Ryan Rucker may be a new name at the forefront of the curriculum at USC, but the College of Information and Communications instructor is no stranger to higher education — and he’s certainly no stranger to online instruction.
Rucker got his first taste of teaching technology while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in technology support and management from the University of South Carolina in 2007.
“That training part of the degree, being able to actually go out and do training and learn about company training, really got my interest,” he says.
And in the years following his graduation, he took every opportunity to pursue that interest, particularly in the virtual arena. He helped faculty design Blackboard courses at the Medical College of Georgia, trained Department of Transportation staff to use various software applications, designed courses at USC’s Center for Teaching Excellence, and eventually taught a spectrum of IT courses at Midlands Technical College.
In addition, he deepened his professional experience with master’s degrees in educational technology, library and information science and business administration as well as a doctorate in education.
Rucker felt comfortable in the virtual classroom and became comfortable with the technologies that make it easier for students to feel comfortable too — software like VoiceThread and FlipGrid that allow students to communicate through video discussions. Then COVID-19 hit and instructors like Rucker were suddenly a hot commodity.
“Everyone had to become experts in online teaching almost overnight,” he says. “COVID has shown universities as a whole that more centers for teaching excellence, more instructional designers and more faculty are needed to provide the training and support for online instruction.”
His expertise was particularly welcome in the College of Information and Communications. As the home of the Masters of Library and Information Science — the university’s second-largest online degree — the college was way ahead of the game even before a new online master’s degree in data and communications was launched last fall. With courses that combine data science and strategic planning, the new degree prepares students to communicate complex ideas within an organization. And Rucker was the perfect cast to show them how it’s done.
“The program is about taking data, analyzing it, and then doing something with that data — representing it visually and understanding what the data actually represents,” he says.
Its courses cover everything from Excel to Python, and enrollments are stable, in large part because the demand for data skills has skyrocketed in recent years. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that data scientist employment will increase 36 percent over the next decade, with an average of 13,500 positions available each year.
It’s not so much about the skills, says Rucker, as it is about understanding the limited durability of those skills. Staying current is a decision students must make even after they leave his classroom.
“Technology is always changing, and what I’m teaching you now will be obsolete in two or three years,” he says. “But I’m trying to incorporate the concept of how to stay up to date with technology into my classes to teach you.”
This adaptability has served him well in his own career. Case in point: This fall, he was assigned to teach a class about R, a programming language commonly used in data mining. While comfortable working with R, teaching it in the context of modern data collection practices was new territory, but his comfort level with technology helped bring him up to speed.
“It taught me what I’ve tried to teach my own students about lifelong learning,” he says. “I practiced what I preached.”