A Pathway to Achievement


An innovative IT skills program is laying studentsa trail between high school, higher education,and ultimately, the job market.

A Pathway to AchievementCLINT JOHNS, TECHNOLOGY COORDINATOR and teacher at Irvington High School inFremont, CA, is determined to create what he calls "seamless pathways" between his school's studentsand both the modern job market and the demands of higher education.

"We're looking for meaningful and relevant connections between what students are learning in the classroom and the job skills companies are looking for in the years to come," Johns says. "Technology training is the logical link, but this isn't a trade school, so this challenge for us is also very much about infusing technology within courses to gear kids for college."

For Irvington, a Bay Area public high school serving about 2,000 students, that pursuit of a "logical link" led to a collaboration with nearby Ohlone College. Ohlone, a community college with campuses in Fremont and Newark, CA, enrolls 18,000 students per year on campus and online. The school offers 184 degrees and academic programs, and every year more than 500 Ohlone students transfer to four-year colleges and universities.

The Irvington-Ohlone partnership revolves around the college's Career Pathway in Information and Communication Technology. The ICT program is designed to lead high school students through courses that prepare them to enroll in a community college and then transfer to a university for baccalaureate degrees with a computer science or engineering focus.

"The strongest connection right now between K-12 and higher education is the community college," says Richard Grotegut, professor of computer networking and emerging technology at Ohlone. "We're typically thought of as the vocational, tech-training arm of the educationalsystem, but community colleges also serve as an academic bridge between high school and the universities. In this case, the focus just happens to be information technology."

Ohlone makes a natural partner for Irvington, Johns says, both because of its geographic proximity and the college's active interest in linking the two schools. "This is a connection we both wanted to make," he says.

The two schools are making that connection through technology-- or rather, their shared view about technology: that standards-based tech skills taught early will serve to smooth the way for students entering postsecondary institutions. And yet, according to Ameetha Palanki, chief academic officer at Edgenuity, a maker of educational software solutions, tight couplings such as the Irvington-Ohlone partnership are still rare because of a fundamental difference in the ways K-12 schools and higher ed institutions use information technology.

"The links we see right now tend to be about leveraging technology for advanced placement online courses, and we see systems for automating the application process," says Palanki, a former director and faculty member at UCLA's School Management Program.

"But none of the technologies we're seeing are addressing core issues on the K-12 side that might help on the postsecondary side. The trouble is, we really haven't identified a common problem that we can address through technology."

One basic impediment to creating academic connections between K-12 and higher ed, according to Edgenuity's chief academic officer, Ameetha Palanki, is the dissimilar demands of the technology in the two environments. IT in K-12 centers on automating student assessment, she says, while in post-secondary it's all about collaboration, learning management, and the delivery of content. There has not been enough effort in using technology for shared purposes.

Making K-16 Possible

EDUCATIONAL SOLUTIONS PROVIDER Edgenuity cites threebasic problems at the K-12 level that the company says makes it virtually impossibleto link to postsecondary institutions-- issues, it says, technology can help solve:

  1. Mixed expectations. "We don't have alignment of what we expect from students among K-12 schools even within the 50 states, let alone between K-12 and what colleges and universities are expecting," says Edgenuity's chief academic officer, Ameetha Palanki. "That's a big problem for universities, because they're getting all of these students who looked great on paper but eventually require remediation."
  2. Inaccurate student data. "The evaluation of student performance is simply not consistent," Palanki says. "We all know that an 'A' grade doesn't always reflect what a student actually knows and can do."
  3. Inadequate data. "Even if we standardized our expectations and made sure somehow that we had the right data, we still don't have enough data to tell us about other skills and concepts that aren't content-based," Palanki says. "I'm talking about critical-thinking and analytical skills-- what they are now calling 21st-century skills."

What Edgenuity hopes to accomplish with its Achievement Suite is not a K-12/ higher ed connection, but an alignment of the entire K-16 system, which will set the stage for that connection. The company describes the product as an on-demand "instructional improvement system" designed to help K-12 districts "predictably increase student performance." Achievement Suite comprises three sets of applications: curriculum, assessment, and instruction. All three produce graphically rich profiles of student performance and classroom practice, Palanki explains, enabling districts to identify the specific needs of students and to target instruction and resources to achieve predictable improvements in performance.

"What this system does," she says, "is to clarify what students are expected to know and be able to do vertically, from one grade level to the next. It creates that whole vertical alignment from kindergarten through college."

"We haven't thought about the ways technology can help," Palanki says.

K-12 and higher education may not have yet defined a common problem that can be addressed with technology, but according to Irvington High's Johns, they're standing on common ground.

"Technology is that thing we have in common right now," Johns says. "We both see these holes in the students' skill sets and we're working together, training them to use the technology effectively and to provide them with something they'll need in college, and later, in the working world."

The Irvington-Ohlone ICT program comprises three tracks, called "career strands": computer networking technologies, multimedia and graphic design, and software engineering. For Irvington's first foray into this kind of relationship, the school implemented a semester-long introduction to computer networking, which Johns teaches to the school's ninth-graders.

The courses are drawn from the Cisco Networking Academy, a part of Cisco Systems. Introduced in 1997 by the San Jose, CA-based computer networking giant, the academy has evolved into a comprehensive e-learning program that provides students with the web-based technology skills that Cisco has long argued are essential in a global economy.

