Feature Story

Closing the Technology Skills Gap: Can E-Learning Save the Day?

by Kristi Essick

A look at how the e-learning platform may help bridge the education gap for tech jobs in emerging fields.

Everyone from kindergarten teachers and university professors, to CEOs and government leaders seem worried about the "technology skills gap." It's become commonplace to decry that we're not equipping students with the STEM skills they need to succeed in a tech-centric economy. Companies complain they have thousands of open tech jobs, but can't find qualified candidates to fill them. From San Francisco and Austin, to Sydney and London, companies say they could grow faster and boost hiring across teams, if only they could fill their open IT positions.

A recent study by the Brookings Institution reported STEM job skills are in huge demand by employers, and job openings in high tech fields take much longer to fill because candidates with STEM skills are in short supply. A Manpower study also showed IT workers and engineers were among the hardest positions to fill in the U.S. in 2013.

Outside the U.S., the skills gap is also a big problem. In Latin America, Asia Pacific, China, the Middle East and Africa, there is a shortage over 1.3 million technology professionals through 2016, or a gap of 27% as a proportion of overall demand, according to IDC. In Europe, 864,000 ICT jobs will go unfilled through 2015, says IDC.

On top of hundreds of thousands of open software and app development, IT management, networking, big data, and user experience design jobs across the world, there will soon be thousands more tech jobs in emerging fields. U.S. Tech hiring site Dice.com says wearables, Internet of Things, and drones are some of the categories that will have the highest demand for tech talent in the years to come.

Clearly, the skills gap is real – and growing. But what if the solution to the technology skills gap was technology itself? A wave of startups, such as Code Academy, Udemy, Udacity, Coursera, Creative Live, Skillshare, Grovo, General Assembly, and Treehouse, as well as established IT training organizations like Lynda.com, Cisco Networking Academy, and Microsoft IT Academy, offer web and mobile e-learning apps to train the IT employees and leaders of tomorrow. These companies leverage technology to teach technology, delivering training and certifications to workers looking to enter the tech job market or get promoted. They train workers on skills ranging from coding and network administration, to web design and databases.

"At Networking Academy, we built an e-learning platform called NetSpace that includes three key pillars: content, collaboration, and continuous assessment," says Harbrinder Kang, Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Cisco. Mr. Kang is responsible for the strategic development, growth, and evolution of the Networking Academy program, which delivers computer networking education to more than one million students and does over 12 million assessments per year. "NetSpace complements the hands-on, instructor-led classes we offer through over 9,000 local high schools and universities around the world, connecting students to learning materials, each other, and regular online assessments to ensure they gain deep and lasting understanding."

Using e-learning platforms to complement traditional classroom training is an effective way to build not just technical skills, but also train workers on "soft" skills such as communication and collaboration needed to succeed in the corporate world.

"The ‘flip the classroom' model offloads lectures to videos, with classroom time focused on skill building, practice, and coaching," says Ron Rabin, senior learning technologist at the Center for Creative Leadership, a global provider of executive education. "Virtual classroom technologies allow learners to share, collaborate, and problem solve in ways that make learning more effective and engaging."

However, many e-learning platforms do away with in-person classrooms all together, including most massive open online courses, or MOOCs, like Udacity and Coursera, as well as online tech training pioneer Lynda.com. Subscribers get access to a library of over 116,000 video tutorials given by experts on hundreds of tech topics, with more than 60 new courses added each month.

One of Lynda.com's customers is outdoor retailer Patagonia, which uses an enterprise version of Lynda.com to offer technology skills training to hundreds of employees in different locations. Courses on Excel, Adobe Illustrator, and Photoshop are especially popular.

 "The longtime employees, they need lynda.com because they didn't start out with computer skills," said Patagonia's Training Manager Anthony Garcia. "The new workers know online training, because a lot of them took college courses that way, so they're very comfortable with it."

E-learning platforms present several advantages over traditional classroom courses, said Josh Bersin, principle and founder of research firm Bersin by Deloitte.

First, online classes are far less expensive to create and run, because one professor can teach hundreds or thousands of students, and no physical classrooms are needed. Second, online courses taught by experienced professionals or professors can deliver a high quality, rigorous educational experience to students who may not have access to top universities. Third, online classes are self paced, allowing learners to work at their own speed, and to go back and repeat lessons when they fail to grasp concepts.

"No course could ever fully replace on-the-job experience, but online learning platforms are already being actively used for many types professional training programs," said Bersin. "The quality of the content being taught in MOOCs and other e-learning platforms is often outstanding."

Daniel Sepulveda, a software professional based in San Francisco, who has taken several online tech certification courses, concurs that the self-paced aspect of web courses is a big plus. He recently completed an online course produced by company 10Gen on the MongoDB database platform.

"It was a paced course that included regular assessments, so I could retake a lesson if I didn't quite grasp the core concepts the first time around," he said. "Compared with other classroom tech courses I've taken, where you get the lesson once, being able to learn at my own pace helped me really master the skills."

For now, the newness of online learning platforms means classroom courses will continue to dominate the tech training landscape for a few years. However, e-learning will become the standard for corporate skills training within a decade – long before it transforms traditional K-12 or post-secondary education, says Bersin. E-learning makes sense in the enterprise, because companies are eager to train workers quickly and cost effectively, and corporate employees are usually tech-savvy, so they don't mind using a computer to learn. But Bersin cautions these courses will never replace on-the-ground training.

"While these programs are great at supporting people in their new skills, employees still have to actually use these skills to become experts – and that requires real projects with managerial coaching and project feedback," says Bersin.


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