IST online master's program prepares future leaders in technology, security

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In today’s digital age, individuals who are looking to advance their careers are often required to obtain specialized knowledge in areas such as cyber security, intelligence analysis and security policy development. At Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), the online master of professional studies (MPS) degree program, which marks its fifth anniversary in fall 2013, is preparing professionals and organizational leaders to take on greater responsibilities, without disrupting their careers or requiring them to relocate.

“The online programs through Penn State’s World campus provide working professionals with the opportunity to address rapidly changing and new information technology areas,” said David Hall, dean of the College of IST. “The online programs benefit not only working professionals (and allow us to reach out to students such as active duty military personnel who would not ordinarily be able to obtain such education), but also provide synergy with our resident programs.” 

The MPS program allows working professionals to obtain graduate degrees in areas such as information science (with a focus on cyber security and information assurance), homeland security (as part of Penn State’s intercollege MPS program) and a new program in enterprise architecture. Enterprise architecture is the process of translating business vision and strategy into effective enterprise change by creating, communicating, and improving the key requirements, principles and models that describe the enterprise’s future state and enable its evolution and transformation.

“The goal of an MPS program is really to provide educational programs for people who are often looking for promotions in the workforce,” said Peter Forster, assistant dean for online education and professional education at the College of IST. “(Alumni) who have come back have said, ‘It’s really done a lot of wonderful things for me.’”

The MPS program has grown substantially since its inception in 2009. In 2009-10, there were five courses offered in the program, with 25 students enrolled. Currently, the MPS program has 257 degree-seeking students, with an additional 30 students seeking online graduate certificates. There are 42 planned courses in 2013-14. In addition, 21 tenure or fixed-term faculty members and four affiliate faculty members teach in the MPS program.

“We are experiencing significant growth in the number of students taking our program but that growth has been matched with the quality of students,” Forster said.

Graduates of the MPS program, he added, are working in the Department of Defense, as defense contractors and in the intelligence community. The programs also attract many people who work in the private sector and need to expand their knowledge about security issues.

A major goal of the MPS program, Hall and Forster said, is to provide its students with the same opportunities as resident students. Many of the instructors in the program, including Hall, teach both online and resident courses.

“We work very hard to ensure that the experiences that online students have (from interactions with other students, interaction with instructors, access to library and ‘virtual’ laboratory facilities) are equivalent to the experiences obtained by resident students,” Hall said.

For example, he added, in the College of IST’s resident teaching of cyber security, the instructors provide access to physical “cyber security laboratories” which allow students to understand issues of cyber-attacks and defense.  

“In order for online students to have similar experiences, we have developed ‘virtual’ cyber security laboratory exercises,” Hall said. “The development of such simulations and virtual laboratories improves our resident instruction as well as our online instruction.” 

Gerry Santoro, a senior lecturer in the College of IST who has been teaching security management and cyber forensics in the MPS program for the past three years and was formerly director of online education, said that while the lack of face-to-face contact is a drawback of online learning, he tries to create a more intimate learning environment by posting instructional videos on his course websites.

“The key to distance education is communication,” he said. “The videos make students feel (like they are) part of the Penn State community.”

A lot of the students that Santoro teaches in his online courses, he said, are information technology professionals in their mid-30s who are seeking promotions. Since they tend to be older and more experienced than traditional students, he added, and also clear about their professional goals, their work tends to be high quality. The flexibility of the program to working professionals who live in various locations and don’t want to give up their paychecks to go back to school full-time, Forster said, is a major selling point of the MPS program.

“I think the greatest advantage of (the program) is its flexibility,” he said. “It’s accessible wherever you are and whenever you want to take it.”

For Crystal Finkboner, of Rochelle, Ill., who is currently enrolled in the MPS in Homeland Security - Information Security and Forensics Option, that flexibility, along with the comprehensiveness of the program, was a major draw for her. Finkboner, who runs her own IT services company, said that she hopes to expand into security consulting and enrolled in the MPS program last fall because she found that it suited her needs, both professionally and personally. She had previously worked as a network administrator, and while she was able to identify cyber-attacks, she needed to fill in some gaps in her education in order to obtain government contracts.

“I really wanted to know more in-depth about how to stop the ‘bad guys,' so to speak,” she said.

Finkboner, whose classes are focused on network security, said that she has found the MPS instructors to be very accommodating. The knowledge about security issues that she is gaining from the classes, she added, will be instrumental in writing policies in the future.

“Security is one of those things that it’s really hard to self-educate,” she said. “You really have to learn it from somebody.”

Christopher Harm, a 2011 MPS graduate who works as a software engineer at Raytheon in State College, Pa., also said that the program’s flexibility and comprehensiveness were helpful in furthering his education while working full-time. He said the program matched a lot of his interests, particularly the information assurance aspect.

“I like to consider myself someone who likes to continually learn,” Harm said.

According to Forster, distance learners such as Finkboner and Harm tend to feel a stronger affiliation with Penn State. For example, more World Campus graduates join the Penn State Alumni Association than students who come out of resident undergraduate and graduate programs.

Hall and Forster said that they anticipate continued growth of the MPS program. There are talks about starting a graduate program in analytics within the next year, as well as discussions about a medical informatics option. Information intelligence, big data and agriculture are also areas of future growth for the program, Forster said, which reflects the College of IST’s interdisciplinary nature.

“Online education is a mirror of what the college does,” he said. “People need to use information in everything they do.”

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Last Updated October 28, 2013