recently announced a new institute for data systems in society, the aim of which is to address societal challenges by integrating information science, statistics and data science, and social science. She also commented that the dissemination of research has advanced through the use of social media, RSS (Rich Site Summary) feeds, electronic publishing, and other novel channels, reflecting the fact that millennials are hyper-communicative and more globally minded.
This new focus on training beyond disciplinary boundaries has translated into a demand for personalized education with flexible degree programs at the undergraduate level, said Ortiz, which includes an increasing emphasis on massive open online courses (MOOCs), such as those offered on the Open edX platform. MIT, for example, now offers more than 50 residential classes using the Open edX platform as a means of experimenting with blended approaches to education. In her opinion, platforms such as edX are still in the nascent stage of development, akin to the old giant cell phones. Those developing MOOCs, she said, are starting to integrate learning in fields such as cognitive science, interleaved learning, self-pacing, and other fields into these platforms.
Turning to the challenges she sees for the nation’s institutions of higher education, competition for the best students was first on Ortiz’s list. She noted that many countries have built, are building, or are planning to build new science and technology institutes, some of them with MIT’s guidance. “We are continually competing for the best students,” said Ortiz, a competition made more difficult because of the many issues facing graduate students at U.S. universities. These issues include low levels of federal research funding, small graduate stipends, long training periods, stagnant availability of faculty positions, and poor preparation for careers outside of academia (Muindi and Keller, 2015). To address this last issue, MIT completed a survey of its alumni from the past 25 years to develop a better understanding of the skills that are a top priority today and is using that information to create curricula aimed at turning out graduates with those skills. She noted that at a recent workshop on the future of graduate and postdoctoral training, the participants listed several dozen ideas to enhance
graduate student training for careers outside of academia, including internships, site visits, job shadowing, individual development plans, informational interviewing, and student research sabbaticals. However, while there is a need for increasing the skills-based educational components of graduate education, Ortiz made the point that “it is critical to continue developing expertise-based education characteristic of doctoral education that pushes the frontier of science and technology.”
She then identified four areas of opportunity for investment that would benefit U.S. research universities. The first would be to create interconnected, interoperable online metacurricula to foster personalized learning at all levels and the diversification of postsecondary educational models. The result, said Ortiz, would be to truly open on-the-ground curricula to higher-order, synergistic, creative, and generative discovery and accelerate the development of expertise in emerging fields. The second area of opportunity lies in creating interdisciplinary learning sciences that would merge fields such as linguistics, cognitive science, and educational technology with data and computer sciences to produce a scholarship of higher education.
A third area of opportunity comes from the significant advances in understanding the mechanisms of transformative research and creative thought using bibliometrics, case studies, and related methods. The goal, said Ortiz, is to develop curricula using the mechanisms of convergent and divergent thinking, creative effective skills, and self-evaluation to overcome what has been termed cognitive entrenchment. The final area of opportunity she listed is to invest in programs that aim to further collective intelligence, including crowdsourcing, citizen science, and MOOCs, and what she called MOORPs, or massive open online research projects. Such efforts would engage citizens with research universities, which would both reduce the isolation of the university and foster translational research.
As the cost of higher education has risen and students have accumulated $1.3 trillion in student debt, there is an obvious conclusion to be drawn, said Rai: the education many of these students received did not provide the opportunity to secure an economically viable job. The issue, he said, is a misalignment between the postsecondary education students are paying for and the STEM-based skills graduates need to fill jobs for which employers cannot find qualified candidates. To address this misalignment, Montgomery College, located in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., has worked with industry partners to create a number of STEM programs that meet the changing needs of the region’s growing life sciences and cybersecurity industries.
In large part because of the success of the Human Genome Project, there are now some 300 biotechnology companies in the region employing approximately 60,000 people with a median income of $92,000, explained Rai, and most of the hires these companies are making today do not need Ph.D. degrees. With the local industry’s participation and endorsement, Montgomery College developed a 2-year biotechnology program to produce laboratory-ready workers. Half of the students enrolled in this program have an undergraduate or master’s degree, often in the life sciences area, but without the skills local industry requires. Students can complete this program, said Rai, at one-third the cost of getting an additional degree at other Maryland state schools and for much less than at for-profit schools. Montgomery College also offers a chief scientist program, which Rai characterized as a “mini-MBA program for scientists.” Classes meet for 14 consecutive Saturdays and the program costs less than $1,000, he noted.
