Two years ago in the U.S., I began having discussions with some professors in construction programs at major universities who were teaching courses in computers and information technology (IT). They were teaching everything from how to use spreadsheets for solving simple construction-related problems to how to design construction software. Mostly, though, they were focusing on the use of construction software such as for estimating and scheduling.
UNFAMILIAR. There's no doubt that today's college graduates have much more it education than those who graduated just a few years ago. But I wonder whether other faculty and my students realize that, within probably three years or less, most of the software that they learn in class will have been replaced with new features and unfamiliar user interfaces.
A few years ago when I worked for a construction software company, I saw that it still maintained its old Microsoft DOS-version software because many of its clients didn't want to upgrade. Not many software companies would like to maintain all old versions for long. So I wonder whether my academic colleagues and I have done enough to help turn our students into agents for change.
Change is constant. Years ago, most construction students would not have imagined that they could possibly have wound up not doing construction but rather software design. Today when you talk to product managers from construction-related software companies, you often find that they are construction veterans.
In the construction industry, there are emerging professions such as for chief information officers and chief knowledge officers who need extensive in-depth knowledge both in construction and it. Because these professions didn't exist before the 1990s, most undergraduate schools in construction management, business and engineering still have not formulated specific training programs for them.
So I wonder: Should construction programs take the lead or leave that responsibility to other programs? And how can construction programs deal effectively with the industry's ever-changing IT requirements?
We are experiencing a paradigm shift in construction software applications. Ten years ago, construction professionals were thrilled to have DOS-based desktop applications on their x486 boxes, because the impact of computer technology was so significant on specific functions such as drafting, estimating, scheduling, word processing and so on. But the automation of specific functions is just one part of a bigger system. With the introduction of the Internet, a new dimension was added to the systemcommunication and collaboration. Now, virtual teams are widespread. Construction education needs to reflect that reality.
I am more and more convinced that we need to do more than just teach software applications. Admittedly, there are not any cookbook solutions to achieve our goal. On the one hand, we expect our students to be ready for jobs right after graduation. On the other hand, we expect them to be competitive when they face it challenges.
Obviously, we need a systematic approach with more than just one IT class in which to prepare them. Professional societies and education accrediting organizations should ensure closer alignments of curricula with the industry's ever-changing use of it.
A professor at the University of Colorado once mentioned to me that, with limited credit hours available for their undergraduate program, he had to focus on teaching courses that prepare students for professional registration tests in which IT requirements are not very high. No wonder then that IT education seems like a luxury. Making matters worse, some accreditating organizations require too little by stipulating that just a few construction management coursessuch as project management and estimatingshould include computer applications.
Clearer, better integrated IT education objectives are something that construction programs need now. Last year while visiting Auburn University's Dept. of Building Science, I learned of its plans for an IT program to train future information executives for construction companies. That kind of objective is missing at most construction programs.
FUNDAMENTALS. Undergraduates everywhere need to develop an understanding of the fundamentals of software applications and to learn how construction-related problems such as information fragmentation and data interoperability can be smoothed over. They also ought to learn why a particular IT solution is appropriate for a certain type of construction problem. And they need to know how applications are designed, and how they generally handle domain knowledge such as the Critical Path Method as well as business processes such as RFIS, requests for information.
I still remember my first architectural engineering class. The professor started by saying, "Today you see every building as different. After four years, all buildings will look the same to you." I say the same about software applications. We need to teach students how to adapt to new software readily. Otherwise, we will have left them with little more than an abacus.
hen I began working at a construction company in China about 12 years ago, I was surprised to see that many of my colleagues still used abacuses. For the next few years, I could hear the joyful sounds of abacuses coming from their offices. Now, in the U.S., I see a similar situation: today's cutting-edge software applications becoming tomorrow's abacuses.