The Mission of Community Colleges and the Role of IT Certification
I've been writing textbooks for a major academic publisher that specializes in the community college market for almost two decades now, with nearly 20 titles (counting multiple revisions of the same book as individual titles) upon which to reflect at the moment.
Because I'm involved in planning a revision to one of my perennials in the body of work right now — along with my co-authors, to whom I can never give enough credit — I've been forced to reflect on a few key questions. Namely, what do community colleges seek to teach their students, and what are those students themselves seeking to learn? What will serve them best in the process of upskilling or reskilling to advance within (or enter) the IT workforce?
In case you don't already know, most community colleges are supported by taxes and employer contributions in the geographical areas that they serve. In exchange for such public and private support, those institutions of higher learning accept certain directives from those supporters. These directives then become part and parcel of the various goals that such colleges seek to reach, and the services they strive to deliver to students via training. They are also part a school's obligation to the community it serves and, in particular, to local employers in need of a feedstock of well-trained, well-prepared employees.
As we were discussing how to revise a book whose underlying networking technology has been fixed for a while, the issues that emerged as most important can be nicely summarized as follows:
? What kinds of information and hands-on exercises can we include in the book and its virtual laboratory to help students solve problems they're likely to encounter on real networks in the workplace?
? How can we prepare students to absorb and incorporate proven best industry practices in network design, implementation, maintenance and troubleshooting throughout the book?
? What connections can we create and cultivate to steer students who study our materials to pursue specific, related industry certifications? (In this particular case, that turns out to involve CompTIA's Network+ and Security+, Cisco's CCENT and CCNA, and Wireshark University's Wireshark Certified Network Analyst (WCNA).
As it turns out, those issues (stated above in the form of questions we're using to guide the book's redesign and upcoming revision) plug directly into the overall mission that community colleges undertake when serving students seeking IT education. (And also considering the interests of local employers ultimately seeking qualified candidates for their IT positions). To me, one of the most interesting aspects of our conversation turned on the publisher's virtual lab environment.
The lab environment is available as a $20 add-on to each book they sell nowadays — for buyers who still want a hard paper copy of their textbooks — and at the same price as the paper book by itself, should the buyer be willing to "settle" for a purely digital product instead. Given that our textbook is built around a certain freeware protocol analyzer, and that resulting courses require students to interact with that software extensively in learning the course material, this turns out to be an absolute no-brainer for us to adopt and use the heck out of.
I'd even be OK with abandoning paper for this subject matter entirely. It's unlikely that students could master this material without working on a PC while studying, and it would be impossible for them to master the ins and outs of protocol analysis without spending significant time running the software that enables them to do the work required in such learning.
I see this migration from digital to online environments as an inevitable — and in our case, at least — unavoidable evolution of overall education in general, and IT education in particular. College students everywhere are digging into (and in many cases doing better at) a variety of online educational offerings, from MOOCs to online video-based and instructor-led training. (MOOCs, or Massively Open Online Courses, are now available from such prestigious universities as MIT and Princeton, my own alma mater, whereas commercial training companies and educational institutions are both involved in supplying video-based content.) The face of education as we know it is changing significantly and amazingly, as the drive toward online learning appears across the entire slate of available learning options, offerings, and tools.
I'm also cheered that community colleges are growing increasingly receptive to (and appreciative of) the value of IT certification, particularly those certifications like the CompTIA "big three" (A+, Network+, Security+) and the Cisco bottom-of-the-pyramid (CCENT and CCNA) credentials. Their supporters are telling them that they want entry-level candidates to come armed with such credentials when they arrive at the workplace.
For their part, students are demanding such credentials to help them get down to work for real. It's nice to see all these things come together, particularly when there's an opportunity to codify and teach best industry practices as a part of preparing people to come to work fully armed and ready to handle their appointed tasks. I look forward to crafting materials to meet such needs and hopefully, those who work with them will be enriched thereby. Good stuff, all around!