The pandemic has pushed digital instruction out of the classroom and into homes.
GUEST COLUMN | by Saul Costa and Todd Greene
The coronavirus pandemic managed to disrupt just about everything, almost always for the worse. But there is one important area where its impact may turn out to be lasting and beneficial.
Computer science and related classes in digital technology were among the most popular courses at secondary and higher education institutions across the country, ranging all the way from public vo-ed training schools to the most prestigious ivy league universities. Their popularity is not surprising.
‘Our industry is suddenly realizing that this is about to become the future of learning and, fortunately, we have tools that can help.’
Until about a generation ago, liberal arts formed the core curricula of most post-secondary education. However, a combination of social, cultural, and financial developments gradually pushed students and their parents to make more pragmatic choices and seek out more career-oriented studies. Among the more practical courses of study colleges offered, those related to careers in digital technology seemed especially promising. That turned out to be a prescient choice because, over the years, its promise was more than fulfilled as organizations of every sort gradually transitioned toward digital operation and management.
There are also several aspects inherent to computer studies that contribute to its appeal. For one thing, it is typically taught in a hands-on fashion, where much of the learning comes by doing instead of from listening to lectures, taking notes, and memorizing facts. Hands-on learning is a powerful and engrossing method of instruction. And for digital studies, it’s a natural. Beyond that, many people who work in digital technology today are largely, and in some cases entirely self-taught – people who had become fascinated with computers and game consoles during their time as children and for whom the intrigue never waned.
But there’s something more to its appeal. If you want to build things like houses, vehicles, and infrastructure, it takes money – a lot of money. However, with programming, you can create something significant using almost no physical resources. The ability to build things that people genuinely value, and to do it solely from the power of your imagination realized in code, is a powerful attraction. So providing the appropriate software tools for teachers who offer classroom instruction in different aspects of programming is an essential companion to their work.
That work, like just about everything else, was largely derailed earlier this year when the pandemic brought down in-person instruction practically everywhere. But over the years, elements of that instruction had already migrated online where automation-enabled teaching was being offered both in and outside of formal educational programs. Enrollment in institutions offering e-learning, whether or not as part of a degree program, grew steadily. And then when in-person classes were banned, demand for alternatives spiked.
Those in the e-learning industry witnessed a huge shift towards electronic learning and online education, seeing it not only as a bonanza for their own business, but also as a watershed event that could massively increase the accessibility and affordability of education everywhere. We know. We are in the segment of that industry which provides the software educators use to create online learning tools, and demand for them has exploded. Unit recently, we had seen colleges converting around 10 percent of their computer-related instruction over to our e-learning system; now we’re seeing 80 percent. Our inbound demo requests have spiked up by 400 to 500 percent. Our industry is suddenly realizing that this is about to become the future of learning and, fortunately, we have tools that can help.
One reason is that the level of student engagement is sky high. The interactions between the student and the software – and sometimes between the student and their online instructor – are immediate, powerful, and profoundly engaging. As a result, they become involved with the material more deeply and find themselves drawn more closely into the world of coding because the quality of their experience keeps them coming back for more.
There’s another important advantage of electronic learning too: it democratizes education, cutting across social and economic strata. When a student is in college or a K-12 institution, sitting down to learn one of these skills – whether it is a programming language, editing source code, debugging programs, web development, or anything else – they most likely have use of a library or lab computer with software already installed. Once they go home, however, they may only have limited access to a standard PC, or maybe just a tablet, a Chromebook, or an older, underpowered computer. In conventional teaching situations, having a low level of computing power can be a seriously limiting factor. But the current generation of online teaching software, including our own, essentially negates those issues because it can connect to the cloud through any web browser, bringing all the necessary computing resources right to the student’s fingertips.
One of the most significant happenings right now is the realization that digital instruction doesn’t need to treat everybody the same. That is okay because mastering coding skills at a high level really isn’t necessarily for everyone. At the same time, though, we are seeing data analysts and financial analysts – people who were previously only using Excel – now learning how to use Python and other advanced data science tools.
In some companies, they are making investments in teaching people who may be customer service reps – people who never learned coding before, and maybe never needed to. But there is a growing awareness that employees who have at least a fundamental understanding of how computer programming and computer science works, can be more valuable because it increases their ability to relate to the company’s product teams. Even if someone is never going to write a line of code, they can start to appreciate in the goals of their company’s digital transformation. They can better understand the reasons behind its investment in technology. They can attach greater value to data analysis. They can more readily grasp the connections between information and action. And all of that, in turn, allows them to do their jobs better.