How collegiate cyber competitions are inspiring tomorrow’s workforce

Cybersecurity roles involve critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and handling fallout that could potentially cripple a business. While students may read about and discuss the foundation of this career in in the classroom, they need real-world experiences. Collegiate cyber competitions play a critical role in today’s modern-day curriculum, allowing students to understand the pressure, consequences, teamwork, and rewards for a career in cyber.

The benefits of competing in a collegiate cyber competition

As team captain for the University of Virginia at the National Collegiate Cybersecurity Defense Competition (NCCDC), I’ve seen firsthand how collegiate competitions help build a foundation for a career in cyber. More than 235 colleges and universities from across the country tested their cybersecurity skills in real-world business scenarios while industry professionals launched attacks against their networks. Participating in NCCDC taught me four lessons I couldn’t have learned exclusively in a standard college curriculum.

4 lessons students learn in cyber competitions

1. Technical skills: In a classroom, professors tell us how a network works, but it’s not until you’re defending a live network in a cyber competition that you can fully understand the technical skills you need to be successful. Hands-on experience is key to successfully learning new skills. The networks we defended during the competition were similar to the infrastructure found in a real-world business—something students don’t get exposed to in the curriculum. It was exciting to see how a business network actually operates and how to best defend it when we were under attack.

2. Teamwork: Collegiate cyber competitions are high-stress environments. We knew that any moment my team’s network could be infiltrated by the Red Team. To succeed, we had to work together as a unified team in real time. If our systems were down and needed to be fixed, the whole team needed to collaborate to solve the problem—an experience cybersecurity workers encounter every day.

3. C-level communication: In cybersecurity, technical terms and acronyms are common for those in the trenches. However, when communicating with business leaders and C-level roles about the security posture of their organization, you need to focus on keeping it high-level, simple, and factual, such as when pointing out the dangers and consequences of unpatched systems. Collegiate cyber competitions give students like me the opportunity to translate technical terms into business conversations, which is critical to affect changes in a company’s cyber defenses.

4. Mentorships and networking: At NCCDC, industry veterans answered questions, provided feedback, and shared advice. Many of the experts I met at the competition have become mentors. At any cyber competition, it’s important to connect with the experts, share contact information, and follow up afterward to further develop these relationships. Down the road, these mentors can provide students like me with valuable advice and assistance as we apply for our first cybersecurity jobs.

Getting the most out of the experience

Participating in a collegiate cyber competition can be overwhelming at first, but totally worth the reward. From my experience, I’ve learned:

Preparation is key: Before the competition, teams should have an action plan in place, but should also understand that part of preparing is knowing that things will go wrong. Being flexible should be part of the preparation. It’s also helpful to reach out your network and ask for advice. For example, when I’m having issues with a specific system, I’ve reached out to an expert in my network for advice on how to configure the system.

Ask for feedback: The best collegiate cyber competitions are those that are learning-based with an open line of communication with experts. I recommend participating in learning-based cyber competitions, like NCCDC, and while there, speak with the Red Teams. Find out what your team did well and what you can improve on in the future. NCCDC is sponsored by major cyber organizations in law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and corporations, such as Raytheon. It’ll help your game plan and preparation for years to come.

Inspire others: Set an example by competing in cyber competitions to build real-world skills and develop insights that you can’t get in the classroom. I began competing as one of the few female participants in NCCDC a few years ago. Last year, I noticed there were five female competitors, and this year, we’ve more than doubled that number. These events can inspire colleagues, students, and the next generation of cyber experts by demonstrating that technical problem-solving and cyber skills are found amongst us all, regardless of gender, experience, or age.

I can say with confidence that students who participate in competitions like NCCDC will receive a well-rounded, hands-on training experience, which can lead to an internship and then a permanent job with highly reputable organizations.


How can higher-ed better prepare students to enter the workforce?

eCampus News recently spoke with Matthew Glotzbach, chief executive officer of Quizlet—the mega-popular site that offers tools for students to make study sets that can be used for flashcards, learning activities, and games—about how higher-ed leaders can better prepare students to enter the workforce.

Q: What professional skill sets are the most valuable in today’s digital economy?

A: A successful career in today’s digital economy involves developing and demonstrating both hard and soft skills. As we know, coding isn’t just for creating the next social network or gaming app. Every sector, from finance and fashion, to mining and hospitality, needs employees who can leverage technology, as well as understand, analyze, and manipulate data. Whether it’s using JavaScript, Python, or HTML to develop apps that sell mortgages or track exercise on a watch, to using R and SQL to analyze healthcare data, coding and technology skills are everywhere.

