Get on the Net and get a job;FE Focus

5th February 1999 at 00:00
The explosion of interest in Internet companies is about to impact, says Geraldine Abrahams

THE NASCENT University of the Highlands and Islands, with its emphasis on distance learning, has become a Cisco Regional Academy, allowing it to integrate an internationally recognised curriculum into existing courses, based on the Internet in whose operation Cisco is a major player.

Hugh Mackenzie, head of business management and computing at Stornoway's Lews Castle College, who is UHI course leader for the BSc in computing, says setting up the US-originated academy in Scotland is "the most positive thing that has happened".

At Lews Castle the proposal is to integrate the Cisco course into a BSc degree, for first and second-year students. Since 80 per cent of the curriculum for the HND in computing is common to that of the BSc, Cisco course materials and outcomes will be used there too.

"We will not start integrating the degree until September so the first graduates will emerge three years from now, gaining a Cisco award after two years. We are working our way through the semesters to make sure we will get a good match with the curriculum of the computing degree," Mr Mackenzie says.

There are four semesters planned for the academic year, and when UHI has completed the first round it will look at how training could be offered to local academies across the country. Glasgow College of Building and Printing and Aberdeen and Lauder colleges have already registered an interest. The intention is for the regional academies to be certified as Cisco trainers, and the trainers will be trained at local level, while simultaneously running their own courses.

Most people in education are unlikely to be familiar with the Cisco profile, yet 85 per cent of Internet traffic runs over Cisco routers. Founded in 1984 at Stanford University, Cisco Systems is said to have achieved in 14 years what took Microsoft 20 years. "The Cisco academies were first set up to help address the acute shortage of skills in the market-place," says Maggie Morrison, who is responsible for Cisco sales in Scotland and Ireland. "Companies have difficulty holding on to people with, Cisco engineering qualification, because they can virtually write their own pay cheque. Poaching is also common, but the gene pool is just drying up."

So the need is to ensure that young people become familiar with and learn to take advantage of technology.

Ms Morrison says: "We believe in educational establishments getting together and making decisions across a common infrastructure. That is going to be far more effective than individual councils or education authorities doing their own thing. We want technology to be incorporated into a lifelong learning process."

The distance learning opportunities are exemplified even in course construction. One of the Lews Castle team developing the BSc course is doing so from a centre 20 miles out of Stornoway and delivering it by video-conferencing.

Technology appears tailor-made for remote regions, but Mr Mackenzie says:

"We have had to think of alternatives to travelling long distances to arrange face-to-face learning, and this has helped to overcome a large proportion of the problem. We are now putting in high-speed networks and will be able to offer video- audio and data to the desktop. I see great potential in becoming involved with large educational deliverers like Aberdeen and the College of Building and Printing which serve big populations and are able to deliver awards to those large populations. We need to make this happen to be successful."

Cisco is researching other moves into Scotland. Edinburgh University is already a centre for Europe and Glasgow University is considering joining.

Addressing the technology skills shortage is essential to continual growth of the Internet economy, and Maggie Morrison warns: "We are not training for it. It is a matter of getting the colleges themselves to buy in, to ensure that they put people out into the market-place with the relevant skills. We fund the equipment and run this programme. Everyone is now aware of the importance of the Internet and this is an area where if you train people properly they will get jobs."

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