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CyberCollege evolves with technology.

ARKANSAS IS STRADDLING TWO different realities.

One looks like a field in east Arkansas, awaiting a coveted automotive plant to move in and bring with it hundreds of manufacturing jobs with attractive hourly wages and benefits.

The other is projected onto three corners of a blank cube in the heart of a building on the University of Arkansas at Little Rock campus. This one has fewer limits than the first, allowing one to view and manipulate any number of digital three-dimensional realities from a molecular structure to Mount Rushmore.

According to Mary Good, dean of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's CyberCollege, the first is the past and the second is the future, the burgeoning information economy with an ever-increasing demand for highly-skilled engineers and technicians.

Good cites U.S. Labor Bureau statistics, which indicate that eight of the top 10 fastest growing jobs in the country are related to computer and information technology. And yet year after year, Arkansas remains the bottom tier of the Milken Institute's State Technology & Science Index, a survey of each state's science and technology assets that can be leveraged for economic development.

"If we want to stay competitive, we've got to be the vanguard of innovations and we have got to be able to do things that are competitive with the rest of the world," Good said.

In short, Arkansas needs to "technologize." That's the word the school has adopted to describe the education it imparts: an ability to understand, apply and modify today's most advanced technologies.

And just as Arkansas is poised to plunge full-force into the information economy, UALR CyberCollege is ready to burst forth from a somewhat embryonic stage to something far greater: a center for cutting-edge research and development in some of the world's most advanced technologies.

For starters, the school will soon shed its old name. Donaghey College of Information Science & Systems Engineering is a bit of a mouthful. And CyberCollege is often misunderstood to mean that all the classes are taken online.

The announcement of a name should roughly coincide with the August ground-breaking for the college's new $35 million building which will be approximately 100,000 SF, including a new auditorium. So far, the school has raised $18 million and has another $13 million tacked on to the Department of Higher Education's budget request. Good said they hope to get the Legislature to dole out a few million in addition to the department's budget request and round up the fundraising campaign in mid-April with a few more private donations.

The school is simply out of space, so no matter how much money is raised, the building plans will go forward. The architect is Ed Levy of Little Rock's Cromwell Architects & Engineers, who designed the CyberCollege's current building.

Beyond the cosmetic changes, the CyberCollege academic coursework and resource projects continue to reach new heights.

Last year, the CyberCollege increased its research funding by 70 percent, including a proprietary project sponsored by Alltel Corp. with which the students involved had to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Currently the school has 1,000 students enrolled, 750 of whom have declared majors in the CyberCollege, a 21 percent increase from last year. The 2006-07 freshman class is also the biggest in the school's history.

Of 1,000 students enrolled, 130 are graduate students, including 75 on the path to their Ph.Ds.

The school also began offering last fall a master's program in information quality, a discipline that applies to databases the principles of total quality management, a philosophy that was the rage with manufacturers in the 1980s.

John Talburt, a CyberCollege professor of information science, said that as more companies began to data-mine, many are suffering from what he called "the 80/20 rule": 80 percent of their time is spent cleaning up the data, trying to understand the data and trying to integrate the data while only 20 percent is spent actually analyzing it and gleaning intelligence.

"If you look out in business, a lot of the leading business intelligence and analytical people are seeing that they need to do sort of an end-to-end, not just pay attention to the backend analytics but pay attention to the quality of data going in," Talburt said.

To get the master's program rolling, the CyberCollege teamed up with Talburt's old employer and one of the biggest data-miners the world has ever known: Little Rock's own Acxiom Corp. Talburt spent 10 years working in research and development for Acxiom, which kicked in $250,000 in seed money last year to help establish the program and more funding this year, part of which paid for Talburt's salary.

The CyberCollege also got a little help from the Massachusetts Institute for Technology at Cambridge, which lent the head of its data quality management program, Rich Wang, as a visiting professor and aided the college in navigating intellectual property issues.

The CyberCollege claims to be the first school in the world to offer an information quality master's program. Next fall, though, the University of Southern Australia will start offering a master's in information quality, modeled on the CyberCollege's.

With this head start, Talburt believes the CyberCollege could one day become the center of the information quality management universe. Already, one faculty member, Associate Professor Elizabeth Pierce, is a managing editor on the only journal for information quality studies, so the journal will essential operate out of Little Rock.

The master's program has 25 students enrolled, including eight from Acxiom and two from Alltel. Talburt said the school hopes to double that number by next year and eventually add doctoral-level studies to feed a demand that he believes will arise as IT professionals, who already have master's, begin to return to school for information quality studies and more programs pop up, needing more information quality teachers.

New data quality management tools researched and developed at the CyberCollege could also create lucrative business opportunities. For that reason, Good said the CyberCollege is working to set up its own incubator, similar to BioVentures at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

A couple of companies are ready to go in: former CyberCollege student R.J. Martino's iProv, a software and Web site development company, and another software company that may have a better, cheaper product than WebCT, software used in online courses. Hopefully, the incubator will serve as a launching pad for more companies to join central Arkansas' growing cluster of IT and telecom companies.

BY JAMES GORDON

jgordon@abpg.com
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Title Annotation:forecasting employment of information technology professionals
Comment:CyberCollege evolves with technology.(forecasting employment of information technology professionals)
Author:Gordon, James
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Feb 12, 2007
Words:1080
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