In addition to technical know-how, however, soft skills such as communication, collaboration, and negotiation are just as important for a successful career. Innovation is based on teamwork, sharing ideas, and building new things together as an organization. And, of course, as young professionals develop expertise in their job, it’s likely they’ll become managers and mentors to others. We generally find that a combination of hard and soft skills is what sets one candidate apart from another—and serves to build great leaders of the future.

Q: How can higher-ed institutions and edtech companies better prepare graduates to enter the workforce?

A: We recognize that technological innovation will continue to evolve the jobs of the future. Educators have the power to equip students with evergreen skills that will always be necessary in a career, like learning how to learn and fostering a sense of curiosity to take throughout life. Students can really benefit from teachers setting a precedent that ongoing learning is normal and healthy so that incoming employees are agile and able to take on whatever comes their way.

Group projects versus solo assignments should be encouraged in school to build teamwork skills and provide opportunities for applied theory. Offering interactive lessons that encourage students to discuss ideas and brainstorm solutions is crucial practice for the real world. These exercises help to answer the age-old question, “Why do I need to know this?” by letting students connect the dots and explore problem-solving in a safe environment. Well-designed edtech tools can be great for promoting such collaboration and critical thinking. Gamified learning is also a technique that higher education can implement to foster teamwork and friendly competition.

Related: University students who play calculus video game score higher on exams

Students need to be given every chance to practice analyzing information. There’s so much data available today that distilling information has become a vital skill—just like coding and graphic design. It can be challenging to discern fact from fiction in this era of information overload, so it’s imperative students understand where to find accurate information and how to draw their own conclusions.

Q: What are students’ opportunities for continued learning and how are these opportunities contributing to the future of work?

A: Many schools offer continued learning programs to help individuals develop stronger skills in conjunction with a career or to pursue a new interest before adjusting their path. It’s exciting to see a growing number of subject-matter-driven tech courses, like Marketing Technology (Martech), which combine technical skills with industry-specific applications. For people who didn’t have the opportunity to ramp up their tech skills in college, boot camps and online micro-degrees are a great option. In 2018, coding bootcamps were on track to graduate more than 20,000 students with a reported 34 percent average salary increase in their first jobs after course completion.


Mentoring programs are a great way to boost student achievement

At Indiana State University (ISU), mentoring programs are in the DNA. The school offers an assortment of both formal and informal options, including programs that serve distinct student populations. Others involve peer mentoring or drawing on an axis of faculty-staff-alumni to lend their guidance and support.

After winning a five-year, $2.38 million dollar grant in September from the U.S. Department of Education’s competitive Strengthening Institution Program, ISU is expanding its mentoring programs.

Research has shown the transformative effects of mentoring on students, especially for those who come from impoverished backgrounds. “Relationships matter,” says Josh Powers, associate vice president for student success at ISU. “That is at the core of mentoring. It’s particularly important for marginalized students to feel like they matter and someone is investing in them.”

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but Powers estimates that at least one-third of ISU students have taken advantage of a mentoring program at one time or another. For example, Destination Success, in the College of Technology, uses faculty and outside alumni to mentor women in technology; the Mentoring Assistance Program (MAPS), run by the African American Cultural Center, helps minority students complete their education.

Using a grant to expand mentoring programs

Powers says the grant will help the college improve student retention and on-time graduation rates; expand opportunities to train, support, and educate mentors whether they be peers, faculty, or staff; and provide more mentoring to faculty “in the instructional enterprise and their expertise supporting the success of historically disadvantaged students.”

Related: How tech-based peer mentoring is radically changing recruitment

The first step is for ISU to assess its needs and opportunities to determine the best way to spend the money. Plans include sending four members from the grant leadership team to other campuses with a recognized expertise to get ideas; improving ISU’s technology support to help match mentors and mentees better; and adding staff, including a director and coordinator. ISU will most likely build some type of centralized space near campus with offices to accommodate mentoring and training.