A third program, developed 3 years ago, prepares students to meet the growing demand for jobs in clinical research organizations (CROs), which conduct clinical trials for biotechnology companies. This is another 14-week program that meets for 3 hours every Saturday and, again, it costs less than $1,000. The students in the program, said Rai, include doctors, nurses, optometrists, and postdoctoral fellows from the National Institutes of Health. The students work in teams to develop real clinical trials with local CROs. Rai recounted how one chief executive officer from a local biotechnology company worked with two students on a project, and at the end of the course she hired her team members.
For the cybersecurity industry in Maryland and Northern Virginia, which Rai said currently has 30,000 posted positions (Restuccia, 2015), Montgomery College developed a 2-year cybersecurity program for novices in the field and a shorter cyber advantage program for current information technology workers who are seeking new opportunities. Many of the participants in the latter program, said Rai, formerly held jobs that were outsourced to other countries. The curricula for both of these programs were developed in collaboration with local industry. Rai also mentioned Montgomery College’s 2-year engineering transfer program, the largest in the country. This program, which accepts anyone who applies, has graduated some 1,500 students who have then transferred to 4-year institutions that include MIT; the University of California, Berkeley; Georgia Tech; and the University of Maryland. He noted that Montgomery College follows these students once they leave and has been told that they do as well as the native students at these prestigious institutions. This is important, he explained, because 73 percent of the students in this program come from underrepresented groups. “We are helping to produce a STEM workforce that looks like the rest of the nation,” said Rai.
In his final comments, he said U.S. higher education is still the envy of the world, and it will remain so because it has shown the ability to adapt to meet the needs of a dynamic global economy. “The spectrum of what we teach and how we teach is in good shape, and there are good conversations taking place about evolving curricula to meet the needs of the 21st century economy,” said Rai. His biggest area of concern relates to the funding model for higher education. “We are addressing 21st century challenges with a 20th century funding model at the local, state, and federal levels that does not reflect the role that community colleges play today.” He said 50 percent of the nation’s engineers attended a community college, and 58 percent of women and minority member engineers came through community colleges. Yet for every $10 the federal government provides to 4-year institutions, community colleges get $1 in funding. “The funding model needs to be looked at differently,” said Rai.
Acknowledging that few people think of AHIMA and the AHIMA Foundation as being involved in education, Rudman explained that this association oversees curriculum development and implementation in health information management, informatics, and information technology at more than 400 U.S. colleges and universities. He noted, too, that AHIMA has a U.S. Department of Commerce grant to develop a global curriculum for 2-year, 4-year, and graduate programs in those areas, and the association will be sending staff to India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Brazil to conduct faculty training in health information technology in the coming months. “My role in academics colors the way I look at competency and skills-based education and the absolute need for academic programs to work with industry,” said Rudman. “If we do not, we will fail, and I think we are seeing this across the U.S. and globally.”
AHIMA and the AHIMA Foundation began their effort around competency and skills-based education some 4 years ago, and as Rudman recalled, it did not start on a positive note. “I remember presenting this to our academic faculty, and they booed,” he said. Two years later, after bringing in people from the U.S. Departments of Labor and Commerce to explain how important it was to develop competency and skills-based programs, AHIMA Foundation’s Council for Excellence in Education approved a curriculum, and at the end of 2015 it becomes mandatory for all academic programs in health information technology to adopt this curriculum for their graduates to receive AHIMA credentials. Rudman noted that the AHIMA Foundation worked closely with industry to develop its curriculum and the requirement to receive the AHIMA credential for employment. A recent AHIMA Foundation study, Rudman was pleased to note, found
that faculty are beginning to understand how important it is to work with industry to develop competency and skills-based training. Some 60 percent of faculty surveyed now see there is a disconnect between what industry leaders say they need and what academics believe they are providing as skills and competencies. According to business leaders, students are least prepared in leadership skills, but also in professional and technical skills, which Rudman said was a surprise.
One refreshing finding from this study, said Rudman, was that academic and industry leaders believe the remedy for these shortcomings is the same—experiential learning. Almost 90 percent of those surveyed from both industry and academia said professional practice experience was the most important thing to include in curricula, and such experience is now mandatory for credentialing. He noted there was a slight disconnect between academic and industry leaders in believing experiential learning should be mandatory at all levels of postsecondary education. The AHIMA Foundation, he explained, is developing a national apprenticeship program as part of a 5-year grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to address the reality that health information technology errors can kill people. Even with a college or graduate degree, an apprenticeship is necessary to ensure that those working in health information technology fields are sufficiently well trained. Apprenticeships for data analysts and business analysts will be open to someone with a bachelor’s degree, but they are geared more to someone with a graduate degree, Rudman said. The AHIMA Foundation is also developing apprenticeship programs in cybersecurity and leadership, the latter of which will focus on women. In general, he added, the AHIMA Foundation’s apprenticeship programs emphasize training for people of color and women, particularly single mothers. These apprenticeships will be run as boot camps and will come with a guarantee of a job at the completion of the program.
