Program Access

Bridging the skills gap in today’s IT job market. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Terri Virnig

CREDIT IBMThe growth of Big Data has the power to transform business decisions, enhance customer relationships, and create new opportunities – but only if businesses are capable of making sense of it. The large amount of data available today has created a need for employees with specialized talents. However, over the last several years, employers have struggled to fill job vacancies with professionals that have the proficiency in all things data – skills that are required to address their ongoing business challenges. That is all about to change though.

There is a big opportunity out there for private companies, colleges, universities, and students. 

In the 2012 IBM Tech Trends Report —a study surveying 1,200 information technology decision makers, 250 academics, and 450 students in 13 countries— sixty percent of the enterprises polled reported a lack of skills in high-growth technology spaces, including areas such as business analytics and mobile development. The numbers were equally startling across academia: 75 percent of the academics and students polled noted a lag among institutions in providing students with the critical skills needed to excel within the IT space primarily due to the slow pace of curricula updates and the costs entailed in procuring the requisite hardware and software.

The need is just as evident today as, between now and 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a faster-than-average increase in employment opportunities for computer and information research scientists.

Employers across virtually every industry vertical are seeking job candidates who possess the skills to leverage the capabilities of Big Data to uncover new insights and help organizations better problem solve, respond to key findings, swiftly enter new markets, and gain faster competitive advantages.

To this end, it is critical that college students have access to programs that will help position them for future job success. Students should seek out courses that offer a wide range of products and solutions that can help enhance their resume and enable them to develop competitive skills on the latest industry-standard software, systems, and tools.

Similarly, colleges and universities must actively foster and promote a unique learning environment in order to facilitate skill development for students, allowing them to focus more on principles and techniques rather than solely on infrastructure. Colleges and universities need the opportunity to take advantage of initiatives like those offered by technology organizations to help bridge the gap between student preparedness and the needs of their future employers.

Research and projects are already underway around the world leveraging these partnerships. For example, a project at Virginia Tech aims to create new algorithms and software to help optimize models in ongoing projects in systems biology and aerospace engineering. At NYU, students have been enabled to gain first-hand experience in dealing with large structured and unstructured datasets to achieve new insights. Thanks to these initiatives, students continue to gain important skills in data warehousing, ETL, and optimization.

There is a big opportunity out there for private companies, colleges, universities, and students. By partnering with colleges and universities around the world, and providing the infrastructure or software tools needed to train students, technology companies have a direct hand in preparing students for the realities of the workplace. Academic institutions have an opportunity to further enrich their curricula with advanced technology. Ultimately, these new tools and opportunities will help the next generation of professionals develop their technology skills, and fill in a much needed gap in this ever changing technology landscape.

Terri Virnig is VP of Power Ecosystem and Strategy at IBM.

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The New Normal

A dearth in practical technology skills calls for an online boot camp approach.

GUEST COLUMN | by Melinda Barlow

CREDIT Career FoundryCareer pathways today are almost unrecognizable from those of twenty or even ten years ago. For many people, the conventional route of education makes less sense now as traditional learning systems are leaving them wanting more. The investment of years of time and thousands of dollars is no longer a commitment people are willing to make, especially when there are much more cost effective and tailored solutions on the market that train them specifically for the work they want to do. Online learning, through platforms, can offer a much more flexible approach, enabling people to value add what’s needed to their skillset in an efficient and focused way.

The ‘boot camp’ style learning approach has been one of the keys to bridging the technology skills gap.

It seems like over the last decade, progress got bored with just ‘marching on’ so broke into a light jog and is now running at such a rapid pace, we can barely keep up with it, or in fact ourselves. Much of that is due to technology. Business now must embrace change, not just to keep up, but also to survive. The skills gap widens and tech skills are an essential requirement of employees rather than an added bonus.

The ecosystems of many companies are changing as baby boomers retire and workplaces are filled with a strange and not fully functioning blend of digital immigrants, with fresh new academic graduates. In many cases these graduates have invested considerable time and money in traditional offline learning and have come out overqualified yet drastically under skilled.

Today we are saturated with technology and our ‘new found’ ability to just ‘work stuff out’ (who gave that baby that iPad!) has caused a shift so that many of us are also making new choices about our career paths. We have become much more independent in our approach to things and now live in a world where, if the familiar traditional option is not working for us, we believe there must be an alternative, so we find something else.

