Q&A with Chad Zahrt, Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs and Operations, UW-Milwaukee School of Information Studies
IT talent is in increasingly high demand. As the IT field has grown, the UW-Milwaukee School of Information Studies has remained cutting edge in their delivery of IT curriculum. Chad Zahrt, assistant dean for Academic Affairs and Operations at the School of Information Studies, talks about the latest academic innovation: the UW Flexible Option. The program’s competency-based format allows adults to earn degrees at their own pace—using current knowledge and experience to progress toward their bachelor’s degree. This innovative format has helped IT professionals in the field save time and money. You can learn more about Dean Zahrt and the Bachelor of Science in Information Science and Technology (IST) by watching this video.
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Tell us about the UW-Milwaukee School of Information Studies.
The School of Information Studies (SOIS) continues to be a leader in innovative education—it’s the only IT school of its kind in Wisconsin. We offer four degree programs: Master of Science in Information Science and Technology, Master of Science in Library and Information Science (MLIS), Doctor of Philosophy in Information Studies, and the Bachelor of Science in Information Science and Technology. We have 24 full-time faculty members, ten full-time instructional staff, plus a dedicated administrative and advising/student services staff. SOIS launched the first fully online master’s program in the UW System in 2003. The IST courses have been offered onsite and online since 1999. 2017 marks the school’s 50th anniversary.
SOIS has always been responsive to students’ needs and interests. That’s why we offer a variety of ways to access our programs. Plus, the IST degree is very transfer-friendly; we accept a wide range of electives.
Our commitment to making a college degree more accessible is one of the reasons why SOIS fit so well with the UW Flexible Option format. We see a lot of people—web designers, database administrators, analysts—who learned their craft on the job and have been successful for several years without a degree. With demand for degree credentials increasing, many of these IT professionals are now seeking alternative solutions to earning their degrees beyond the traditional 15-week semester. Providing students a solution like the IST program through the UW Flexible Option is our response to this growing need.
How is the UW Flexible Option IST degree different from a traditional or online IST degree?
The biggest difference I see is “seat time.” The competencies or assessments in UW Flexible Option are the same as the on campus/online program; what you are required to know in order to graduate is the same. But in the UW Flexible Option, students progress when they demonstrate mastery of a subject—whether it takes them three weeks or three months to do so.
Students can leverage their work experience and existing knowledge to help them earn a bachelor’s degree faster. For instance, Craig Kilgo used his IT background to complete 63 credits in 18 months. Graduate Jamie Dear earned 49 credits in nine months.
How have you seen the IT job market evolve over the years? Do you find more IT job seekers need a degree these days?
Absolutely. Information technology jobs are expected to grow 16 percent in the next five years. It’s a different world, and we need to think more broadly about IT. Tech skills and knowledge are needed in every industry, every job; there isn’t anything that IT doesn’t touch in one way or another.
Some jobs today didn’t exist ten years ago. Data mining and data visualization are new titles, for instance. Because the IT field is constantly changing, the IT jobs of the future will be changing.
We use technology in ways we never thought we would, and we’ve become so used to having technology that, as a result, IT is ubiquitous. It’s in everything we do, all the time. IT is constantly evolving, and it’s evolving really fast.
The question to ask yourself is, will you have the knowledge and skills to survive the evolution? That’s really what it comes down to.
Earning the IST bachelor’s degree through the UW Flexible Option is one way IT professionals can overcome these challenges and thrive in today’s fast-paced IT environment.
How does the UW Flexible Option IST degree program work?
Students enroll in three-month subscription periods that they can start at the beginning of any month for one flat fee. In that three-month subscription period, they can choose to master as many competencies as they can. Or, they can focus on just one competency at a time. Students work when they want, at the pace they want.
What advice do you have for students who are considering the UW Flexible Option for an IST degree?
My advice for prospective students is to compare what you already know with what you will need to know in order to complete the degree. Recognize the difference. Start by looking closely at the core competency sets required to earn the degree. The UW Flexible Option works especially well for someone who has broader IT experience, such as a database administrator or web designer. Students can draw upon work experience in the IT field and any prior IT coursework to move through required competencies at their own pace. They prove their knowledge by mastering the assessments when they are ready—without having to wait for test day like in a traditional class.
Also, really think about how you manage your own time. Are you motivated to move through online learning resources such as videos, lectures, and tutorials? UW Flexible Option programs are self-directed. The pace of the program is unique to each individual student. Each student has the support of an Academic Success Coach who helps them devise a learning plan to stay on track, but ultimately, the student is in control of their time.
I think a successful student is one who has been working in IT for several years in the public or private sector and has some prior IT credits from a technical college or two-year college; someone who started down the college path but then life got in the way.
If you think the UW Flexible Option is the solution for you, then I encourage you to get started. You’ll find it’s a way to earn the degree you need to reach your full potential.