Sheridan gets a lock on IT security education

In 2000, almost 950 students were enrolled in various information technology programs at the Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Oakville, Ont. IT was in its heyday and technology was regarded as the “it” sector by many young people.

But not so long after, the tech industry took its biggest hit to date: the dot-com bust. Stocks sunk. E-businesses collapsed and widespread layoffs ensued. Overnight, student enrolment in IT degree and diploma programs across Canada plummeted. Technology was no longer in vogue.

Fast forward to 2005, where just less than 300 students signed up for Sheridan’s IT educational offerings. The story at colleges and universities across the country is much the same with most reporting dips in enrolment.

But Sheridan is hoping to turn the tide by focusing on an area of critical importance in technology: security. The college launched a Bachelor of Applied Information Science in Information Systems Security in 2005, something its organizers say is unique in Canada’s academic world.

“There is no undergraduate degree in this field in Canada,” says Lenore Edmunds, Sheridan’s associate dean in the school of applied computing and engineering sciences. Sheridan is counting on demand growing as businesses look to beef up their IT security skills set to address issues such as regulations’ compliance, privacy and intruders on the network. Currently, there are 45 students split between first and second year, but Edmunds anticipates that number will grow dramatically as word of the program gets out and graduates embark on careers.

“I expect this program to be recognized for being the leader it is,” says Edmunds. “I expect to see a long list of applicants and I expect our grads will be sought after by industry.”

Edmunds says Sheridan has already addressed the most common criticism the industry has of IT education programs: that information is irrelevant or obsolete by the time students graduate. The institution has created a program advisory committee comprised of faculty and students, along with representation from industry, including RSA, IBM, WhiteHat, Cisco Systems and others.

Filing a void in security
Michael Kennedy, Canada’s general manager for RSA Security, says Sheridan’s new security program fills a void in the Canadian market, and that having the industry participate will go a long way to ensuring its success.

“First and foremost, computer and network security is a rapidly growing area,” he says. “Every day there’s a story about some fairly large security violation. Corporations are being challenged to put increased security measures in place.”

There’s also the added bonus of bringing together organizations that have security needs with students who can potentially meet those needs down the road. A key component of the program is an eight-month internship between the third and final year.

“Industry gets the opportunity to provide practical input into the course content,” says Kennedy. “With the co-op they get a chance to maybe meet some folks they would recruit later on.”

But what do the students think of industry having a hand in shaping an academic program? It makes sense, says Nicholas Johnston, a second year student in Sheridan’s security degree program.

“The advisory committee meetings have been inspirational. You can see how they’re so keen on giving their input and they’ve also requested that we keep going to the meetings. Together, we’re helping to round out things in the program,” says Johnston.

Johnston has his sights set on a job that allows him to build algorithmic solutions to security challenges. He’s been eyeing postings from Google, which “is always on the search for scientific knowledge and experience.”

Johnston admits the current climate for IT jobs may not be as rosy as it once was, but he thinks there will always be room for job seekers with IT security skills.

“Security is one of those fields that regardless of how the rest of the IT industry is moving along, it’s sort of that old phrase that security is a verb. It’s always changing so you always need a lot of people with new and fresh knowledge.”

Meanwhile, first-year student Sarah Swanson thinks her education in IT security will allow her flexibility as she makes her way into the working world.

“I like that it’s such a diverse area,” she says. “You can develop policy once you get out or you can also specialize in computer programming. You can be involved in management or more in a technical role.”

Swanson, who is planning to work in research, says one of the key strengths of the program is that students are exposed to different aspects of security right from the start, including policy, programming and ethics. But, as one of only two women enrolled in first year, she admits she would love to see more women in her classes.

“I would love to see an increased number of women in the program, but that’s not something that could be helped by the people here. It will happen eventually and I’m glad to be one of the first women in the program and I’m going to do whatever I can to help recruit other women.”

And for those women afraid to wear the geek mantle, Swanson says get over it.

“I wouldn’t try to convince them it isn’t geeky because it’s definitely geeky, but there’s a sort of Wizard of Oz effect when you’re in this area because you get see behind the curtain of how things work and it’s really fascinating.”

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