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A Conversation with Christian Sonnenberg, Assistant Dean

To say that Dr. Christian Sonnenberg is a Panther is a bit of an understatement.

Currently the Assistant Dean of Online Programs at the Bisk College of Business and an Associate Professor, Dr. Sonnenberg is also triple Panther, earning his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the Florida Institute of Technology.

He is therefore uniquely qualified to illustrate the benefits of earning a degree from Florida Tech to prospective students – for example:

“I myself am an FIT alum and I can attest to the amount of rewarding connections you build here that will help you succeed in your professional career.”

We spoke with Dr. Sonnenberg about the IT programs at Florida Tech and student engagement.

Why choose an IT program at Florida Tech?

Our IT degrees have a lot of flexibility, which means you can concentrate on many different specialty areas such as networks or security. If you want more of a professional business background, you can choose one of our MBA programs. The MBA programs are designed for students who seek experience with entrepreneurial, financial, and organizational foundations. They’re designed for anyone who actually wants to start a business in the realm of technology.

We also have MS in Information Technology degrees designed for a more technical background. While there’s no programming required for these courses, they’re built to be more in-depth than the MBA . The MSIT degrees are intended for someone working more closely with both business and technology professionals in the industry; these students will understand what technologies are available and how to leverage them in the business. In general, our degrees, in addition to being flexible, have smaller class sizes and instructors that work in the information technology and information systems fields.

What skills do working professionals develop when earning a degree online?

Earning a degree in our IT or information systems programs will reward you with a number of different skills in the areas of business and technology. For example, for technical skills, you might learn about the normalization of databases. When you are normalizing a database, you are essentially making it more efficient. Whenever you query for something in a database, you’ll get those results back faster, and that leads to faster response times on a website. This, in turn, will lead to higher productivity and more efficiency at the company level.

On the business perspective, you’ll learn about topics like project management and steps along the system lifecycle, the identification and management of risks, and how do you deal with the costs and scheduling personnel. You learn about the technical side of things and the business side.

In addition to that, you’ll also learn general skills such as teamwork, communication, ethics and leadership – things that are core across pretty much all of our degrees.

What career paths can students explore with the IT programs?

For a degree in information technology, whether it’s our MBA degrees or our MS degrees, one of the most popular jobs is a systems analyst. Systems analysts are designed to be a liaison between the business realm and the technology realm, which our degrees are designed to provide – they’re created to give you technological expertise as well as some of the business background.

Systems analysis is a very popular field right now. Many companies need to understand what technologies are out there and how to leverage them. There are countless examples of companies that ignore changes and trends in technology and get left by the sidelines.

In addition to systems analyst, there is a variety of specialized areas students can explore. You could be a network architect, a database administrator or a security analyst. Alternatively, you could choose a broader path, such as IT management or systems administrator. Security itself is a very fast-growing area as well, so we have the MSIT/Cybersecurity degree or the MBA in Cybersecurity degree – both will give you a lot of knowledge that you need to go down those routes.

How can earning a degree be rewarding?

Earning one of our technology degrees can be very rewarding because it allows students to share their own experiences. Many of our students come from the industry, so they have some familiarity already in IT or IS, and they can then leverage that in the discussion boards and communications with other students and the faculty. We create a very unique environment where students and faculty can talk about the latest technologies. When I teach classes, students will come up with new topics and trends that I may have never heard of, and that feeds itself back into the class and makes it more rewarding.

Another reason is that the FIT alumni organization is a great organization to be a part of. I myself am an FIT alum and I can attest to the amount of rewarding connections you build here that will help you succeed in your professional career.

How do you keep students engaged in a 100% online program?

A key to engagement in a 100% online program is keeping it relevant. One thing I tend to do in my classes is to engage in whatever topics are relevant and timely, whether it’s news events or conferences that might be happening; for example, in a healthcare course that I taught, I emphasized an Orlando convention in IT healthcare.

Another way is through the weekly discussion board posts. One thing I do, for example, in my networks course, is have an ongoing discussion on net neutrality, which is a hot topic right now. Even as you go through multiple terms and multiple semesters, you’ll see the conversation change as the issue evolves. It can be very engaging to keep it relevant to what students are doing at that time and what’s going on in the world around them.

What would you say are some of the best practices for online students?

Time management in the online environment is a very difficult topic. Many of our students have obligations outside of the classroom, whether it’s work or family, and we’re very understanding of that.

If there’s one thing I would say that’s the most important of all, it’s communication. Let your professors or a representative from the classroom know about situations as they arise. Don’t wait until the end of the term to let them know. Many of our faculty are accommodating. We’re willing to work with you. We understand you have different needs and obligations, but you need to come to us first. We can’t do anything if you come to us at the end of the term and say, “I didn’t do any of the work. What can I do now?” It’s better to just come to us and communicate issues as they arise.

Do you have one specific student success story you’d like to share with us?

I have a particular student that I like to recall fondly. This was a student in one of our graduate MSIT degrees. In the course I was teaching, he’d keep coming back to me and ask, “Can I go further ahead and finish up these assignments?”

In our online program, you have access to all the materials, lectures and exams from the first day, so if you want, you can complete the entire class at your pace. Even though it’s eight weeks, you could get it done quicker.

So, he came to me and asked, “Can I get this done faster? I’d like to do it in a few weeks.” And I said, “Sure, go right ahead.” So he got it all out of the way – he finished up the class probably in 4-5 weeks, and I thought “That’s a real go-getter.”

It was interesting to see a year later that he became in a position of authority here at our school leading our information technology department!

What do you think motivates your students?

I think one thing that motivates our students most of all is how they can apply what they’re learning in class to their real-world experience. For example, I teach a software systems course that covers the lifecycle of software, including design, the requirements, and how to launch the product. For this course, many of these students will use their real-world career as an example. They pitch potential software they design and explain how it would help the business they’re currently involved in. This provides experience in software lifecycles itself and how to help the company in the real world, which goes beyond just the classroom.

What advice would you give to prospective students for academic success?

A real key in the information technology realm is being up-to-date. It’s a very fast, constantly evolving field to be in. I advise researching as much as you can outside the classroom. We try to keep all our content as relevant as possible, but a lot of it requires students to go out and research themselves. Many of our classes are designed to be research-heavy, meaning they have to go find articles, journals and books about the content. Get familiar with how to research. Look at different articles, for example, on IEEE Spectrum and ACM. They have different journals and periodicals that are relevant to that field and that industry. Become comfortable reading some of their articles, and just read news articles from diverse sources. Dive down into technology articles and understand what the inner workings are. That will help you overall in your career and in the classroom.

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