Educators hoping to prepare young people for contemporary workplaces have always struggled with the challenge of a moving target. And the target is moving increasingly faster—thanks to the impact technology is having on nearly every career. EDC’s Joyce Malyn-Smith saw the problem firsthand in the 1990s, during a research visit to the American Cable and Wire Company in Cincinnati. “We went in expecting to see an old-fashioned factory—people building cables on an assembly line, that sort of thing,” she recalls. “Instead of an assembly line, we saw teams of workers gathered around work stations, with five or six computers at each station. We learned that all of the employees were cross-trained, so if someone was out one day, someone else could step right in and keep the job moving. These workers were using highly complex and integrated skills on the job.”
Malyn-Smith works at the intersection of schools and careers, helping to ensure that standards for technology learning in schools are aligned with the information technology (IT) skills required for 21st century jobs. The challenge is great—given the pace of change in technology and workplaces, combined with the far reach of technology, which affects everything from manufacturing to finance to agriculture. How can educators and business people define a core set of competencies that will prepare young people for work across such broad sectors of the economy? And how can they ensure that the skills young people acquire today will remain relevant in the fast-changing IT environment?
“Our work with skills standards in the early ‘90s taught us that, as educators and policymakers, we can fall into the habit of identifying discrete skills that we think people need for life and work,” says Malyn-Smith. “Discrete skills are easier to teach and easier to assess. But skills never appear in isolation in life or in work; they’re always in a context. Saying you are certified in a particular software application might get you in the door, but it won’t guarantee you success in your work. Success lies in your ability to assess and draw on the skills you’ve mastered to perform diverse tasks and solve new problems.” As an example, Malyn-Smith offers the distinction between being proficient in the Microsoft Office Suite and being able to use that software to prepare business applications and presentations. The first involves knowledge of a discrete, product-based skill; the other involves the application of knowledge to perform a useful task.
As director of the Information Technology Career Cluster Initiative (ITCCI), Malyn-Smith and her staff in EDC’s Center for Education, Employment, and Community are working to develop and disseminate a national model for IT education for schools and colleges. ITCCI brings together a national advisory committee of IT and non-IT companies, nonprofit organizations, and 10 state education agencies to develop, pilot-test, and distribute a single framework for IT education. The group began the project by hammering out a definition that draws a distinction between an IT “user” and an IT “producer.” (See the sidebar for more on this distinction.)
The framework covers IT learning from grades K through 20, with academic foundations and explorations in the early grades and the greatest area of concentration in grades 9 through 16. It includes an extensive chart of grade-level benchmarks for different aspects of IT skill and knowledge, from keyboarding to database management to programming. “We were determined to find a way to identify and assess IT skills in context—requiring students to translate what they know into what they can do,” says Malyn-Smith. “IT literacy doesn’t mean knowing these 100 things—it means knowing what to take from them and how to combine them to use effectively in life and work.” The ITCCI model benchmark, for instance, asks twelfth grade students to demonstrate proficiency in desktop publishing by using software to produce a complex publication like a yearbook, brochure, or multifold flyer. In another example, the benchmark asks tenth grade students to use a database application to track and evaluate college scholarship opportunities.
Along with the model program, ITCCI has provided educators with several resources to rely on as they begin to introduce the new national model in real classroom settings. These include resource materials that inform students and parents about IT careers, a Web-based resource center for educators, and a national network of practitioners and technical assistance providers called the Educator’s Website for Information Technology. To date, 45 states and U.S. territories have adopted the ITCCI model.
Having developed a comprehensive package of materials to help educators prepare young people for IT careers, Malyn-Smith now finds herself increasingly interested in the ways that young people are learning important IT skills outside of schools and formal education settings—at home, or in community technology centers and after-school programs. Her next undertaking, called the Power-Users of Technology Initiative, is working with EDC-Europe to convene a panel of international leaders from the IT industry, education, psychology, sociology, telecommunications, science, and medicine to look at how the IT revolution is shaping the lives and minds of today’s young people.
“Kids are native to the world of technology in ways that we adults will never be,” says Malyn-Smith. “They have grown up with long-term, intensive experiences with technology that are different from our own—for example, they are comfortable doing homework, talking to five friends, and playing video games all at once. Most importantly, these experiences occur before our young people have fully developed physically and matured emotionally—before their patterns of interaction and values are formed. This project is asking, ‘How are these natives different from us?’ These children are a national asset—what do we need to know about them in order to design challenging, supportive learning environments that will build on their abilities, and effective social policy that will fully develop their human potential?”
Originally published on August 31, 2003