How to start your own mentoring program

For schools that would like to mount effective mentoring programs, Powers suggests the following:

  • Expand your definition of mentoring. “Recognize that this is not only about formalized forms of mentoring. Everyday interactions can be thoughtfully conducted in ways that have mentoring benefits. Relationships need care and feeding. People need to learn how to do that well.”
  • Take stock of your current mentoring programs. See if what you’re already doing is focused in the right direction and well-coordinated. For example, different units on campus might each believe that freshmen need mentors, but they might not be communicating clearly with each other or with students.
  • Streamline your offerings. “Language is really important. Sometimes it can be confusing to students: Who are these people? What are their roles? I’ve got a coach here and mentor there. Are they the same thing?”
  • Communicate wisely. “Talk to students who are serving as mentors as well as students who might benefit from mentoring. You can get insight into what they would be looking for from a mentoring program at the college level.”
  • Involve as many people as you can. “Fundamentally, this is about inclusive excellence. A GPA can be both empowering and devastating. Mentoring can be a place to help students see there’s so much more [to an education] than just a GPA.”

Can student coaching help higher ed improve retention rates?

Many higher-ed student success initiatives focus on at-risk students. Loyola University New Orleans, however, has flipped this script by giving every first-year student personalized coaching—and it’s working: The percentage of students who return for their second year is now at an all-time high.

“We believe deeply that any student can enhance their experience through these kinds of conversations,” says Director of Student Success Elizabeth Rainey.

The university had been coaching students on how to be successful through its own home-grown effort, but this program was by referral only. As Rainey says, “We needed some formal training on a model with a proven track record so that students received a consistently high-quality experience.”

Improving the student coaching process

For the 2017-18 academic year, the university partnered with a company called InsideTrack to help with its student coaching, and it expanded the program to include all first-year students.

Related: Courageous coaching: How one HBC turned around an enrollment shortfall

InsideTrack coached about 300 of the university’s 800 first-year students by phone, email, and text messaging last year, and the company also trained university staff how to be student coaches for the other 500 first-year students. This year, two full-time university staff members and several volunteers do all of the student coaching, while InsideTrack conducts monthly training with staff to ensure success.

The university’s goal is to meet with students in person for 20 minutes at a time, although this can vary—and sometimes the coaching takes place via text-messaging instead. “Some students are more engaged than others,” Rainey says. “Ideally, we touch base with them every two weeks.”


7 new online education trends

Career and employment goals continue to be one of the top reasons students pursue online education, according to an annual report recapping online education trends.

A full 69 percent of surveyed online students say employment is their primary goal for enrolling in an online education program, according to the Online Education Trends Report from

Related: 7 myths about online learning in higher ed

This year’s report includes candid feedback from more than 450 school administrators and 1,500 students.

Students are grouped into categories extending beyond the age-based labels of traditional and nontraditional:

  • Aspiring academics are ages 18-24 and are focused on academic studies
  • Coming of Age students are 18-24 and are exploring college academics, social offerings, and a variety of activities
  • Academic Wanderers are older students who know the advantages of a college degree but are undecided about academic and career goals and how to achieve them
  • Career Starters encompass a wide age range and are interested in college as a path to a specific career
  • Career Accelerators are older students with some college and job experience interested in college to advance in their current field
  • Industry Switchers are older students with some college and job experience interested in transitioning to a new career field

A steady theme in online education trends is cost and financial concerns. Those concerns continue to be students’ biggest challenges when choosing an online program. As in previous surveys, students identified the top two most challenging aspects of making decisions about online education as “estimating annual costs” and “applying for financial aid and identifying sufficient funding sources.”


3 takeaways from North Carolina Community College System’s AI projects

Colleges, universities, and community college systems are grappling with how best to plan, implement, and deliver artificial intelligence (AI) solutions to the maximum benefit of students, faculty, administration, and community stakeholders. As I interact with colleagues across the country, they all know it’s no longer a question of “if” but “how and when and to what end.”

While the needs of every institution are obviously going to vary based on size, student profile, public versus private, I would like to offer up some useful observations and takeaways based on our first steps in this AI journey at the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS).

About us: We’re the third-largest community college system in the United States, with 58 campus locations, more than 750,000 students, and more than 30,000 faculty and staff. The taxpayer investments in the system have been consistent, considerable, and continue to generate economic growth and development across North Carolina.

3 takeaways about our higher-ed AI projects

Takeaway 1: Start small and grow incrementally.

The best and most effective strategy won’t work unless you can show early successes. Provide your campus community with the roadmap and be clear what success looks like for every step. Here at NCCCS, that crucial low-hanging fruit is in organizing and mapping our knowledge.

Related: What will AI and robotics mean for higher education?

