Education and the tech workplace

The U.S. Education System and the workforce are not seeing eye to eye these days. Nor have they been for some time.

Our First Friday panel for August was on Technology-Enhanced Education, moderated by publisher, author and spokesperson Gary Beach. A leader in the field of IT, Gary was publisher of Computerworld, Network World and CIO Magazine. His new book is The U.S. Technology Skills Gap: What Every Technology Executive Must Know to Save America’s Future.

American kids (the ones who will be working at your company) are ranked 27th in the world in math. In his book, Gary connects the dots through history, explaining how our education system has failed students (and subsequently the workforce).

Our panel looked at this issue through the lens of higher education. Panelists were Dr. Robert Cody, Dean of Science, Technology, Mathematics & Business at Cape Cod Community College, Dr. William Topper, Director of the MBA Program at Curry College; and Dr. Ruth Sherman, Dean of Curry College.

Not only are they developing college level programs to help students succeed in the workforce, they are educating the educators who will, in turn, help those students.

According to the panel, teacher preparation has been dismal for the past several generations. “People come thinking teaching is easy,” Bob Cody said. And at one point, it may have been. Now teachers must pass rigorous tests. These tests have taken time to develop, so the results are still shifting.

To be fair, if Massachusetts were a country, we’d be fifth in the world. Still, there’s room for improvement – especially in STEM subjects.

Math and science are perceived as something that’s hard. If a teacher doesn’t understand math concepts, they can’t pass that understanding to their students. Instead, they teach tricks and work-arounds. Now, teachers have to be certified in each subject.

The state has begun looking back at where teachers went to school, and connecting that education to how the students are doing. How do you judge how effective a teacher is? Tests, practicums and real-life context are ways to measure success.

According to our panelists, technology has allowed better measurement of what teachers are learning, enabling real-time assessment of competency.

Panelists touched briefly on higher education online, including MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses). The consensus is that online education is complementary, but not a replacement.

When teachers understand their subject matter, they’re better equipped to address the question, “so what.” Students need to understand how what they’re learning fits into real world experience

One would think that the job market alone would be motivational in helping students answer their own “so what” questions, but apparently it’s not.

One audience member observed that he couldn’t hire American students. He said that they’d come with ideas, but not be able to do the actual work.

Panelists agreed that internships should be aligned with what’s being taught in the classroom and what’s required in the real world. Students need to come out with the skills that are needed in the workplace. The academic world moves very slowly, but educators need to be able to react, creating programs based on what the business world really needs.

They’re doing this through partnerships within the business community. Students need to see how it really works – so education also has to happen on the shop floor. If workplace preparedness is an issue, are businesses reaching out to schools to share with them what they need?

(If you’re curious about what skills are forecasted in the workplace Institute for the Future has some insights.)

Related to skills in the workplace, another question was, “When do you start to teach programming? They’re coming into high school and college without the skills they need.”

Educators are finding if you don’t have a child interested in a STEM subject by middle school, you won’t get them. So, how do we get them interested?

Again, it goes back to the teachers’ experience. Teachers who have previously worked in a STEM career are able to better describe it, teaching their own passions.

Is there an opportunity for second career workers to fill that gap?

In addition to great teachers and innovative school programs, there are extra-curricular places to keep an eye on:

Sesame Workshop is debuting STEM programming.

The Museum of Science has introduced Education is Elementary.

Has tech made it too easy for young Americans? (article: Is Google Making You Stupid? ) Because they communicate through technology, students are are having fewer personal relationships – and as a result, less of the skills personal relationships foster.

On the plus side, things like online training can take education to the needs of the community, giving the unemployed the means to get a better job. It’s possible to bring the classroom to the business, and vice versa.

There is still much to learn.

“We don’t have the answer,” Bill Topper said. “It’s going to take all of us to figure it out.”

Note: Please register in advance for First Fridays. Beginning in September, the price will be higher if you wait and register at the door. The September 6 First Friday is with Peter Karlson.

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