Courses are designed around the needs of mission-critical employees and the companies that depend on them
The motto of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is "Why not change the world?" A bold question given the pressing issues facing the world. In fact, the Institute's President Shirley Ann Jackson committed the Institute to just such a direction with The Rensselaer Plan 2024. This motivated Aric Krause to accept the role as Dean of the Education for Working Professionals program of Rensselaer Hartford in 2017.
And if ever a national education segment demanded change, it is those specifically serving working professionals. These programs need to serve the early and mid-career rising stars, mission-critical employees, and key executives tasked with Herculean objectives to move their employers forward while still maintaining a personalized work-life balance.
Traditional campus-based programs for working professionals, like those pioneered by Rensselaer in 1955 through its Hartford campus, are increasingly challenging for working professionals. The introduction of online offerings altered the higher education landscape by delivering unmatched convenience. Unfortunately, many new online programs were of questionable quality, often taught by instructors with minimal connection to the learners. Students described the online learning environment as one characterized by isolation, where they felt like they were on their own. None of which are acceptable for a world-class institution on a mission to change the world.
So, Dean Krause set out to research and design the most effective model in adult pedagogy based on core learning principles. What he discovered was enlightening:
- In order to engage working professionals in learning, the experience must actively uphold the elements of trust through engagement: affiliation, mutual commitment, and advocacy.
- The true essence of adult learning occurs when established cognitive patterns are challenged. Dean Krause broke from traditional patterns by emphasizing learning within a context defined by social engagement and inclusion in order to deepen cognition through real-world projects.
- In shifting from the traditional classroom experience to an online dynamic, the human/computer interaction should not be the focus. Technology is merely a "pen" or tool, not a barrier to figure out or deploy. Instead, computer interaction must augment the communication, relationship, connection, and affiliation that occur within adult learning, not attempt to replace it.
In order to best capture the content required for this newly defined approach, Aric Krause interviewed national and international stakeholders: leaders who require cutting-edge teams to move their organizations forward. What he heard was compelling:
- Major employers increasingly need analytics, project management, supply chain, and other key skills companywide to stay relevant, deal with increasing complexity, and maintain a competitive advantage. Across industries, the opportunity costs run into the billions of dollars per year if the company isn't matching its competitors' abilities to use data and optimize their operations. Many organizations struggle to keep up with accelerating change and still concentrate on their core business.
- Employees seek to earn promotions or take on new challenges by renewing their abilities and taking on new skill sets. While theoretical knowledge matters, more important is immediate, applicable, and practical knowledge. Intensive education in critical areas can mean significant salary increases, too.
- The time commitment to acquire knowledge on a daily, monthly, and annual basis has to work with a professional's existing job and personal demands. The most important employees in companies are consistently the busiest.
The solution, Dean Krause realized, was not in creating additional master's degrees to supplement the current, highly regarded Master of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering and Master of Engineering in Systems Engineering and Technology Management, but rather to apply their best practices to shorter, highly focused certificate programs that would meet the specific objectives of prospective students and their employers.
Dean Krause had already restructured Rensselaer's degree programs to make them more project-based and relevant. Professors deliver instruction online and actively mentor students to ensure their education addresses the real-world challenges of their demanding jobs. The new certificates apply the same methodology to focused, nine-credit hour programs. They address immediate needs and can be completed within a year.
The first six Rensselaer graduate certificates are now available. Business Intelligence, Health Analytics, and Production Analytics broadly overlap and provide industry and job-specific foundations in data driven decision-making, analysis, and modeling decisions. Conversely, Lean Quality in Production, Systems Engineering, and Machine Learning & AI dive into critical issues faced by manufacturing, insurance, finance, health, and other industries with little overlap. Additional certificates are in development and will address even more of the education gaps identified by major employers in virtually every sector.
Largely, the Rensselaer certificate program is designed so that working professionals can complete certificates when and where they need them to achieve their next career goal. As new challenges arise, additional certificates can be taken, resulting in a "just in time" learning model that can be taken anytime, anywhere, customized specifically to the aspirations of the working professional as well as the needs of the employer. If desired, completing three certificates can accumulate into a Master of Science in Engineering Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with the completion of a final integrative project.
The implications of Rensselaer's new approach are profound. Students can acquire best-in-class analytics capabilities and apply them immediately to address existing challenges and to identify new opportunities. Where appropriate, the new opportunities could then be served with additional certificates timed to provide maximum return for both the student and the employer, ultimately stacking to create a customized master's degree.
For a 200-year-old institution with a reputation for bestowing prestigious degrees on the most qualified students, Rensselaer's new certificate program is a fulfillment of President Jackson's call to action. And for students and employers requiring specific education and mentorship, delivered in cutting-edge subjects to mission-critical employees, at the right time and in the right sequence, the revamped master's degrees and the new certificates truly deliver on the mandate of "Why not change the world?"