We have a tremendous amount of intellectual capital that’s dispersed, which is at risk both from a tech and a human perspective. To start with the latter, we look at the graying of our talented faculty population, what we call the Silver Tsunami, carrying around an incredible amount of wisdom and knowledge gained over the course of long careers; there’s a risk of that knowledge disappearing as they retire.

Then there’s our “Area 51” warehouse full of information and knowledge—from ceramic pots to videos to structured data to conference papers. We need to digitize, categorize, and curate all of these assets in a searchable form.

And speaking of institutional intelligence, we’re lucky to have an extremely skilled professional staff, without whom projects of this magnitude would be difficult to pull off.

We are in the midst of this process now and will soon be making our first presentation to faculty and staff. This is our starting place.


In higher ed, women in IT face an uphill battle for leadership roles

At last fall’s EDUCAUSE, four female higher-ed IT leaders offered advice for their colleagues aspiring to leadership roles in IT. The session addressed issues such as conscious and unconscious gender bias, how to identify role models and mentors, and how to build the skills necessary to lead an IT team.

The topic was especially powerful in this time of heightened tensions around gender bias and sexual harassment in the IT field, and the conversation was especially timely given the atmosphere of outspoken protest against gender inequality. Tech giant Google has faced huge internal backlash and an international employee walkout over the way it has handled–or hasn’t handled–accusations of sexual harassment against male executives.

The panelists were:

  1. Celeste Schwartz, vice president for information technology and chief digital officer at Montgomery County Community College and 2018 EDUCAUSE Leadership Award Recipient
  2. Sue Workman, vice president for university technology/CIO at Case Western Reserve University
  3. Sharon Pitt, vice president for information technologies at the University of Delaware
  4. Melissa Woo, senior vice president for IT and CIO, Stony Brook University

Moderator Steven Burrell, VPIT and CIO at Northern Arizona University, offered up a mix of pre-populated questions and audience-submitted questions.

1. Women continue to face significant obstacles on the path to IT leadership roles. What activities, initiatives, and efforts are particularly effective at raising awareness and creating positive change in diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Pitt: “At my own institution, I’m pleased that some folks within my organization started a Women in Technology group. As much as possible, I try to engage in diversity activities that happen [around me]. I think there’s a lot we can do, and you’d be surprised how the smallest effort has such a big impact, such as asking my staff to participate in HR activities around understanding and privilege.”

Related: 7 challenges women STILL face in higher ed–and how to fix them

Woo: “On a local level, our campus is very devoted to diversity and inclusion. I’m lucky to have an HR professional on my team. We’re working to redefine what the ‘best candidate’ is–[we are building] a tool that uses AI to look at your job description to identify bias. We want to pilot it within central IT first to better position women and other underrepresented groups into roles where the job descriptions resonate with them.”

Schwartz: “In our institution, we really work hard to ensure there’s diversity, especially among our student workers. There are lots of young men in the IT field, so when we look to fill our help desk positions, which are normally filled via faculty recommendations, normally, young men apply. We’re working specifically with female IT faculty and asking them to identify women in their program and encourage those women to apply. We’ve found that young men are much more confident about applying for these jobs than young women.”

2. What advice do you have for men who may not know how to best support women who experience gender bias?

Workman: “Make sure you know the law and make sure you know what your institution expects. Always make sure you are trying to help in a healthy way. It’s a hard thing right now. Also, call it out–amplify a great idea that might not be heard in a meeting because it comes from a woman.”

Schwartz: “If you have special projects, make sure there are opportunities–it’s not unusual that a woman might sit back a little and wait to be asked. Sometimes men seem more enthusiastic about new projects. Make sure there’s a balance in any kind of special project. Make sure there’s an equal opportunity for men and women in PD–oftentimes men are much clearer about what it is they’re hoping for. Ask where a woman hopes to be.”

Pitt: “I’ve been pretty unapologetic about this. Two years ago I presented with [a colleague] who said one of her biggest regrets was that she tried to make things more comfortable for the men. I said [to myself], ‘I’m not going to do that. I’m going to raise this issue every day. We have a lot of white men in my organization and they’ve risen to the challenge.'”

Woo: “Just ask the women. It can be hard for male allies to offer help and address it without getting called out for inappropriate behavior. So ask.”


Higher ed must learn to use student data more wisely

When it comes to recruitment and alumni contributions, how you use student data can make a big difference. According to Students, alumni, and administrators agree: Data-driven communications make a difference, a survey from software and services provider Ellucian, students are increasingly using their expectations of and actual experiences with data and personalized communications to dictate their enrollment and future giving.