Many people who make the switch are ready for change and want it to happen quickly. Online training through technology boot camps for example, means they can pick up key technology skills, and as a result make a total career change; transitioning from being unemployed to becoming a busy productive freelancer in a matter of months. As a result, offline learning is losing ground while online learning is gaining traction by the second.

In contrast to postgrad employment, the transition from online learning to employment, more often than not, ends in success.

Recent graduate Spyros Fotiou is a great example of the new normal in technology careers. Despite having been to university, Spyros struggled to find employment as he lacked the tech skills necessary for the majority of jobs he saw advertised in his field. Recognizing this and taking a DIY approach, he engaged in online learning and in less than six months had completed the course and established a full time income for himself as a freelance web programmer, building websites for European companies.

The ‘boot camp’ style learning approach has been one of the keys to bridging the technology skills gap. Although degrees in computer science, engineering and technology streams provide the theoretical knowledge, it is the practical skills that are lacking and currently the most vital. Tech boot camps are specifically designed to provide these skills through an intensive program ensuring graduates have the skills employers are currently looking for. Programming languages can go through waves of demand and online courses can be structured to meet that demand in real time.

Time and money are always a consideration and tech boot camps run from 6 – 12 weeks with pricing starting at $5000 and increasing based on duration and content. By the end of the program, students are skilled to walk into an entry-level developer role immediately. Because programming languages have also progressed, they are now simpler to learn and in many cases students are proficient in a matter of weeks. As technology advances and becomes so much more accessible to everyone, our desire to engage with it in a more comprehensive way has deepened. Changing career from graphic artist to web designer, from social worker to app developer is now more within reach than ever.

Educational reform is essential to manage the skills gap and ensure the supply of appropriately skilled workers meets the ever-changing demands of the workforce. Bridging the tech skills gap is not enough. As long as human beings continue to innovate, demand in technology careers will only get stronger and unless traditional educational curriculum has been sufficiently redesigned, online learning will not just be another solution, it will become the only solution.

Melinda Barlow is a writer for Career Foundry, a career accelerator for vocational tech skills that builds online programs delivered by expert mentors to bring complete beginners up to employable standards in technology.

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Do Adults Really Know Best?

Turns out, focusing on a child’s interests can matter more than the child’s reading level.

GUEST COLUMN | by Lindsey Hill

CREDIT Wandoo PlanetWhen it comes to fighting reading deficiency in our children, adults don’t always know best. (We think we do, of course.) Young readers slog through leveled reading programs created by adults with little to no input from the kids they wish to teach. As well-meaning teachers and librarians direct their students to books geared toward their respective reading levels, poor and reluctant readers are continuously reminded of their shortcomings. Is this how to best solve our reading deficiency crisis? It doesn’t seem to be working so far. After all, 80 percent of kids in less affluent homes are not reading proficiently, and reading drops off significantly after age nine, as uncovered in this 2013 white paper, “Factors affecting reading ability in school age children.”

In an effort to reframe the reading deficiency crisis and draw attention to the power of kids’ interests, our company embarked on a 20,000-mile, cross-country tour.

Actually, the problem is tied directly to children’s underlying motivation to read. Turns out, focusing on a child’s interests matters more than the child’s reading level. When children have a strong interest in what they read, they can frequently transcend their reading levels. When truly engaged with the material, children read more—and more often. This, in turn, drives reading proficiency and helps fight the literacy crisis.

Empowering kids instead

At my company, we’ve learned that kids are the experts on what they love to discover, read, and do—but all too often we fail to take advantage of the opportunity this presents.  Wandoo Planet is an online reader engagement platform that empowers kids ages 6 and up to discover their own interests—from Lemony Snicket and unicorns to dirt biking and superheroes—and find related books and other content on their own.

Powered by an adaptive learning system algorithm, the platform works a little like Spotify or Netflix. Kids with similar interests see recommendations for associated content that their peers have rated highly. Sure, it can help parents uncover topics their kids are interested in, but the power of this technology truly begins and ends with the kids themselves. By asking children to join us during beta testing, we’re further validating their interests and empowering them to recommend books and other content to their peers.

Through the self-discovery process of building an interest tree using the platform, kids also uncover new interests they didn’t know they had. Savvy educators, librarians, and parents can leverage kids’ interests, which can impact the entire learning process. Focus on interests first, and reading naturally comes along for the ride.

