How to Train Today’s Students to Be Tomorrow’s Tech Workforce

by Victoria Glazar, Verizon Corporate Social Responsibility
Jun 22, 2018 10:00 AM ET
Article

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, people had no idea how machines would change their lives.  Today, as we’re poised at the precipice of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we can relate. The next generation of wireless technology, 5G — with the ability to transmit data at speeds 50 times faster than today — promises to bring seismic change. This technology will enable advances in virtual and augmented reality, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, robotics and more, creating a future world as astounding to us as our present world would be to someone born 250 years ago.

In the next decade, our lives will change significantly in many ways, including the way we work. A report by the Institute for the Future (IFTF) forecasts that 85 percent of jobs needed as early as 2030 have not been invented yet. Although predictions differ, most experts agree tomorrow’s workers must have a new skill set to thrive.

“Even as a technology company leading the development of 5G, we don’t know the exact requirements for the jobs we’ll need to fill in 10 years. The use of artificial intelligence, robotics, virtualization and automation will definitely change the work environment of the future, including the types of jobs we staff, the tools we use in the workplace, the role of machines versus humans, and much more,” says Karyn Stetz, vice president of Human Resources for Verizon's Global Network and Technology team. “But we do know that the jobs of the future will require employees who are strong problem solvers with technical acumen, effective communication skills and leadership qualities.” 

In the impending era of human-machine partnerships, humans’ contribution will include computational thinking, an entrepreneurial mindset, and a nuanced understanding of culture, society, business and people, according to the IFTF report. The World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs report agrees that similar skills will be needed by future employees: complex problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity.

To instill tomorrow’s workers with these abilities, today’s educators must help students develop them.

 “We can’t continue to do what we’ve always done because the world that we’re preparing kids for is different than the one we grew up in,” says Devin Vodicka, former Superintendent of the Vista Unified School District, who was named California’s top superintendent by the Association of California School Administrators and again by the American Association of School Superintendents.  “The old educational model, where students were passive recipients in the learning experience, just won’t work anymore.”

Vodicka was a pioneer and evangelist for personalized learning at Vista schools. Since May 2017, he’s continued that mission as Chief Impact Officer of AltSchool, an education technology company specializing in personalizing learning. He says the student-driven approach to education is a precursor to how future workers will orchestrate their careers and professional development in the digital economy. “We’re getting away from the concept of one size fits all,” he says. “With a thoughtful approach, we can be learner-centered and create experiences for every student that will help with whole child development. Over time that will help them design their own learning pathways so they can be lifelong learners in the era of adaptive change ahead.”

Early in his tenure at Vista, Vodicka kicked off a personalized learning initiative by entering two middle schools in the Verizon Innovative Learning schools program. The program gave every student and teacher at the middle schools a tablet with data plan to use throughout the school year. Also, the teachers received professional development to integrate technology into the curriculum, facilitated by a Digital Learning Coach, who was assigned to each school to provide individualized support to the teachers. With the tablets, 24/7 access to the internet and innovative curriculum, teachers at the two Vista middle schools began the transformation to a student-driven teaching model that empowers students to drive their own curriculum and focus on creative problem solving.

At another Verizon Innovative Learning school, Bearden Middle School in Knoxville, Tenn., Kayla Canario, a teacher who serves as Digital Learning Coach, explains how the program changes the way students study, helping them develop into lifelong learners. “Our students have more experience facing problems that the teacher doesn't already have an answer to. They are used to designing their own toolboxes and path to their final outcome of learning,” she says. “Being able to think independently and learn without ultimate reliance on the teacher is more easily translated into the workforce than rote memorization.  Technology is the tool that allows us to push their thinking in new ways.”

The program is helping students develop computational thinking skills, a “necessity for fully participating in a computational world,” says Karen Cator, president and CEO of Digital Promise, the national nonprofit that administers the Verizon Innovative Learning schools program in partnership with Verizon. Cator, whose organization is dedicated to closing the digital learning gap in schools, is a leading voice for transforming American education through technology, innovation and research.

“Students certainly need to know how to use technology,” she says. “In fact, many of our middle school students are more proficient at using basic technologies than the adults around them. But more important than basic proficiency is the ability to solve problems and create solutions using technology. Our students need to learn to thrive in a computational world.” Computational thinking is not about learning a particular programming language, but about mastering the principles and logic behind coding. This skill set enables students to understand and employ qualities that are uniquely human and apply concepts across disciplines to analyze and solve complex problems.

Dr. Kemi Ladeji-Osias is another educator using technology to equip students with future-ready skills. “Workers will need to be creative, to process information and solve problems,” says Ladeji-Osias, an Associate Professor, Electrical & Computer Engineering at Morgan State University. “They will need to sort through a huge amount of information to glean what’s required for their task. They’ll need the ability to discriminate among websites to understand if there are any biases to the information being presented. And communication skills will continue to be important — the ability to be precise in communication will be even more important as we interact with automated devices.”

Ladeji-Osias directs a summer tech immersion program for minority middle-school-aged young men on campus at Morgan State. She says the program, part of the Verizon Innovative Learning initiative, teaches the young men tech skills, and focuses on so-called “soft” skills, including critical problem solving, collaboration, communication and entrepreneurship. “One of the most important things we’re trying to teach is a love of learning,” she adds. “One thing we know is that change is a constant, and the pace of change will continue to increase. Students will need to be comfortable with continually learning and adapting to new technologies that change the way things are done.”

For students in under-resourced communities, the group on which Verizon Innovative Learning focuses, access to technology and personalized learning are all the more important. According to Dr. Ladeji-Osias, “the lower the socioeconomic status, the less ubiquitous the access to technology, in particular to education that teaches how to create with technology. Research has shown that the way students of color and their teachers interact with technology in the educational environment is more restricted. It’s used more as a tool for drill and practice than for creating new things.”1

“So,” she adds, “in under-served urban areas and in rural areas, it’s imperative for students to be exposed to technology as a tool for creativity, and to be encouraged to use it creatively.”

Vodicka agrees.  “The learners who benefit the most are those who traditionally struggle in school. We saw similar trends in Vista, a district where, in some schools, 90 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. For the least engaged, personalized learning helped them to feel empowered by being a change maker. We saw dramatic improvements in engagement of families as well as learners. Families who had not been involved became much more connected when they saw their kids were engaged in school.”2

Preparing students from all backgrounds for the future requires a transformation in how students learn today. Like the 18th century textile workers who walked into factories and were challenged about how to make fabrics with spinning machines, today’s students must understand what technology can and cannot do, and why developing problem solving skills is important to their success.

Verizon Innovative Learning

Millions of American students lack the tech access and skills they need to succeed in the digital world.3   Verizon has been working to help solve this problem holistically through a transformative program called Verizon Innovative Learning. Verizon Innovative Learning provides free technology, free internet access, and hands-on learning experiences to help give under-resourced students the education they deserve. Powered by a next-gen, technology-infused curriculum that fundamentally changes the way teachers teach and students learn, Verizon Innovative Learning is giving kids the ability to do more in this world. Students are showing improvement in math and reading, and they’re more engaged in school.

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1Shifflet, R. & Weilbacher, G. (2015). Teacher Beliefs and Their Influence on Technology Use: A Case Study. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 15(3), 368-394

2https://edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2018/06/technology-key-boosting-classroom-equity

3Pew Research Center Analysis of 2013 American Community Survey (IPUMS)