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WORK IN PROGRESS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: DEVELOPING EMPLOYMENT-RELATED TECHNOLOGY SKILLS


by Judith J. Lambrecht

Daily news articles and federal reports alike warn of shortages of information technology workers. What types of jobs are available? Where are the shortages of skilled workers? It can be difficult to answer these questions, since technology permeates work of all kinds. Furthermore, computing technology is constantly changing, driven by evolving technological capabilities and the need for businesses to remain competitive. Schools must offer technology-related employment preparation which takes into account the dynamic nature of jobs and the on-going changes in the technology. This project singles out a segment of technology-related jobs and asks how exemplary programs are preparing students for employment. The intent is to develop program guidelines that can be helpful to other secondary and postsecondary schools.

The study focuses on a manageable, yet significant, aspect of workplace technology, those applications commonly called "applications software"--for example, word processing, desktop publishing, spreadsheet, database, graphics presentation, and telecommunications software. At least 65% of the workforce uses one or more of these applications, a figure which will increase to 95% by the year 2000. There are many uses for computers, from air traffic control to medical imaging. But Fortune 500 executives have consistently identified the general-purpose applications (which are often used in networked environments) as the major ones needed by business students.

Software training is usually included in business preparation programs. One of the goals of this project is to develop guidelines for how such preparation can be effectively provided. The project begins with several assumptions about what effective programs may be like. These assumptions are the starting point for the development of interview protocols and other data collection efforts, and may be either confirmed (and examples provided) or not confirmed. The assumptions are described below.

Assumptions about What Students Need to Know

Students need initial computer literacy for basic information handling processes and also so that they can benefit from any on-the-job training opportunities. Key assumptions have been made about what students need to know in order to use technology effectively. Assumptions have also been made about what facilitates the transfer of general technology competencies beyond the classroom. These assumptions are outlined below.

Assumptions about learning to use technology. Using technology well requires more than merely knowing how particular software tools operate. Many software users today make minimal use of the hardware and software available to them. Effective instructional programs are able to engage students in learning a wide range of skills and concepts that have important employment applications, for example:

Beyond knowing how software operates, effective technology use requires understanding two additional factors: 1) the expectations of the particular social context, such as a business site or another institutional setting; and 2) the human or business purposes served by the tool (for it is the subject-matter, and purpose, which makes a particular technology useful).

Assumptions about the transfer of learning. Much of students' job success comes from their ability to transfer and adapt what they have learned in school to different settings--to continue to learn on the job. This is in part because the work-related competencies which students develop in school settings will be used outside of school in ways that cannot be anticipated with precision. Consequently, there is growing agreement about two key concepts related to what students can, and should, be taught.

Generic skills and dispositions have been defined in a variety of ways, from the SCANS three-part foundational and five-part competencies listings to the Workplace Basics from the American Society for Training and Development. NCRVE research by Cathleen Stasz and others has identified generic skills as: problem solving at work; teamwork; communications; and dispositions and attitudes; each of which can be more fully defined. Teachers wishing to help students develop these competencies need to understand the ways in which generic skills are intertwined with subject-matter content and social context. While it possible to talk about generic skills, it is probably not possible to teach generic skills directly. Generic skills can be taught within the framework of specific subject matter and a social context in which the skills will be applied.

Students need to understand the ways in which their in-school preparation relates to later work expectations. They need to know how to build upon their basic skills so that they can become real contributors to a work unit in business and industry. A deep level of understanding is necessary in order to recognize when the technology might be useful in a new setting--transfer of learning--and to understand the inter-relationship of different technologies and their various applications. To accomplish this, vocational education teachers need to teach the basic operational capabilities of the technologies. They need to ensure that students encounter the use of key technology features in a wide variety of applications. What is more, teachers need to assist students in solving the types of ill-structured problems that characterize employment settings. Attaining deep levels of understanding and developing the cognitive flexibility necessary to solve poorly-structured problems requires that teachers engage students in using technology in ways that go beyond just getting the technology to work. The primary goal of this project is to find models of how effective teachers do these things.

Assumptions about Teaching Technology Skills

Generally teachers have a choice between two markedly different teaching practices when providing instruction for the use of computer applications software. One might be called the well-structured approach, or systematic approach, in that the concepts to be learned are specified beforehand and explicit step-by-step instruction is provided to assist students in using particular software. This direct instruction approach has been common for both school-based technology instruction and industry-based computer training.

A contrasting approach is called minimalist in that it incorporates a "discover-orientation" to software learning based on the goals, current understandings, and expectations of the learners. Implicit in this approach is the expectation that learners understand the implications of a particular problem, such as a business problem requiring computer solution. This approach uses few prescriptions about how to design instruction, other than making available a wide variety of resources to support learning and providing prompting and guidance in response to student errors. This approach is, thus, supportive of the position that students learn through mistakes encountered.

A goal of this project is to explore the extent to which teachers recognize and use instructional approaches that might be characterized as either of these two types, systematic or minimalist.

Since employment success in technology-related jobs is the goal, student experiences in work settings need to be included in the teaching practices. Including school programs that incorporate internships or cooperative-education placements in technology-related jobs will allow examination of such teaching practices. These work experiences will also provide information about problems at work or possible transfer failures.

Some aspects of information technology may be better learned in employment settings than in school classrooms. One way to determine which setting is more conducive to learning which aspect of technology is to examine the perspectives of teachers, students, and employers about technology-related learning experiences, both in school and on the job.

Current Status of Site Selection and Observations

During the initial phase of the study, both secondary and postsecondary schools have been identified which have internship or cooperative-education programs linked to business information technology instruction. Certain states have been identified in previous research as having reputations for strong vocational programs. In this project, educational leaders from said states were asked to nominate schools, and the research personnel selected schools from urban, suburban, and rural settings at both levels of instruction, secondary and postsecondary. At present it is anticipated that five post secondary technical colleges and one high school will be participating. In some instances, several campuses of a single college system are involved.

The following is the general program information being sought from teachers, students, and employers:

Teachers: Their rationale for the business technology program organization with regard to outcomes anticipated for students, student prerequisites for program entry, sequencing of courses, instructional laboratory arrangements, choice of instructional materials and teaching strategies, student assessment practices, program integration with internship or cooperative settings, and program follow-up evaluation.

Students: Their initial business technology program expectations, prior preparation for business program coursework, program experiences, perceived inter-relationship between business content coursework and technology-related instruction, perceived relationship between in-school and work-site expectations and learning opportunities, and personal judgment about learning outcomes.

Employer/Supervisors: What sort of student preparation they would like to see for technology-related job assignments, and the relationship between in-school business technology program and work requirements. Employers were asked to particularly focus on those aspects of instruction best provided by either in-school or work-site experiences.

Given the wide range of information that is being sought at each site, several site observations and interviews with teachers, students and employers are anticipated. Teachers, students, and employers will be asked to focus on examples of critical learning experiences as a way to explore important feature of school-based or work-based learning. These interview guidelines are currently being tested in Minnesota schools to see if they are effective in eliciting rich program descriptions.

For more information, contact: Judith Lambrecht, Department of Work, Community, and Family Education, University of Minnesota, 1954 Buford Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55108-6197. Phone: (612) 626-1256. E-Mail: jlambrec@tc.umn.edu

Judith J. Lambrecht is an NCRVE researcher and a professor in the Department of Work, Community and Family Education, University of Minnesota


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