In this blog, I share my experience leading a multi-year external evaluation that provided useful insights about how to best strengthen the work readiness components of an ATE project.
The Advanced Cyberforensics Education Consortium (ACE) is a National Science Foundation- funded Advanced Technological Education center whose goal is to design and deliver an industry-driven curriculum that produces qualified and adaptive graduates equipped to work in the field of cyberforensics and secure our nation’s electronic infrastructure. The initiative is being led by Daytona State College of Florida and three other “state lead” partner institutions in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The targeted geographic audience of ACE is community and state colleges in the southeastern region of the United States.
The number of cyberforensics and network security program offerings among ACE’s four state lead institutions increased nearly fivefold between the initiative’s first and fourth year. One of ACE’s objectives is to align the academic program core with employers’ needs and ensure the curriculum remains current with emerging trends, applications, and cyberforensics platforms. In an effort to determine the extent to which this was occurring across partner institutions, I, ACE’s external evaluator, sought feedback directly from the project’s industry partners.
A Dialogue with Industry Representatives
Based on a series of stakeholder interviews conducted with industry partners, I learned that program graduates were viewed favorably for their content knowledge and professionalism. The interviewees noted that the graduates they hired added value to their organizations and that they would consider hiring additional graduates from the same academic programs. In contrast, I also received feedback via interviews that students were falling short in the desired fundamental set of soft skills.
An electronic survey for industry leaders affiliated with ACE state lead institutions was designed to gauge their experience working with graduates of the respective cyberforensics programs and solicit suggestions for enhancing the programs’ ability to generate graduates who have the requisite skills to succeed in the workplace. The first iteration of the survey read too much like a performance review. To address this limitation, the question line was modified to inquire more specifically about the graduates’ knowledge, skills, and abilities related to employability in the field of cyberforensics.
ACE’s P.I. and I wanted to discover how the programs could be tailored to ensure a smoother transition from higher education to industry and how to best acclimate graduates to the workplace. Additionally, we sought to determine the ways in which the coursework is accountable and to what extent the graduates’ skillset is transferable.
What We Learned from Industry Partners
On the whole, new hires were academically prepared to complete assigned tasks, possessed intellectual curiosity, and displayed leadership qualities. A few recommendations were specific to collaboration between the institution and the business community. One suggestion included inviting some of the college’s key faculty and staff to the businesses to learn more about day-to- day operations and how they could be integrated with classroom instruction. Another industry representative encouraged institutions to engage more readily with the IT business community to generate student internships and co-ops. The promotion of professional membership in IT organizations for a well-rounded point-of-view as a business technologist was also suggested by survey respondents.
ACE’s P.I. and I came to understand that recent graduates – regardless of age – have room for improvement when it comes to communicating and following complex directions with little oversight. Employers were of the opinion that graduates could have benefited from more emphasis on attention to detail, critical thinking, and best practices. Another recommendation centered on the inclusion of a “systems level” class or “big picture integrator” that would allow students to explore how all of the technology pieces fit together cohesively. Lastly, to remain responsive to industry trends, the partners requested additional hands-on coursework related to telephony and cloud-based security.