Launch Acceleration

How technology can shape the future of Career Technical Education.

GUEST COLUMN | By Frank Britt

CREDIT Penn Foster imageThe higher education landscape is changing and the definition of today’s student is changing with it. Gone are the days when a four-year degree was the only option for students looking to advance their education. Today, the number of college students age 25 and older is increasing steadily and now exceeds one-third of all college students, and the educational options for these students are also expanding.  These nontraditional students, such as adult students, need flexible, affordable and personalized learning options that allow them to complete their degrees or certificate programs on their own time, at their own pace.

Many of these students choose career technical education (CTE) as a way to advance their careers in growing fields. Students in this field accelerate their launch into the workforce by getting practical, career-oriented training that they can immediately apply to a vocation of their choosing.  The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, which is currently up for Congressional reauthorization, helps increase the quality of CTE for both high schools and community colleges, by providing about $1.3 billion in federal support and holding schools accountable for the continued success of their CTE initiatives.

The Perkins Act was last reauthorized in 2006, and since that time the Internet has dramatically altered higher education in this country. In the five years following the reauthorization, the number of students taking at least one online course nearly doubled to more than 6.7 million, according to research by the Sloan Consortium, and it continues to rise every year. The accessibility of online learning has dramatic implications for four-year universities and CTE programs alike. And as the education landscape and student population change, it is vital that CTE experiences a renaissance of its own. Recently, I was invited to address the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, where I offered some recommendations for using new strategies and technology to help accelerate the modernization of CTE in the U.S.

One of my recommendations calls for the industry and the government to embrace digital learning to make CTE more accessible and cost-effective. Tech-enabled and hybrid educational delivery platforms reduce institutions’ spending per-student by using predictive tools that automate intervention and augment student progress; these tools increase faculty productivity by moving from hard copy text to digital content. For its part, the government has to acknowledge and welcome the growing number of students being educated online, and change the outdated definitions in the Perkins Act, which currently excludes online and hybrid providers from its definition of “CTE institutions.”  More than cosmetic, this change would support and further legitimize the institutions that are providing the most efficient form of CTE.

In addition to embracing digital learning, CTE leaders must also innovate.  Somehow, this $30 billion industry that includes trade schools, high schools and technical community colleges and impacts millions of learners every year has been largely ignored by entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and top executives from leading companies. To attract large-scale innovators and new sources of capital to drive research and development, the delivery model and economic and regulatory environments need to change. CTE needs Perkins dollars directly focused on innovation grants, prizes and university collaboration initiatives to incentivize engagement and diversify the base of potential innovators. Furthermore, new parties, including proprietary schools, need to have a say in the updated version of the Perkins Act and the national CTE agenda. Online and hybrid learning models can offer more affordable career and technical education for students, often working in cooperation with traditional providers,  while also reducing labor and operational costs for schools. As a result of these savings, more funding can be freed up to directly benefit students.

While technology could help to make CTE more affordable, it could also help to make it even more credible. Degrees that prepare students for middle-skilled careers are often ignored or rejected, but education leaders need to realize the importance of these fields for economic growth. For example, in Massachusetts, where I live, the need for middle-skilled workers is especially urgent. Some 40 percent of all job openings between 2010 and 2016 are projected to be middle-skilled jobs, according to the Skills2Compete campaign. As students graduate from traditional four-year institutions and struggle to find employment, these jobs are going unfilled. Online and hybrid learning options can help to train students in these careers, giving them the flexibility to complete their education while also managing other work and familial responsibilities. In addition to providing access to in-demand skills, many online education providers offer their students support systems similar to those at traditional institutions, which often includes a community of faculty and students with whom they can confer about assignments and stay on-track.

Continued support is vital not only for CTE students but for the entire CTE system.  As discussion about the reauthorization of the Perkins Act continues, it is important for educators and government officials to embrace online and hybrid learning models as vital components of the CTE experience. It is essential to pass a revitalized Perkins Act that takes into account the expanding role of online education, embracing its potential for accessibility and efficiency while guarding against its pitfalls. As new educational models continues to reshape CTE, from learning management and faculty engagement to new models of data collection and analytics, being proactive can only improve the experience for our students and the industry as a whole.

Frank Britt is the CEO of Penn Foster and is executive-in-residence at Bain Capital Ventures. He has 20 years experience focused on helping lead tier-one solutions-based business service firms in the education, media, technology, industrial and consumer goods industries. Write to: Frank.Britt@pennfoster.edu

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Are you an edtech leader, trendsetter, or the creator of a cool edtech tool? The 2014 EdTech Digest Awards extended entry period runs until October 18, 2013. There is still time to enter. For full details, write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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