Cisco is the leading manufacturer of network routers, switches, and related technology. It's worth almost $100 billion. Cisco sponsors a line of IT Professional certifications. There are five levels of certification and eight different paths: Routing and Switching, Design, Network Security, Service Provider, Service Provider Operations, Storage Networking, Voice, and Wireless.
The Cisco Networking Academy is part social responsibility, part workforce development, and part demonstration product. With more than 1 million enrolled students and about 40,000 assessments weekly, it is also the biggest classroom in the world. Cisco partners with more than 11,000 high schools, technical schools, colleges, and training organizations worldwide to deliver advanced networking skills. Blending onsite and online learning, Cisco Academies model innovative simulation-based instruction and assessment.
In the last 15 years more than 4 million students have participated in a program that leverages public-private partnerships to help students from every socioeconomic background prepare for entry-level tech jobs, further education, and career development. That's a big impact, but what is less appreciated is that Cisco sponsored a picture of the future of education. There are at least 10 ways that U.S. K-12 education is moving toward the model represented by Cisco Networking Academy:
- Learning in a high-access environment: Historically that was in a computer lab for most Cisco students, but it is increasingly mobile and anywhere. K-12 access will improve over the next two years in preparation for online assessments.
- Blended learning: A mix of online and onsite groupings, hands-on learning activities, and network simulations develops practical skills.
- Highly relevant curriculum back-mapped from key knowledge, skills, and abilities. The Common Core is helping to create a common backbone for college and career readiness in U.S. K-12.
- Online assessments provide immediate, interactive, personal feedback to the learner. Most states will shift to online assessments in 2014-15.
- Powerful visualization and simulation tools are used for teaching and testing. Adaptive assessment and instructional tools are now widely used in K-12.
- Curriculum incorporating games and case studies and engaging virtual environments.
- Competency-based learning: Students may participate in the classroom activities, but most have the opportunity to move at their own pace and to demonstrate mastery before moving to the next level of certification. Matriculation in K-12 is largely seat time, but the inevitable shift from chronology to competency is on.
- Global classrooms connected through social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and proprietary sites that connect students and instructors around the world to one another so they can collaborate and continue learning outside the classroom.
- Instructors stay abreast of curricula, education and technology news, and best practices through a comprehensive online professional development program.
- Scalable network with delivery structured as public-private partnerships. Many K-12 school districts are partnering with regional and national online learning platforms and providers.
At the Cisco Networking Academy conference today I visited with 400 Cisco Networking Academy instructors in person and 1,300 attending virtually. I outlined five advances that will take place in the next five years (discussed here):
- Profiles based on keystroke data: The shift to digital will populate super-gradebooks of academic and motivational feedback.
- Playlists driven by comprehensive profiles and smart recommendation engines.
- Projects aligned with standards with products saved in portfolios of personal bests.
- Platforms with multi-modal content, social features, and learning apps, supported by aligned teachers, student, and school support services.
- Progress based on demonstrated mastery.
The last item, the shift from chronology to competency, is the most difficult because it affects everything from belief systems to information systems, policies, contracts, structures, schedules, and even architecture.
The demand for IT professionals continues to grow worldwide, and so will demand for
certification programs like Cisco Networking Academy. With the shift to digital learning, schools are also becoming bigger broadband consumers. The State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA) recommends that schools have external Internet connections of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2014-15, and of 1 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2017.
Fifteen years of investment have produced a valuable talent-development network. The Cisco Networking Academy has improved 4 million lives, but it's also shown the rest of us what's possible. I encouraged the Cisco instructors to serve as ambassadors for the future by finding opportunities to tell colleagues about the engaging competency-based program and by encouraging folks to visit an Academy classroom to see how blended learning works for teachers and students.
Tom Vander Ark is CEO of Open Education Solutions and a partner at Learn Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in educational technology.