The program delivers online content and assessment, student performance tracking, hands-on labs, instructor training and support, and preparation for industry standard certifications. Cisco claims the academy offers the largest e-learning program in the world, reaching approximately 700,000 students each year in more than 160 countries.

Johns is teaching two beginning Cisco Networking Academy courses this fall: IT Essentials, which is an introduction to computer components, laptops and portable devices, wireless connectivity, security, safety, environmental concerns, and diagnostic tools; and CCNA Discovery, which develops basic networking knowledge. (CCNA stands for Cisco Certified Network Associate.) The latter course covers the general theory of network building and is designed to provide what Cisco calls a "hands-on approach using interactive tools and easy-to-follow labs."

Irvington chose the program, Johns says, because the Cisco academy currently offers the most mature and extensive curriculum of its kind linked to higher education. "The curriculum was already in place," he says, "and it has the most courses available, so it'll give us a good start. We're always looking for ways to expand the resources available to students, and programs like this are making that possible. And we hope to grow the program, so we liked the depth. But we're also looking into other strategies, programs, products, and even companies. For us, this is just the beginning."

Ohlone's Grotegut has been involved with the Cisco academy almost since its inception. He's also a member of the workgroup for a California project called the Statewide Career Pathways: Creating School to College Articulation, which aims to develop opportunities to align K-12 and community college curriculum. In that role, he has created course-outline templates for Cisco's IT Essentials and CCNA courses. Ohlone College gives up to eight credits for these courses, and the ICT program feeds into the college's associate of science degrees in computer networking, computer engineering, computer science, and engineering.

Ohlone was recently named a Regional Academy by Cisco, which means Grotegut can now train faculty at other community colleges to teach academy courses. Operating under Ohlone's direction, several local postsecondary schools are now offering similar ICT programs, including Las Positas College, Diablo Valley College, and the Mission Valley Regional Occupational Program. Foothill College is expected to get on board this year. Grotegut plans to extend his own college's ICT program to students in American High School in north Fremont and Santa Clara High School in nearby Santa Clara County.

As a bridge between K-12 and higher ed, Ohlone also touches the four-year institutions. San José State University, for example, has expressed an interest in collaborating directly in what Grotegut calls a "2+2+2 articulation" among the three schools: two years of Cisco Networking Academy training in high school, which links to two more in community college, which supports the final two at university.

Why did Ohlone undertake the effort to reach out to K-12 schools with this program?

"We just weren't getting the young people," Grotegut admits. "The smart ones were going directly to four-year schools and graduating with no tech skills, and then having to come back to learn how to use technologies. Historically, most of our students tend to be working adults coming in for the new skills they need to work in the IT world. Something like 80 percent of our students have already earned degrees. It made sense to see if we could get them in here a little sooner."

"Sometimes when people think 'tech skills,' they think of programs that are primarily job-focused and are perhaps not quite so academically rigorous," says Carroll McGillian, manager of national initiatives for the Cisco Networking Academy. "But we make sure our program aligns with core academic standards. We walk that line to have the best of both worlds."

Community colleges have been at the forefront of defining what associate degrees in IT look like, outside the traditional computer science/programming degrees from four-year programs, McGillian explains. "We're seeing four-year colleges and universities putting together IT degrees that aren't so tied to that academic tradition, degrees that might even come out of the business department. It's a much broader scope. So the technology studies that link K-12 and the universities don't necessarily have to lead to an engineering or computer science degree."

This shift is very apparent at the graduate level. Joint degree programs that combine information sciences and business (the MBA/ MIS degree) are routine today. Ohio's Miami University, for example, pairs technical training with management theory in its MBA program. Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business states its goal to "prepare graduates to be capable and comfortable with technology and its application to business processes." Brigham Young University combines IT with accounting in its School of Accountancy. And MIT's Information Technology and Business Transformation Track "aims to educate students to succeed in an environment where IT is changing the basic economics of products and services around the world."

Cisco launched a new academy curriculum a year ago that reflects these changes. The company now offers two versions of the academy's core networking curriculum: one coming from a traditional engineering discipline, the other from a business application perspective.

Cisco isn't alone in its effort to provide tech training to high school students. Apple has long supported K-12 with a range of products and programs, as have Microsoft and numerous other high-tech companies. But the Cisco Networking Academy might be unique in its ability to connect K-12 and higher education, Grotegut says. One of the things that makes the program work, he points out, is that the curriculum is standards-based. By keeping the courses in line with industry standards, the academy provides students with a solid foundation for professional certifications that are recognized throughout the IT arena.

"The standardization is what makes the link possible-- the skills transfer," he says. "When you're looking for a program of this kind, that's something you should definitely check out."

In fact, schools should be aggressively exploring this and other programs to make the K-12/higher ed connection, Johns adds. "No one tells you how to look for opportunities beyond those given to you by your department chair, school, and school district, in terms of resources that might expand your program and make that connection with companies and colleges. You just have to keep knocking on doors until someone answers who shares your vision for your students."

If you would like more information on K-12/higher ed connections, visit www.thejournal.com.Enter the keywords higher education.

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.