It takes four years (on average) for someone to complete a bachelor’s degree in computer science. But companies can’t wait years for new, trained talent to appear—they require people as soon as possible.
Tech professionals need continuing education if they want to compete in fields that are constantly evolving. Classes can give them a knowledge base, actionable skills, and certifications showing they understand how core concepts work.
Online learning can fill these gaps for both tech pros and employers. Whether large organizations partnering with software vendors to offer certification classes, or universities posting up a catalog of online micro-courses in the latest technologies, the Internet can deliver structured instruction at a professional’s pace and convenience.
But how do these entities actually go about designing these educational pathways?
How to Teach
Universities have taught advanced subjects in the same way for centuries. A professor stands in the front of a class of students, and speaks. They listen. It’s still pretty medieval.
Despite that in-person tradition, institutions of higher learning are pushing hard to adapt to an online world. For example, Georgia Tech offers online courses for eight different graduate degrees in STEM; around 4,000 students are currently enrolled in the school’s online master’s in computer science program.
“The faculty is the facilitator of learning [online],” noted Yakut Gazi, Associate Dean of Learning Systems for Georgia Tech’s Professional Education effort. “The teaching assistants facilitate engagement… no differently than they do on campus.”
But when designing a course for online consumption, Gazi noted, the traditional teacher-student model must follow a different pattern. “The revolutionary thing is truly personalized learning online,” she said. “The pace of instruction—the time it takes to learn—is the system’s ability to give you feedback and create different learning paths… That’s going to be a real pedagogical improvement to learning.”
In order to adapt to this brave new world, many schools rely on companies that specialize in online learning tools. Skillsoft, a Boston-based firm that specializes in delivering online training, partners with colleges and industries to deliver coursework.
Online learning requires a blend of approaches, with access to e-books, an instructor, and online assessments. It also necessitates delivering lessons in smaller chunks: a student may receive a 3-5 minute video on a topic, followed by a selection from an online textbook, followed by an assessment after each section, explained Jim Zimmermann, Skillsoft’s solutions principal for IT and digital training. You can have a section of hands-on practice, with a live mentor handy to ask questions and sample exams to practice for final certification; that mix of video, assessment and reading reinforces learning.
“Everyone has their own learning preference,” Zimmermann said. “As a Baby Boomer, I prefer books.”
Another online training firm, Coursera, focuses at the mid-career level, according to Richard Wong, heads of engineering at the firm. “At a high level, courses are designed to push learners to achieve mastery and fully understand a lesson before moving onto more advanced topics.” Wong wrote via e-mail. “For example, each online course includes 5-10 min videos interspersed with quizzes that keep online learners engaged while testing how well they’ve understood the subject matter.”
Such platforms allow learners to go back and review content at their own pace. For aspiring programmers, online learning also offers the opportunity to practice, practice, practice coding without worrying about tying up the whole class.
What to Teach
IT has short life cycles. A bleeding-edge technology from five years ago may be obsolete next year. Course providers have to be nimble, adding instruction in a new technology when the need becomes apparent.
“One of the biggest challenges is figuring out where to invest our dollars,” said Skillsoft’s Zimmermann. “We try to be data-driven about what our customers are asking for.”
Skillsoft will talk to corporate IT people in order to analyze demand. “Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth,” Zimmermann added, but the content teams will develop that information and begin building plans around those needs. “We never set things in stone.”
“We have a content strategy team dedicated to looking at trends across industries to identify what skills and subject matter best address the needs of today’s changing workforce,” added Coursera’s Wong. “We look at a number of external metrics including Burning Glass, Indeed, and Bureau of Labor Statistics as well as internal data that helps us identify emerging areas in demand.” Areas of expanding offerings include data science.
As with many schools, Georgia Tech is cognizant of how a change in IT technology can ripple through other topics—courses had to be adjusted, for example, to take into account the rise of data analytics.
How Quickly Can You Teach It
Crafting a course for graduate learning online may take 18-24 months, since the course must undergo academic accreditation.
By contrast, generating coursework for a professional qualification or certificate only takes three to six months. “It is easy to find expertise in instruction, and we work with corporations and clients to create curriculum around a program and deliver it,” Georgia Tech’s Gazi said.
Companies want those certifications to come faster. Before, a tech pro might have taken anywhere from five to 10 courses in order to master the material necessary for certification. Each of those courses might have been three hours in length. Now vendors want to see one-hour courses, Zimmermann explained, consisting of 10-15 minute lessons and 3-5 minute videos.
The upside is that these smaller chunks are easier to fit into a workday, interspersed throughout a professional’s daily workflow.
Still, “people tend to get a little ahead of themselves,” Zimmermann said. Once in a while, an online student will query Skillsoft about going for one of the top IT certifications, such as the CISSP (Certified Industry Systems Security Professional). Those advanced certifications generally necessitate many years of experience on the part of the tech pro.
According to a recent survey of the nation’s CIOs by Robert Half Technology, the certifications with the biggest pay increases in 2016 include the GIAC Enterprise Defender, the GIAC Certified Firewall Analyst, the EC-Council Certified Security Analyst, and the Linux Professional Institute Certification.
CompTIA’s most popular IT certifications include CompTIA Security+, A+ and Network+. “We’ve also seen more interest over the last year or so in Project+,” said spokesman Steve Ostrowski. (Project+, as the name implies, focuses on project management.)
While certification must produce individuals qualified to meet corporate demand, coursework can’t result in a high washout rate. Vendors must consider those factors when designing a course.
Whether you’re an entry-level tech pro looking to climb the career ladder, or a mid-level worker who wants to land an advanced certification, online learning is a well-developed channel for learning necessary skills. Thanks to pressure from the tech industry, many of these courses emphasize speed—which can translate into an aggressive pace and lots of coursework for tech pros who sign up for a class. Be aware of your schedule and time requirements before signing up.