Oct 12 2006

School Districts Collaborate With IT Companies To Bolster Their Curriculum

What happens when schools and IT companies collaborate? They produce a more skilled technology workforce.

When 16-year-old Mikhail Gordon isn’t playing soccer or riffing on a guitar with his band, he’s busy pursuing his dream of graphic arts and Web site design. Having fulfilled his math and science graduation requirements at Miami’s Design and Architecture Senior High School, Gordon is now devoting more time to Web design.

So far, the high school senior has learned HTML, Flash and JavaScript. He developed a Web site for his parents’ business, and he helped design a site for the nonprofit National Self-Defense Institute as part of a class project. And he plans to build more. “This is fun,” he says. “You can do what you want and be more creative.”

Luckily for Gordon—and thousands of other students across the country— technology companies are taking notice of his career interests. In a desire to invest in the development of students who could possibly become future employees, these businesses are forming partnerships with public school districts. This gives the companies a leg up on harnessing an untapped corporate resource—the high school student.

During the past several years, a number of technology companies have invested heavily in education. These public-private partnerships serve dual purposes: Cash-strapped school districts can offer teachers and students access to technology and training that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford. In turn, the tech companies help develop a future tech-savvy workforce. Teaching technology to high school students gives them the skills they need to succeed when they enter the workforce, points out Kyra Kester, special assistant for industry partnerships at Washington state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“The tradition of technical education existed throughout the 20th century, but the major revolution has happened in the last three to four years,” she says. “The massive change is in the students themselves. They come to school as computer users, and they expect to use computers. It’s the world these kids have grown up in, and they don’t want to wait until college to learn the next level of tech skills.”

The partnerships work a variety of ways: Tech companies usually sell schools hardware, software and networking equipment at steep discounts. They also offer free or discounted teacher training, and they help develop comprehensive lesson plans that teachers can use. Sometimes, they just give away technology for free. In some cases, vendors need schools to test new technology in development, so they offer the schools free products in exchange for feedback from educators.

Both Sides Benefit

In recent years, schools in Washington state have developed a number of partnerships with vendors such as Cisco, Microsoft and Oracle. For example, Macromedia sent a team of employees to the state several years ago to develop a two-semester Web design curriculum and to train teachers on Web site development––all for free. For almost two years, teachers tested the curriculum and gave feedback, which allowed the company to improve its lesson plans.

The partnership benefited both sides: The Web design courses have spread from the 21 Washington schools that initially piloted the project to more than 200 schools throughout the state. Macromedia, in turn, now offers the curriculum to schools throughout the United States, tailoring the program to meet the needs and requirements of individual schools. It sells software at discounted prices, and offers free training if schools spend a certain amount.

Tech executives say that the free or subsidized offerings are a wise investment.

“If technology companies want to continue to survive in the current economic climate, they have to invest in education, so students can come out prepared to use technology in the real world,” says Megan Stewart, director of Macromedia’s Global School Division. “You don’t just throw tools in schools and hope they will be used. You have to provide resources to help teachers use them the right way.”

Microsoft, for example, hopes to break even with its IT Academy. For a small fee, the academy offers software, course lesson plans and regular teacher training for schools that want to offer Microsoft classes to prepare their students for certification.

Brian Bratonia, the U.S. program manager for Microsoft’s IT Academy, says about 50 high schools in the nation have joined the program, which also offers student discounts on certification exams. Getting certified allows students to prove their mastery of Microsoft software, so they can pursue jobs as help desk specialists or other IT professionals.

“We’re not looking to make money,” Bratonia says. “We’re doing what we can to provide a solid foundation for a competitive workforce.”

Real-World Tech Skills

In Miami’s Design and Architecture Senior High School, teacher Deb Singer directs the Web Design Academy, where students learn design, multimedia and project management skills. As part of the program, students work in teams and build Web sites for nonprofit organizations, such as the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.

Singer, who has a master’s degree in computer science, quickly became an expert in Web design through the free training she received from Apple and Macromedia. Her students regularly win local and state design awards, and have been hired to build Web sites for area companies.

“Without periodic training and support from professionals in this dynamic field, I would not be able to provide students with marketable skills for the workforce,” Singer remarks.

When students build sites for nonprofit organizations, they gain important real-world work experience, she says. Singer often reminds the students that clients are always right and that they can’t skimp on quality.

“When you are working with real-world clients, they can look at you and say, ‘I don’t like your six designs,’” she explains, adding that this kind of interaction with the real world can be a shock to students.

Gordon learned that lesson when he and several classmates built a Web site for the National Self-Defense Institute. He says he didn’t have the creative freedom that he had hoped for.

“The customer had a lot of input on it, and we had to go exactly with what they wanted,” he recalls. “You really have to just bite your tongue and give clients what they want.”

