Getting Close to the Ground

Notwithstanding the imperatives of cultural expectations, by the time a kids are in high school their trajectory has much been dialed in: College, training of some sort, the military, or work. There are subsets of each; the junior college to build a reputable GPA to get into a four-year school or a career that demands certification of some sort, vocational training institutes for technical knowledge and skills for local employment, or military service born of patriotism, money for college or, particularly in this economy, a lack of options.

So there’s been this pecking order going on for more than sixty or more years. College for the boardroom, classroom, higher academic pursuits like law and medicine; technicians who draw blood, troubleshoot computers and provide public service from police to municipal workers of all types, and tradespeople who through a ‘connection’ can apprentice through a union sponsored program or intern with a generous business owner.

But what about ‘those’ kids barely who after barely graduating from high school, are now sitting home or hanging with friends playing video games, no job in sight, and no skills for sale. Moreover, as time progresses whatever skills they might have had are aging out. They fell through the cracks these kids, no idea how extricate themselves from the bottom and every day less and less self respect. You’ve seen them; the single mother, the nineteen to twenty five year old whose vision of the future just doesn’t exist, out on probation, the chronically unemployed whose craft is gone forever when the hammer and vise was replaced by the keyboard, the iPad and cheap overseas labor. These are the ‘losers’; with no jobs they hang out scratching for change at some meaningless job (if they’re lucky) while living communally. Some have returned to, or never left home, relocated to the basement now that their bedroom is a home office.

As an alternative, sensing an opportunity to do good (for money) arrives on the scene the online training institute to try to fill this void. With a low threshold for admittance, plus one-to-one counseling, applicants also find a friendly financial aid department that helps them get the loans and grant money to set them on a path to a future. For their money (to be paid back of course) they receive their textbooks and a computer. All the courses or programs are focused straight at jobs and careers. Some are frighteningly fundamental: Keyboarding as a course in 2011? As it was explained to me, many of the younger students are whizzes at World of Warcraft, but can’t send email or surf the web—let alone write with Microsoft Word. They have never owned a computer.

These ‘institutes’ (a bit overinflated to imbue solemnity) are a reasonable alternative to being a ‘loser’ wouldn’t you say? It’s what I call ‘close to the ground’ education. Learn ‘right now’ material for the most contemporary and in demand employment sector, get educated or certified fast and go get a job. The best of these schools have a placement operation—well connected to businesses, nationally and locally, since students are online everywhere and matching graduates to employers should be job 1. Because learning starts with simple core material, virtually guaranteeing success, formerly ‘anti-students’ will hang on as their achievement becomes habitual.

If the story is well told and marketed in the right communities operations like this can sweep up those youngsters, single moms, potential petty criminals, people looking for a way up and out who were left behind.

And I agree with the entire premise but for one prickly issue. The curriculum, for the vast majority of courses are products of textbooks remodeled for online delivery by…I don’t know…a teacher, course developer, practitioner in the field? This practice includes lifting tests as well. Consider that some phlebotomists might be good online teachers and even help write a meaningful and realistic course, but what would be the odds? In a world where, with some serious due diligence a course can be created from online sources, how can that be defensible if only as cutting corners get programs to market fast. BTW this new educational domain is reinvigorating the bottom line for textbook publishers.

So my reservations—a demand for more course development rigor and a change in the delivery of instruction—should be addressed. At some point, after these schools are at moving at full charge, and I hope they do, educators are going to come a-knockin’ and they will not like what they see.

My prescription is very simple. The material a field practitioner writes must be shaped into learning by a certified educator (the model we know best – instructional designer and SME) to create viable courseware. The curriculum for each school that accepts or helps funnel federal money as loans to students must be accredited for academic programs and audited regularly like high school regional reviews. And why must all instruction be online? Surely, with a bit of effort administrators can discover ways to make the courseware include humans—even if only as out-of-class experiences.

What would I want to measure as benchmarks of success? How many students in a certificated course have graduated, what is the drop out percentage/rate and most importantly, how many graduates are working. This is not only a fair longitudinal study; I would offer the same challenge to America’s high schools.

It’s an imperfect model at present. However, those institutes with which I am familiar are working towards meeting higher standards. Don’t let my liberal tendencies fool you—there’s nothing wrong with making money when offering opportunities for success. Even a bit noble actually. No other initiative has made any substantial change for the educationally disenfranchised, and touted there’s a glimpse of a future. Raise the quality of these institutes, tighten alliances with businesses, raise awareness and market the heck out of them in every community. One of the highest callings of all enterprises is the specter of hope. Since the government is fighting among itself, and the Department of Education can’t get its act together, let private enterprise have a go. At this point, there is little to lose and much to gain.

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