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  Spring 2006

 
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Also in this issue -- Closing the Distance
   
 

By Erik Esckilsen
Photography by Jim Westphalen

 

One myth that has struggled to find believers on the Champlain College campus since its earliest days as an institution -- no, not the Lake Champlain monster -- is the idea that some boundary separates college study from the “real world.” Internships have long been a core part of the curriculum, complementing courses that instill knowledge vital to success in an ever-changing, increasingly competitive job market. Because the job market is so dynamic in today’s technology driven global economy, adaptability to very real change has emerged as a critical job skill.

For many professionals, that means continuing on the learning path. That reality was very much on the minds of Don Haggerty (pictured left) and Dave Whitmore (right) as they began laying the groundwork a few years ago for what is now known as the Walter Cerf Master of Science in Managing Innovation and Information Technology (MSMIIT) program. The MSMIIT program was accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) in spring 2003 and now has roughly 60 enrolled students. Buoyed by the success of the MSMIIT program,the College recently announced its second graduate program, the Master of Business Administration (MBA). The MBA program launched “quietly,” as Haggerty, director of graduate programs, puts it, in fall 2005, with about a dozen students. He and his colleagues formally announced the program during the spring 2006 semester. NEASC has approved the formal proposal for the program, with accreditation review slated for fall 2006.

   
 
 

Offered online, these innovative programs create opportunities for individuals across a wide spectrum of industries to extend their education with optimal flexibility -- accessing coursework and participating in discussion threads on a schedule that blends in with their work routines. MBA student and 1993 Champlain alumnus John Boomhover, a transition team manager with third-party logistics provider A.N. Deringer, travels globally for work and considers the online component “essential.”As he says,“I wouldn’t fit into a traditional MBA program … that just doesn’t work for me. But the Internet knows no boundaries.”

Unlike the undergraduate curriculum, the graduate courses follow a 10-week quarterly schedule, with a two-week break between quarters and the month of August off. Whitmore, program director for the Global Networks and Telecommunications major, calls that pace “a good compromise” between seven-week intensives and the traditional 15-week term.Students take two courses a quarter and can complete the degrees in a minimum of 18 months or a maximum of four years. The four-year cap is a hedge against some of the technical information going stale, Whitmore notes, adding that a student will typically complete a program in three years. What is more, courses are scheduled so that students are never more than a quarter away from a course they want or need to take.

That this overall course design seems to be working for the programs’ target population is no surprise to Whitmore. “It’s filling an educational need, and that’s something Champlain has done over the years,” he says. “We’re giving people tools to succeed, and that’s a continuation of the ethic of the College.”

THE APPLICATION OF INTEGRATION

Master's Degrees at Champlain CollegeThe concept of integrating higher education with the “real world” is central to the philosophy of graduate study at Champlain. According to Haggerty, integration takes many forms in the curriculum, forging a link between students’ work experiences and their online instruction that goes deeper than in conventional graduate programs.

For MBA student Erin Lynn, who received her B.S. in 1995 from Champlain, the Reflective Leadership and Planned Change course couldn’t have come at a better time. An assistant controller with the S.T. Griswold Company, she has been enlisted to, as she says,“help with evaluating efficiencies and making the department run smoothly.” The essence of that process, she notes, is just the kind of change she is studying. “This whole semester has been involved with change,” she says. “It’s been very useful.”

She also appreciates what a broad base of knowledge could mean on the job. “Accounting is relatively specialized, and I believe that being exposed to a much broader range of business thinking and experiences will make me a more valuable employee,” she says. “The way we do business is changing rapidly, and staying abreast of these trends is crucial.”

According to Haggerty, it is also important to develop an effective mindset to guide the disipline of integrating classroom training and workplace practices. “We’re trying to instill and build a mental framework of reflectivity and critical thinking in all of the courses,” he says,“encouraging students to ask themselves what the coursework means to them.”

The idea of integration unifies the curriculum. Every course in the program links to another as students confront the essential relationships between workplace issues instead of treating those issues as isolated problems. This approach, in Haggerty’s view, more accurately represents the challenges that managers face. “Even in a financial management course,” he says,“we want to be sure that students are thinking about human resource issues, marketing issues, process issues, and governance … each course should be paying some respect to every other course.”

So far, reports from MSMIIT graduates indicate that the approach holds up under real workplace pressures. According to ’04 graduate Bob Bouthillier, worldwide manufacturing planner for IBM, the MSMIIT program addresses the varied facets of his job. “My job entails project management, and this program includes the financial and legal background I need,” he says. “Plus, the program has given me a better understanding of how systems technically work -- or sometimes don’t work -- so we can investigate ways to make them better.”

KEEPING IT REAL

 
Champlain College MBA faculty member Debra Heintz is
also a business manager at Ben & Jerry’s Homemade

Champlain students’ learning integrates instruction and the work experience to a much higher degree than is the case in conventional graduate programs. Whereas a typical MBA program, for example, will bring into the classroom “real world” scenarios and problems, asking class participants to examine these cases in the abstract, the Champlain College MBA works from the “inside out,” with students’ courses based, in large part, on what they face on the job.

The Champlain College MBA also differs from conventional programs in its emphasis on a course-long project. While such projects are typically tacked onto the end of a course, in the Champlain College program, students create a work-integrated project connected to their jobs, with the project accounting for no less than 25 percent of the course’s workload. “This isn’t the same old MBA,” Haggerty says, adding that he expects employers to recognize the wisdom of a program that so closely matches skills to workplace needs.