The annual survey, released last fall, shows that personalized communications weigh heavily in students’ decisions about which institution to attend.

Personalization & targeted communication are crucial

Eighty-seven percent of students who received personalized communications during their application process say it was an important factor in their choice of school. Forty-eight percent of students who applied to multiple colleges used poor communication as one reason not to attend a particular institution.

“Today’s students expect seamless personalized experiences from nearly every organization they come in contact with—whether they realize it or not,” says Katie Lynch-Holmes, Ellucian senior strategic consultant. “These expectations and actual experiences influence their choice of institution, long-term loyalty, and future giving.”

Related: How to make data meaningful for today’s students

Share student data wisely

What’s more, students pay attention to the data they offer and where it goes—or doesn’t go. They say they expect the large amounts of data they provide during college recruitment to be reflected back in tailored communications and experiences.

Students say they sometimes have to speak with at least four different people before they receive an answer to a single advising question, and 70 percent of students say they have had to submit their personal information three or more times during their first year of school.

Based on these latest findings, higher-ed administrators say leveraging student data across departments is imperative as they strive to meet students’ expectations for modern communications.

Eighty-seven percent of administrators think their institution will not be able to remain competitive without integrating student data across departments within five years.

Ninety-five percent of advisers wish they had access to more complete information on students’ financial, academic, and student life data, and 95 percent of advancement officials say they think they would have a better relationship with alumni if they had access to more data across the student lifecycle.

Related: 5 ways data humanizes the student experience

Student lifecycle data also has implications for future giving, the survey found—85 percent of alumni would donate more often if they knew their money funded organizations or initiatives they were involved with as students, and 51 percent of alumni who receive requests say less than 10 percent of those requests are tied to their personal interests or past campus activities.


Are community colleges for unicorns?

Post-traditional students are much different from the student population most community colleges were designed to serve, but these institutions must meet this student group’s unique needs in order to stay relevant among declining enrollments.

This set of learners are more likely to attend community colleges than four-year schools, and it’s up to community colleges to demonstrate their relevance and ability to help students gain academic experiences that will fulfill career goals, according to a new whitepaper from EAB.

Related: Are you reaching the “new normal” student?

By responding to student motivations and challenges, community colleges can prove to these post-traditional learners that they can balance classes with their personal and professional responsibilities.

A number of obstacles often stand in the way of post-traditional learners enrolling or attaining degrees or credentials in community college:
1. Limited after-hours class schedules and services
2. Penalties for absences
3. Programs lack milestone credentials
4. Little basic needs support
5. Minimal credit for past experiences

Newly-enrolled students might think they can divide their efforts evenly among family, work, and academics, but most find it impossible. “Academics will nearly always lose to family and professional responsibilities,” according to the whitepaper. “In fact, among those students who left college, 56 percent say the need to work full-time prevents their return to higher education, and 53 percent say family responsibilities keep them from re-enrolling.”

Post-traditional learners need information and tools to find balance.


A shift toward wellbeing to address student mental health

Like every college and university in the nation, the University of Memphis has struggled with a rapid and ongoing rise of student demand for mental health services. We’re also grappling with the realities of the mental-health crisis in America: According to a recent study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, U.S. teens and young adults today are more distressed and more likely to suffer from major depression than their counterparts of the same age in previous generations.

The conclusion is that when it comes to issues of mental health in young adults, things are getting worse, not better. The study’s findings indicate we need to reconsider how we approach student mental-health challenges. Ultimately, this means making an imperative shift toward identifying what students need to succeed and learning how we can help them address the issues that contribute to depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem before the development of clinical symptoms.

At the University of Memphis, we recognized that we could never provide one-on-one outreach to every student who is feeling challenged by college. But we also knew we needed to do more, especially for those students who do not or will not use the existing services available. This is what drove our decision to examine how we could reach students in new ways.

How we use technology to better address student mental health

Our initial interest was really in the student mental-health area, but we realized that very often seemingly routine issues such as academic challenges, financial pressures, or homesickness can precipitate more acute problems down the road. These are the areas where guidance and assistance early on and “in the moment” can really help improve student lives—and prevent issues from snowballing into larger mental-health concerns.

Related: 2 actions university leaders can take to impact student wellbeing

What’s more, we realized we needed to connect with students where they spend a large percentage of their time, which today is on the internet. All of these considerations guided us toward an online solution that could provide self-directed help, available confidentially by students on their own time in their own way.