Hitting the road

In an effort to reframe the reading deficiency crisis and draw attention to the power of kids’ interests, our company embarked on a 20,000-mile, cross-country tour. We’ve been visiting libraries, schools, and reading conferences over the last few months, and our interactions with kids suggest we’re onto something. As they explore new interests and content, they’ve told us what’s working for them and what’s not, what they’d like us to do differently, and what they’d like us to do next.

It is abundantly clear that motivation is the real key to developing successful readers. It affects how kids approach reading and school in general, how they relate to their teachers, how much time and effort they devote to their studies, how much support they seek when they are struggling, how they perform on tests, and so much more.

We’re still at the very start of our journey—and far from solving the reading deficiency problem—but we’re fairly certain we’re looking in the right place for answers. Let kids explore and connect with their keenest interests on their own terms, and we just might develop lifelong readers in the process.

Lindsey Hill, two-time Elementary Teacher of the Year honoree and veteran teacher of 14 years, is the lead for reading engagement initiatives at Evanced Solutions, LLC. By spending time with parents, teachers, librarians and students in and out of elementary classrooms and in video chats, Lindsey is able to demonstrate how kids can embrace their interests to transcend reading levels. Visit (free app coming soon).

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A Startup Story

Lessons learned from an edtech company founder and teacherpreneur.

GUEST COLUMN | by Zak Ringelstein

CREDIT Renaissance LearningTrue, some of the greatest companies started in a garage. Mine, however, began at my dining room table with me frustrated and fatigued, hunched over a stack of ungraded homework assignments, staring at a dauntingly blank Microsoft Word file. After a full day of teaching, I would begin my lesson planning just around 5 pm each day. As much as I loved my job, I did not love this particular part of it. Knowingly planning lessons that had been designed thousands–if not millions–of times before me, I emerged with uninspired plans on more occasions than I would like to admit.

To add to the frustrations, teachers are continuously required to juggle new developments in both standards and technology. It’s driving teachers absolutely insane!

The average teacher spends 2.5 hours planning lessons per day. With 30 million teachers in world, that’s 75 million hours of planning. Teachers spend so much time re-planning the same overlapping curriculum and it’s a gross misuse of time and energy. As mobile technology has become increasingly ubiquitous, we have embraced its collaborative functionalities from sharing status updates on Facebook to sharing housing on Airbnb. Unfortunately, the education industry has remained one of the slowest adopters for this.

Consequently, with a lack of quality resources available, educators spend less time honing effective instruction, which inevitably takes a toll on student learning outcomes. To add to the frustrations, teachers are continuously required to juggle new developments in both standards and technology. It’s driving teachers absolutely insane! We know. We’ve interviewed them.

With millions of inaccessible, quality resources floating around on personal desktops, forgotten in lost flash drives, and tucked away in dusty file cabinets, what if there was a comprehensive mean teachers to locate great material and construct their own lessons? The current landscape does very little to support communication and active collaboration amongst teachers. Energy otherwise allocated toward content creation needs to be optimized. Districts need a way to maximize creative talent and exchange high quality resources.

Since recognizing this shortcoming in the education industry, I have founded my solution to this and developed a content management system that not only offers teachers a portable workspace to craft their lessons, but also empowers them with choice. Our resource exchange feature offers three primary benefits:

District-wide collaboration

Teachers can easily search resources uploaded by other teachers within their own district or school and rest assured knowing that the materials come from a reliable source. Our platform takes the district’s best resources and makes them instantly accessible on the system’s portable cloud. Pooling content allows teachers to pull inspiration Useful files can also be emailed to other educators in or out of the district network directly from the platform.

Administrator curriculum distribution

Our solution opens an avenue of communication between teachers and administrators. A centralized content system allows administrators a seamless mean for distributing district-purchased or curated curriculum to teacher. Narrowing the disconnect between the two entities, administrators also have a higher-level view of what great content in their own district looks like and can, from there, analyze how to make improvements.

Millions of resources

In addition to sourcing files from their district network, teachers can also access materials from the platform’s pre-uploaded resource repository. Our platform is equipped with 17 million Common Core-tagged resources, vetted by master teachers.

Compatible with all file types, our personal file management system is a tag-enabled tool optimized for K12 curriculum planning. It’s a portable space to find, store, and compile resources that we designed to make teachers’ work days a little less exhausting and instruction a whole lot more effective for students.