In response to a question from Jeff Livingston, from the McGraw-Hill Education Group, about AHIMA’s effort to increase diversity in health information management fields, Rudman said approximately half of its members are people of color. He also noted health information management is the fastest-growing area of health care, and there are nearly three jobs for every student who graduates. However, even graduates of accredited health information programs are having a hard time getting jobs because they lack experience, and hence, the new emphasis on apprenticeship programs.
Aprille Ericsson, from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, asked Ortiz how MIT was supporting minority students in its graduate programs. Ortiz said MIT recently received a large grant from the Sloan
Foundation to establish a university center for exemplary mentoring. This program will start with 36 Sloan Scholars who over 3 years will develop a professional development and academic mentoring plan to implement with incoming graduate students. MIT has also established a program, Common Values on the Graduate Student Experience, that generated a list of 11 best practices for graduate student mentoring and advising that are now part of MIT’s official policy for advising and mentoring. Ortiz noted that 18 percent of new graduate students at MIT are now members of underrepresented minorities, up from 9 percent 5 years ago, and it has disseminated data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System to all departments so they can target recruitment efforts on women and minority students. Any department at MIT, she added, can come to her office and procure fellowships for women and underrepresented minority students. She noted, too, that MIT’s Summer Research Program had 80 participants in the summer of 2015.
Jodi Wesemann, from the American Chemical Society, said she appreciated the panelists’ efforts in supporting curricular redesign and partnerships between industry and academia, areas the American Chemical Society and other disciplinary organizations have been struggling with in recent years, and she asked the panelists if they had any advice on how to build programs that get buy-in from academia, are sustainable, and include continuous improvement as a core feature. Ortiz said MIT has found having external visiting committees review its efforts every 2 years has worked well for obtaining faculty buy-in and creating a culture of continuous improvement. The members of these committees, half of whom are from industry, spend 2 days on campus, review “massive data analytics” that MIT departments generate, and interview employers of MIT graduates. She added that each department has to develop a strategic plan for improvement and MIT’s administration articulates expected outcomes. “Continuous assessment combined with both qualitative and quantitative data analysis has helped quite a bit,” said Ortiz. Rudman explained that all of AHIMA’s curriculum development work is evidence based, includes revisions every 3 years, and is conducted in close collaboration with academia, industry, and government to ensure that curricula will help address projected trends in workplace demands. Rai agreed that collaboration with industry was imperative for developing successful curricula and suggested collaboration should include opportunities for faculty to spend time in industry and for industry representatives to spend time on campus. He also said faculty professional development is important given the dynamic nature of today’s economy.
In response to a question from Roy Swift, from Workcred, Rudman said students who go through the AHIMA Foundation’s apprenticeships receive professional certification. Swift then noted the industry certification community is often left out of discussions about STEM education and
asked the panelists if they could comment on the role such organizations can play going forward. Rai said that Montgomery College developed its cybersecurity program curriculum with substantial input from cybersecurity companies, so whether there is a formal certification or not, there is strong buy-in for this program from industry. The same is true, he added, for its biotechnology programs. Graduates of its clinical trials program, for example, receive a certificate signed jointly by the college and the company that sponsored the clinical trial project. He acknowledged, though, that a formal certification process is not yet in place for emerging STEM industries. “These are new disciplines, but if industry is at the table, if they are participating and collaborating, there is a good buy-in,” said Rai. The proof, he added, is students in these programs are getting job offers before they even finish the programs.
In summarizing the session, Atkins noted the discussions highlighted the importance of apprenticeships, experiential learning, and mentoring, and wondered if any of the panelists knew of efforts that are using some of the new IT-based collaborative tools to expand the ability of students to engage in experiential learning in remote settings. He noted, too, that some faculty at MIT were creating robotics and wet chemistry laboratories for students as far away as South Africa to use remotely during off times. Ortiz said MIT is engaging in some of these activities, but they are difficult to scale and expensive to run. Virtual discovery, she said, is a more rapid trajectory for scalability and growth. Rudman said that AHIMA operates a virtual laboratory that is used to train more than 17,000 students a year. He said 40 percent of the health information management workforce is virtual or outsourced, and as a result, the AHIMA Foundation chose to include virtual mentoring and virtual training as part of its apprenticeships.