In an earlier post this summer, Anthony Critelli and Alex Belcher touched on their experiences with mainframe education at RIT, and more importantly, how as young technologists they’ve come to understand the mainframe and its continuing importance. In another previous article, we’ve referenced the IBM System z Academic Initiative and popular mainframe education offerings from partner schools like Marist College, which each work to make the mainframe accessible and attractive to a new generation. However, as a proud graduate of the University of Arkansas and native Arkansan, I think I’d be amiss if I didn’t talk a little about the role of mainframe educationat the University of Arkansas and what we do here in Fayetteville to promote the body of skills and technological understanding that today’s students need to be competitive in mainframe roles. Just as our football program (currently ranked #10 in the most recent poll) gets students yelling “Woo Pig Sooie!” with our skills on the field, it’s my opinion that the school is likewise a leader in the classroom for training students in the skills that modern businesses need.

At the University of Arkansas’ Sam M. Walton College of Business, the mainframe is a key component of not just the Information Systems program itself, but the greater college’s technology education offerings as well.  The IBM-donated z10 system operated by the Enterprise Systems group at the college serves up a number of key business applications and datasets that benefit student learning interests across disciplines.

How does that work, exactly?  In my opinion, this is made possible due to three key factors: innovative educators, the modern mainframe’s incredible workload flexibility, and the generous support of Fortune 500 companies in the University’s backyard: companies which understand and advocate the vital importance of all students gaining a practical technology background to be competitive in the 21st century.

Arkansas-grown members of the Fortune 500, such as Walmart Stores, Tyson Foods, and Dillard’s Department Stores have each donated obfuscated real-world datasets from their own daily operations and data warehouses to the college.  These real-world warts and all’ datasets not only enable IT students to learn core technology topics and problem solving on data as it appears in the wild, but access to these datasets can also empower business students to study the technology component of their fields, too.

For example, students in marketing and management disciplines can learn marketing techniques
by using business intelligence tools on obfuscated department store transaction data from Dillard’s, served up by DB2 under z/OS.  For another key example, many students in accounting, finance and logistics can learn a top-down view of their roles and business processes in general via competitive simulations and reporting in the world’s leading enterprise resource planning software, SAP.The SAP courses (which the college hosts on the mainframe in instances of SUSE Linux running under z/VM) have remained popular across all disciplines since their inception nearly eight years ago, as training in enterprise resource planning suites offer both valuable application skills and exposure to some of the practical aspects of executing modern business processes.

Again, at Arkansas, the mainframe helps empower all of these capabilities to drive serious educational benefits for students, in addition to the usual IT topics like programming & design.  Did I mention that these educational opportunities have been provided to programs internationally which partner with the college—not just those local to the University of Arkansas?  This is a bit of a testament to the scale, security, and reliability that the modern mainframe can provide.In this case, the mainframe is a significant driving component in the education of hundreds of students each year across a variety of the applications that truly run businesses today, and it does it all while sharing those learning opportunities to a wider audience at other schools in other locations.  Today’s modern mainframe is immensely capable and powers many of the world’s best organizations, and the University of Arkansas business technology curriculum keeps that in mind.

This arrangement really demonstrates that the mainframe is a key platform in an ideal mix to give students the technology tools they need to be competitive across business disciplines today:  it helps drive teaching in business process understanding and the technology aspects of traditional business disciplines.  And for IT-centric students, the mainframe can help deliver education for more practical skills in more areas than you might expect:  business analytics, ERP, Linux, web development, modern and legacy applications, and more!

Students who want an emphasis in enterprise Information Systems can progress to write programs in languages such as ABAP, COBOL, Java and .NET to integrate their mainframe-hosted projects with a variety of other enterprise technologies, such as Teradata-hosted warehouses or Microsoft SQL Server-hosted databases.

Two Enterprise Systems courses in particular are offered at Arkansas to specifically teach the mainframe in depth.  With a bit of a call-back to Akram Wahab’s recent post on IBM’s Rational software offerings for the mainframe, these courses both use a mix of the very nice Rational Developer for z graphical tools and good ‘ol green screen to provide an easier route to understanding what the mainframe can do.  With access to the Rational toolset, students new to the mainframe at Arkansas get a great balance of accessibility and familiarity through development tools they already know, while enabling them to gradually build comfort in getting down and dirty with a more traditional terminal for building deeper skills.  Personally, I really liked the experience of having both means to develop my applications when I was in the program’s two mainframe courses.

The first Enterprise Systems course, an introductory one, focuses on some of the essential basics, like getting comfortable with TSO, ISPF & JCL in z/OS, and building a website with an associated web application in virtualized SUSE Linux.

The second, a more advanced class, focuses on building transactional applications much like what a bank, retailer, insurer or logistics firm might use to conduct their daily operations.  Teaching students some elementary COBOL basics, DB2 essentials and CICS transaction server administration skills, the class helps students understand how the key transactional systems that run the world are architected and administered.  Furthermore, students can learn how to roll their coursework into web services to be used online or in a set of practical business services to be accessed by other systems.

Having been a graduate of both the Information Systems undergraduate and graduate programs, it’s my opinion that the University of Arkansas is an excellent champion of the ideals developed and supported by the IBM Academic Initiative for System z.  For students, I’d say it’s a true win-win to say “Woo pig sooie!” and make the choice to learn real business computing as a Razorback at Arkansas!

To learn a little bit more about how the University of Arkansas uses the mainframe to educate students, check out the University’s Enterprise Systems site and have a listen to this great IBM developerWorks interview with Enterprise Systems head Dr. David Douglas and Dr. Paul Cronan, MD Matthews endowed chair and director of the school’s MIS program.

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