Ten years ago, Northern Kentucky University did something that, in the traditional university model, was a little crazy. It took programs from many different colleges—like journalism and information systems—and put them into an entirely new college: the College of Informatics. It was an unusual move, but it’s one that has proved to be successful, with enrollment in the college rising from 1,100 10 years ago to 2,300 and climbing today.
“The idea of the college was really to create a different kind of structure that dealt with how pervasive digital technology was,” says Kevin Kirby, dean of the college. He says the school is really about the “art, science, business and technology of information,” thus taking everything that has to do with information and making it front and center in the curriculum. With technology becoming increasingly more entrenched in the daily workings of the world, it was a prescient decision.
Along with increasing its enrollment, the school has added five degrees for a total of 15 and increased its full-time faculty from 40 to 62. In addition, it’s been recognized for its commitment to experiential learning and the high quality of it cyber defense education and health informatics program.
Local employers (and prospective companies) have taken notice.
“[When] Northern Kentucky Tri-ED is interested in bringing a new company to town, we are on the their standard tour,” says Kirby. Companies like Western & Southern, Procter & Gamble, 84.51˚ and Nexigen have all hired graduates of the college.
How has the school been able to grow like this in 10 years? Its willingness to adapt to new technology and innovate has played a huge part.
“Take cyber security. The whole threat and response landscape changes almost week by week,” says Kirby. “I think the best way Informatics deals with that is to realize it’s in the curriculum but it’s also in what people call the co-curriculum.” This means that students are provided with experiential options, like co-ops or the cyber defense team, to help them learn as the technology changes.
One program that exemplifies this is its virtual apprenticeship program. “The virtual co-op program allows you to start out very gently as an apprentice on a project working on campus for a corporate client,” says Kirby. A teacher manages the students, but the students are paid for the work and given a professional experience before they move onto a co-op.
Another way the school has adapted is by creating new majors. Three years ago it debuted its data science program, the third such program in the country. “Data science is really our response to the whole Big Data phenomenon. How do you have students learn to extract wisdom from a billion pieces of disparate data coming at you very fast? That’s not traditional computer science. It’s not traditional statistics or business information systems. It’s this interesting and new combination of all of them,” says Kirby.
With the new Health Innovation Center, the school is adding a bachelor’s in health informatics (based on its nationally recognized masters’ program) and health communication, a new major that looks at health campaigns and how technology interacts with patients.
None of this would have been possible, however, without the help of the community. The college didn’t receive its full request when it asked the state for money to build the College of Informatics’ home base, Griffin Hall. “The rest was made up by public and private, individual and corporate philanthropy. That has really helped us grow,” says Kirby.