Zak Ringelstein is CEO of UClass, which was recently acquired by Renaissance Learning. UClass is a leading K-12 content management solution that enables districts to flexibly distribute core curriculum to staff, facilitate collaboration across schools and measure the efficacy of its resources. Founded by public school teachers, their mission is to increase opportunities for all students by providing schools the tools they need to ensure they use the most relevant content for the personalized needs of teachers and students.

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Active Learning

How to create an active classroom experience with technology.  

GUEST COLUMN | by Jessica Sanders

CREDIT learn2earnThe traditional teaching method of giving a lesson at the front of the class puts you, the teacher, in an active position but leaves students in a passive role, where they are taught to but don’t interact with the material as much they should. In fact, Edudemic reported that teachers do 80 percent of the talking in class. This format can quickly cause students to become bored and disengaged—students that aren’t engaged have a higher rate of failing. When you use technology, however, the classroom becomes an active space, where you can interact with students and be more hands on. These active, technology-rich classrooms are often referred to as Active Learning Classrooms, and because of their many benefits, they’ve become a popular option for college professors in recent years.

You don’t have to rewrite your entire curriculum or individual lessons. Instead, take a look at what you’ve already prepared and consider how you can supplement with technology.

Creating an active learning environment is also a valuable opportunity for teachers of younger students, who have keep a whole class of inattentive students focused and interested.

While some teachers choose to rearrange their classroom to make them more student-focused, the simple addition of a few tech tools can make immense improvements for you and your students. See how simple it is to make this happen for your classroom.

Classroom Design (The Non-Tech Portion)

Some teachers like to rearrange their classrooms to make it more conducive to the active learning experience. In these classrooms you’ll commonly see one podium in the center of the room and round tables or desks that are placed together in a circular shape.

“This classroom design enables instructors to spend a few minutes guiding the whole class from the center of the room, and then quickly transition students into collaborative work without needing to reconfigure the furniture or organize students into groups,” according to Tech Basics for Active, Collaborative Learning. 

However, it’s important to note that this is not a critical aspect of active learning; you can facilitate this learning experience without rearranging your classroom. If you want to ease into it, consider the following four steps.

Step 1: Assess Student Objectives

Before introducing any new tech tools, it’s important that you consider the learning objectives for your students. You don’t have to rewrite your entire curriculum or individual lessons. Instead, take a look at what you’ve already prepared and consider how you can supplement with technology in a way that makes the lesson more active. For example:

  • Add an engaging video.
  • Task students with writing responses in a blog post.
  • Use Google Earth to explore a region students are learning about.
  • Connect with another classroom via Skype to further explore an assignment.

Or you can use the following ideas to build entirely new lessons:

Step 2: Consider the Learning Curve

Before implementing the tool in your classroom, it’s important that you learn how to use it. Not only will this make you more confident, but it will give you an idea of what kind of learning curve your students will have with the tool. For example, perhaps after setting up your teacher blog you know right away that there are a few students who will struggle with understanding the tool at first.

In this case, plan for a more personalized learning experience where you work closer with those struggling students on the first day to ensure everyone is on the same page later in the lesson.

Step 3: Introduce it to Your Students

Introduce any new tools just like you would a lesson or theme. Prepare any extra materials you’ll need, compile important resources, and create samples if necessary. This is the process Nicole Long, a secondary language arts teacher, used when she first introduced Skype in her classroom:

“For the first [Skype] session I compiled a list of resources and added them to the sheet; these resources provide tips on how to navigate Google Maps, a World atlas and a map of different time zones, among others—this is a helpful resource for students to prepare for every session. Try to keep this resource simple to encourage students to engage their own research as well,” says Long.

Consider what resources, tips and documents you’ll need for the specific tool you’re using.

Step 4: Reassess

Take a look at the progress you’ve made since introducing this new technology. Tools like Inside Mathematics, Whooo’s Reading, or an LMS will provide you with data about student improvements. Read through this information to determine if students have made any gains that you can attribute to that technology. If so, you can use this as leverage to get the school to pay for paid tools.

An active learning environment is more effective for students and gives you an opportunity to work closer with each student. This increases engagement and excitement, which will make your job easier too!

Jessica Sanders is the Director of Social Outreach for Learn2Earn. She grew up reading books like The Giver and Holes, and is passionate about making reading as exciting for young kids today as it has always been for her. Follow Learn2Earn on Twitter and Facebook, and send content inquiries to

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