Hands-On Experience

Students at the Delaware Area Career Center in Delaware, Ohio, are also getting real-world experience. The center, which provides vocational training to students in four local school districts, currently offers the Cisco Networking Academy, a two-year program that teaches students to build and manage office networks that connect computers to the Internet. In addition, the center recently joined Microsoft’s IT Academy program and will offer Microsoft classes at one of the local high schools this fall.

Since partnering with Cisco five years ago, high school students at the center have gotten hands-on experience by networking computer labs and classrooms on campus and other schools as they work toward a Cisco certification, says teacher Randy Moore.

The Cisco Networking Academy, which currently teaches more than 70,000 high school students in the United States, allows the Delaware Area Career Center to buy networking equipment at substantially reduced prices. Moore says he couldn’t teach networking effectively without Cisco’s help, which includes regular training, frequent updates to lesson plans and technical support.

“They developed an online four-semester curriculum that they keep updating with the current technology,” Moore reports. “That means I can never rest. I have to keep myself updated and change lesson plans. It would have been difficult to do this on my own.”

Dan Skeen, an 18-year-old high school senior, takes his regular classes at nearby Big Walnut High School in the early morning, and then heads over to the career center to take networking courses. He wants to become a network administrator and plans to pursue a networking degree in college. The Cisco Networking Academy has given him a good head start, notes Skeen, who loves the process involved in troubleshooting technology problems.

“I get hands-on with the routers, configuring them and learning how they work with other equipment,” he explains. “Because I’ve spent a lot of my free time on computers and helping people troubleshoot, it’s become a real fun thing to do.”

Making Partnerships Work

For partnerships with technology companies to work, schools must be willing to commit a lot of time, energy and money, says Suzan Harden, career development and college tech prep coordinator at the Delaware Area Career Center.

With most classes, schools have to buy new textbooks every three to five years. But with tech classes, schools must spend a lot of money to regularly update their technology, even when they receive discounts from the suppliers. “If you are going to make a program worthwhile, you have to keep upgrading the technology,” Harden says.

Moore adds that it’s natural for teachers to feel overwhelmed when they begin training on the technology, but he says that it does get easier. “A little persistence pays off, so stick with it,” he advises. Once you begin to understand technology, he says, “your comfort level increases.”

Teachers shouldn’t worry about having answers to every question that comes up while teaching technology, adds Singer of Miami’s Design and Architecture Senior High School. Teachers can tap the vendor’s technical support staff, and both teachers and students can do research on their own to find solutions to problems that crop up in class, she says.

“You cannot know all the answers to all the problems that will come up,” Singer points out. “You need to have the capability to find out how it’s done and apply it to your situation.”

For example, when the Florida governor’s office wanted a message board with password protection, Singer and her students figured out how to make it happen. “I have no reason to teach that in class, but that’s what the client wanted so we researched how to do it,” she explains.

Who’s Selling Out?

Bre Urness-Straight, a teacher at Anacortes High School, in Anacortes, Wash., dismisses critics who say schools are selling out and allowing tech companies to market to students. While she did take advantage of Macromedia’s Web design training, she continues to make competing software available to her students.

“Are we selling out a certain amount of educational control?” she asks. “I don’t think so. I don’t limit students. Because I’m a Macromedia supporter doesn’t mean I don’t support other products as well. I want what is best for students.”

With schools facing limited budgets, the reality is that schools need to continue to foster partnerships with tech companies to provide the best education they can, she says. Urness-Straight, who is currently testing new Microsoft software that allows teachers to give assignments to students via the Web, says schools have to be open to every potential partnership.

“Participating in one program doesn’t eliminate the use of other software,” she points out. “If there’s someone else that has something better and is willing to do a pilot project with me, I’d be open to that. That’s my motto: If you are not open to the possibilities, then you are not open to opportunities.”

Wylie Wong is a Phoenix-based freelance writer who covers technology.

Creating Partnerships That Work

Suzan Harden, career development and college tech prep coordinator at the Delaware Area Career Center in Delaware, Ohio, gives the following advice to schools that are considering a partnership with IT vendors:

• Don’t go into a tech partnership without a plan and commitment.

• Create an advisory committee of professionals who are in the field in which you want to offer classes. The committee can advise school districts on technology and the skills needed to teach it.

• Review labor market statistics in your area to ensure there are jobs available in the technology classes you plan to provide.

• Get the vendors’ responsibilities in writing. Spell out in the contract the support the vendor will provide if there are problems with the technology. Also, require that the technology is working by the first day of school.

• Provide the funding, training and resources teachers need. For example, with the Cisco Networking Academy, the company expects partner schools to pay for regular training to update teachers on technology.

• Upgrade the technology regularly to ensure the best education possible.

• Recruit students into the program.

• Vendors offer technology at subsidized prices to school districts, but the prices are often non-negotiable. Sometimes you can negotiate services and resource materials, such as extra reference books or having the company’s support group work with your teachers onsite.

• Regular communication between teachers and the vendor is crucial to resolve problems and improve the curriculum. A school administrator should manage the relationship to make sure everything is running smoothly.