Wrapup of the Program
Something important had ended. I want to write about my impressions of the XMIT program now that I have passed through the whole process. I hope that my classmates will read this and suggest other comments. Perhaps, prospective students may chance across it and get an idea of what the Executive Program is like. Finally, the XMIT professors and staff members themselves might learn something from this feedback. Of course, the program keeps evolving. Since we started, it has been changed from four seminars of three modules each, to six seminars of two modules each.
The Executive Program Approach
The UMUC program is an academic marathon. There is usually no more than two weeks between the end of seminars or modules and the start of the next one, all this stretching over 18 months. That really leaves you with small windows of opportunity for R&R. When you consider that you have to walk into the first class with a good slice of the textbook read, you really don't have much of a break between courses.
I learned after nine months that I had to prepare myself physically for the demands of work and studies. I did not have the youthful energy of my college days. I started taking vacation days so that I could have a slice of optimum time to write papers, instead of trying to do them late at night. I started going to the gym as much as I could, especially between courses, so that I built up my stamina. It made a difference in the last half of the program. You have to be a long-distance runner. Of course, I was probably the second oldest of the classroom so the other students may have managed the demands better.
Professors and Classmates
You have a short time to get a feeling for your professors. In a normal academic routine, you'd have 14 weeks of classroom lectures. In the XMIT program, you have three face-to-face sessions of eight hours each. The first class you're just getting to know each other out and diving into the course content. You may not have to hand in a paper until the second face-to-face class. You may not get a grade back until the third (last) class so you will find it difficult to judge how the professor grades, how demanding he/she is and any particular preferences.
The Saturday face-to-face sessions must be a real draining experience for a professor. A teacher can't engage in a monologue for six-seven hours. What was striking for me was that all them brought to the classroom unique work experiences that gave the curriculum texture and significance. These are not purely academicians, but professionals who have taken their knowledge to the next level.
From my perspective, the best professors were the ones who said up front that they taught to keep themselves refreshed and up-to-date by exposing themselves to their students' learning process. That is, the students' research projects, and classroom questions and dialogue. Humor the professor -- engage him or her in a dialogue whenever possible, both in and out of the classroom, and online or by phone; sound out paper subjects and get feedback. You will be rewarded.
The other staff member who plays a key rule in your XMIT experience is Jane Goldberg, the coordinator of the Executive Programs. She gives you your first orientation and then does the paperwork for getting you through the registration for each seminar, orders the textbooks and answers any question. For instance, I had student loans that could be deferred during my masters' studies so I sent here the paperwork so that she could forward them to the UMUC administration.
Because all of our class sessions were at the Shady Grove campus on weekends, we only set foot at the Adelphi offices for our initial interview, the opening lunch (a kind of welcome session), and for graduation. Depending on the scheduling of the other course, we sometimes did not see other students. This creates a kind of island on which it is your cohort (classmates who share of 18 months together) who are your continuing experience and support. I think that they are the ones who really made the learning experience truly rewarding and memorable.
My capstone team reserved a room at the Adelphi campus to prep for our final presentation. It was more centrally located than the Shady Grove campus. It reminded me that we could draw on more UMUC resources than we might have initially thought.
A big part of the XMIT involves writing research papers. If you come out of this program having learned how to put together a referenced research paper, it's worth half the price of the tuition. The ability to write understandably about technical issues in plain English will serve you well throughout your career.
The first course is the toughest because you have to get used to the American Psychological Association's Publication Manual, which takes a different track than other academic writing and reference styles. Invest the time to learn its eccentricities because it will save you trouble in future courses.
The essays are really the opportunity to dig deep into a subject matter. I learned more from the research and thinking process than from the textbooks. Unfortunately, you have deadlines -- which I typically missed. With the benefit of hindsight, I would have budgeted more time for research and writing. Beware of thinking that you have a handle on a subject because when you sit down to write, you discover that you're missing key block of information and analysis.
While this is a postgraduate program that assumes that you are a management-level professional, there are content and requirements that are a change of pace. They require a different kind of learning process, more hands-on and practical.