Debra Heintz, a business manager at Ben & Jerry’s Homemade and faculty member in the Champlain MBA program, agrees with the principles and has seen the results of the Champlain program. “In business we find that many MBA students come out of their programs with lots of academic background, but a limited ability to apply what they have learned,” she says. “The Champlain MBA really works to ensure students can apply what they are learning and add value to an organization… This is a much more hands-on, highly interactive, personal kind of program. It’s very focused on the students. It’s not cookie-cutter.”

Surely Boomhover’s employer appreciates the wisdom of that approach. One of Boomhover’s projects in his Financial Decision-Making class involves a comprehensive, multi-part financial analysis of a leasing deal his company is considering. “Basically, all of the techniques I learned are what I’m applying to this project,” he says. “When I presented my cashflow analysis to the CFO, he was impressed. He said, ‘This is exactly how I would’ve set it up.’”

While an applicant to the Champlain College MBA need not have an undergraduate degree in business or management, applicants are required to be currently employed or have a link to an organization that can be the focus of their in-class projects, assignments, and activities. To make the transition to the MBA easier for students without a business degree, Champlain has designed two MBA startup courses. Heintz teaches one of them, the Strategic Language of Business. “It bridges the background and experience you have into the language so that you can understand the language and concepts and then enter a course much more comfortably,” she says. The other introductory course title is the Quantitative Language of Business.

COLLABORATION, COMMUNITY, AND CROSSING DISCIPLINES

While the MBA and MSMIIT programs are distinct and designed to achieve different academic outcomes, some core courses do overlap, such as finance, change management, and project management. According to Whitmore, a projectoriented, collaborative approach to learning also runs through the MSMIIT program. “In the MSMIIT we also tend to be very realistic,” he says. “When you build real systems in the real world with real people, things that can go wrong will go wrong. We have faculty practitioners who can bring a ‘real world’ perspective, which is incredibly vital.”

Equally vital, he adds, is the sense of community that -- yes -- even online courses can engender. “We’re trying to create a cultural feel,” Whitmore says. “That’s a part of Champlain in general, trying to build a shared experience with faculty and students.”

For Boomhover, that sense of community is not only coming through but is a major benefit of online study. “The best thing about the format is the discussion threads that you get involved in with the other students,” he says. “I’ve learned just as much from the other participants as I have from the professors … When people are sharing real-life examples,it gives you different perspectives on how the particular topic you’re learning applies to different business types.”

Also like the MBA program, MSMIIT fosters crossdisciplinary strategic thinking. While IT conversations typically concern data, Haggerty notes that “data conversation always comes down to ‘Where does the data reside?'" The MSMIIT faculty includes individuals with experience in this type of collaboration between IT and other divisions within an organization. When Haggerty and Whitmore were colleagues at Green Mountain Power Corporation, for example, they often found themselves working together in this way -- Whitmore on the IT side of the table, Haggerty in marketing. That collaborative experience proved useful when the two rolled up their sleeves to make master’s degrees a reality at Champlain. “We overcame some of the wacky barriers and did it,” Whitmore says.

THE NEW CHAMPLAIN

 

"The way we do business is changing rapidly, and staying abreast of these trends is crucial."


Master’s degrees are clearly a good fit with the College’s historical goal of offering students a practical, career-focused educational experience. Whitmore sees potential benefits to the College in the enhanced prestige -- and grants and endowments -- that may accrue as people come to see Champlain as a resource for lifelong learning, particularly in an age when the Internet is becoming the dominant tool for gaining knowledge and, as College President David Finney has said, the economy is saturated with bachelor’s degree-holders. “All other things being equal, ”Whitmore says, “Champlain has a real edge. Our reputation and the community aspect we give to our work is a real positive sales tool and real attractive to our students.”

According to Champlain College Director of Graduate Enrollment Jo Churchill, Whitmore may be dead-on right. She describes MSMIIT enrollment as “being a solid steady state” and describes the new MBA as “taking off.” Anticipating a smooth MBA accreditation vision come October, all signs point to more master’s degree programs. “Our demographic and job market crystal balls suggest that there are select grad niches that we can fit into very well,” she notes.

Finney also sees benefits that the College can share with the larger Vermont community through its graduate programs, bolstering the College’s strength as an agent of economic development. “One of our roles, in addition to preparing students for career areas,” he says, “is that we are a solid institutional citizen of Vermont. And the demographics facing Vermont in terms of an aging population and an erosion of the population of people under 30 are pretty scary. We think that if we can provide very strong master’s degrees for various professions that we can have an impact by making Vermont a stronger place economically.”

While the two Champlain College master’s degree programs can be viewed as logical extensions of the academic traditions that have long defined Champlain College, they also reflect the pioneering side of the “new Champlain” -- that side that also includes roughly a decade of leadership in distance learning, including the new Online Global Modules (see article “Closing the Distance”), and international campuses in Mumbai, India, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The College has charted a new course to keep up with changing workplace demands and opportunities. If the MBA and MSMIIT programs are any indication, Champlain is breaking a boldly innovative trail toward purposeful, resultsdriven education in a world where lifelong learning is a necessity, not a luxury. “We can be different just by doing it right,” Haggerty says, “making some structural changes and some epistemological and philosophical changes as well.” The constant along that route seems clear: “You have to understand change.”

 

 


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