- Microsoft Project: As part of the Project Management course, we had to use MS Project, which is a tough application to learn, with lots of quirks and "gotch-yas" that you need to be forewarned about or else you'll mess up the project plan that you're working on. Our group was lucky because we had Jem Pagan who already knew how to use Project. Other teams had to scramble to catch on. The Project Management component alone is a full agenda, even without MS Project included, so we were hard pressed to keep up. It's smart to set aside plenty of time to get familiar with MS Project.
- Expert Choice: the Emerging Technologies included this software and we had to do some exercises with it, but no full-blown assignment. It still requires time to get it down.
- HTML and Unix on web servers: the Internet Technologies course requires you to set up a website on a UMUC server and develop content. Many of my classmates had never put together a web page. Learning how to use HTML is a task that requires time and lots of hands-on effort. What's more, it's tough to learn HTML without having content already prepared (text, graphics, animation, audio files, etc.). I had a definite advantage because I could pull stuff off my own site and repurpose it. I thought that HTML should have been an out-of-class module that could have been learned with online courseware, rather than try to cram it into a few hours of a classroom setting. For instance, the UMUC library has an online course for using its resources and research approaches. Another option would be to point students to non-UMUC resources on HTML and web development. But the students with no web experience do need face-to-face support from the teacher.
WebTycho and the Online Experience
The online application for course work is WebTycho, a system based on Lotus Notes. You hand in your assignments, have discussions and coordinate team projects on it. UMUC must have invested a fortune in developing it so the only choice is to learn to live with its quirks and frustrations. I expected that the class conferences would have a more threaded dialogue approach, but they turned into a kind of "post your contribution and forget about it." I know it would take a real commitment from the professor and students to turn a conference into a learning environment, rather than a place to hand in assignments.
We supplemented our communications with e-mail and instant messaging, usually AIM, though Yahoo Messenger would have been better suited because it allows voice and webcam. I think the Groove peer-to-peer team collaboration tool would also have been an excellent alternative to WebTycho.
I can't help but think that there should be other means of creating an online experience. There have been many other kinds of tools -- weblogs, wikis, peer-to-peer networks and other instruments. If I had started up this website at the start of the program, I might have used it throughout.
In our last seminar, several classmates spoke up about the absence of financial management in the curriculum. The Project Management course was supposed to have included a finance segment, but it got squeezed out by the PM stuff. Most students were strong on the technological side, but needed more knowledge of management -- budgeting, return on investment, procurement, looking at projects and technology from the business and user side. Because we came from private enterprise, government and non-profit backgrounds, we looked at these issues differently.
I come from a small shop, a not-for-profit organization, where project would not warrant using MS Project and managerial decisions are not going to be parsed in an artificial intelligence application. Sometimes, I found it difficult to scale down the methodology to where it would be useful for me to employ.
The XMIT program kicks off with a one-day session with a psychologist. In preparation, you take the Myers-Briggs Test (I am an INTJ - Introversion / iNution / Thinking / Judging). You do group work and learn how to adjust to your classmates' strengths and weaknesses -- crucial when doing team projects. My last team remarked that what we learned there was really useful and we applied it throughout the program. I think it would have been worthwhile if additional sessions of this type could have been scheduled at other times in the program -- say half way through. We would have had enough experience under our belts to get more out of them.
The second aspect that stood out was the online library, MdUSA. It was great for preparing papers late at night or on the weekend because you could access most major publications and periodicals. It really spoilt us. I used it a lot at work in researching technologies and products. I am already missing it as my library privileges ran out.
Finally, the project teams, whose composition may change from seminar to seminar, were a great crucible. I enjoyed bringing to the group my own strengths -- writing and research -- and learning to rely on my team mates for other parts of the work. I had great team mates. I wish I had been able to work with each of the 17 classmates to get know them in that team environment. The latent danger is that one or two team mates may fail to keep pace with the team dynamic or not deliver at all. How to handle this kind of situation is an unwritten part of the curriculum.
Missing It Already
After 18 months of spending every other Saturday sharing 8 hours in a classroom, I looked forward to my classes. It was never a problem to get up in time to make the 8:30 AM start -- admittedly, I live only 15 minutes from the Shady Grove Campus. It gave my life a schedule, an order, priorities -- now I am going to have to reassert my own framework for my life.