This feature first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
A revolution is upon us — a wave of change so ubiquitous it is difficult to detect even while living in the midst of it. The so-called 'democratization' of information technology (IT) over the last 20 years has driven the revolution. The web, computers, and smartphones have reached nearly every person in developed nations, opening previously unimagined doors of knowledge and opportunity.
As more and more people have a head start, along with wider access to resources, teaching IT subjects has become less rigid. As the field continues to change, today and in the future, it will be the responsibility of educators to stay up to date on new and evolving trends so their students are prepared to enter a world where the revolution is now the reality.
IT education today and yesterday
The way IT is taught and learned has changed drastically as the field continues to grow. Perhaps the biggest shift in the past 20 years has been the rapid decline in the formality of learning. In the past, the best way to learn was either from an instructor-led class, a book, or by trial and error. To an extent, all three are still a valid part of the process, but each has changed in fundamental ways that have made the field more approachable.
While school remains one of the best places to gain IT skills, the definition of 'school' is rapidly changing. More and more students are taking their first computer classes in high school, or even middle school, rather than at the collegiate level. For example, the Advocacy Coalition reports that, in 2017, 4,400 schools offered AP computer science to slightly fewer than 100,000 students.
The very next year, 5,400 schools were reaching more than 130,000 students. The head start that high schoolers are getting in IT will be further discussed later, but it's safe to say that the classroom is quickly changing.
The learning platform that has changed the most visibly is books. Once, large swaths of bookstores were dedicated to tech books on running the current version of Windows. Now, a walk into the local bookstore (if you still have one in town), will show that the computer resource section is much smaller than before — and it will probably be even smaller again the next time you visit.
A large part of this is that the technology is now to a point where it can easily sustain itself. If there's a problem with the current version of Windows, there's no need to run out and buy a book when the web has the solution to any specific issue ' either on Microsoft's or a trusted partner's site.
When learning to code, most first-timers will pick the interactive and free W3Schools lessons over the static pages of a book every time. Now that nearly everyone has access, IT has advanced to the point that it can use its own resources to foster its own growth — forever altering the way we acquire knowledge.
Trying things out for oneself will always be a vital part of learning, but a safety net is now available that didn't always exist before. Where once learning to code would mean sitting alone at a computer and trying repeatedly to fix a problem, there is now a vast support network: Sites like Stackoverflow have created a growing library of mistakes and solutions to almost any problem in every coding language.
Not only that, but anyone can post their own unique problems, and there is a strong chance someone will offer help. To use an analogy, the trial and error portion of learning has moved from a violinist practicing alone in a soundproof room to a rehearsal with the whole orchestra, where each player can help the others grow.
In short, the way students first learn, read about, and practice IT has become much less formal, is available at a younger ager, and is far more accessible (with many others willing to offer support and help) than ever before.
How democratization made everything easier
In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type and turned the printing press from an unwieldy novelty into a world-altering revolution. The ability to print books cheaply and in native languages democratized knowledge not just by making books more widely available: That greater accessibility, along with the decreased cost of printing books, made it possible for many more people than before to learn to read.
Over time, knowledge became available to everyone, rather than being restricted solely to those at the top of the resource distribution pyramid. It's a feat of societal change that stood unrivaled until today, when computers, smartphones, the internet, and other information technologies have suddenly put a new world of knowledge — along with improved methods of learning — at everyone's fingertips.
It took time for entire societies to become literate, of course, but the ease of access to books slowly but surely led to an increase in literacy. Similarly, we are now at the tail end of the technology revolution's learning curve. Just as the printing press fostered a boom in literacy nearly 600 years ago, the rapid advancement of information technologies is creating a world of tech-savvy students.
Look at the difference between adult learners and those fresh out of high school as an example. The new generation of students, many of whom have never known a world without the web and have had ready access to technology since childhood, are predisposed to learning and using IT.
Whereas older learners may be equipped with rich experience and drive, the fact of the matter is simply that their younger counterparts grew up in a world with technology as a fixture of their lives (albeit a constantly evolving one). While older students may be more savvy about learning and studying, younger ones have been plugged into IT their entire lives.
Coupled with a basic understanding of the technology and many of the concepts gained through their high school (and middle school) computer classes discussed earlier, younger generations are often able to understand technology-related topics quicker. It's a head start that most before them did not have the luxury of receiving.
Imagine the advantage a high schooler would have if they walked into the SAT center having just complete the best prep class available; now it's as if the entire school has taken the prep class. Now, with equal and constant access to technology, more and more people are tech literate before they ever enter a classroom, a fact that only makes teaching them easier.
Current and future trends
At the risk of introducing ideas certain to rapidly age this article, a couple of projections of future trends are worth examining. First, as it becomes more and more common for students to take entry-level IT classes in high school, it's no stretch to imagine that introductory courses may soon be removed from college curriculums altogether.
This will enable colleges to devote more time to high-level classes, or leave room in the curriculum for internships, creating students better prepared to enter the workforce. Just as students are expected to have taken high school biology before pre-med, the fundamentals will no longer need to be covered because students will already know the basic concepts.
Second, educators will still have to grapple with new and ever-changing topics. It's not news that IT is a rapidly evolving field, and the pace of change will only increase. New technologies such as 5G will expand what is possible. Meanwhile the repurposing of current tech will add new complexities to older topics.
A great example of this is blockchain. As IT continues to develop new tools and find new uses for old ones, educators will have to work hard to ensure they remain up to date on all the changes — the better to properly prepare their students for the future.
The new reality
Twenty years ago, the democratization of IT was just picking up speed. For anyone born at that time or since, it's just reality. Most future students will have no conception of a world without the internet at their fingertips.
This constant access has created an informal approach to learning, where answers can be tailored to individualized needs using interactive means. A lifetime of exposure means today's tech-literate students have a head start compared to their counterparts in past decades.
Looking ahead, these changes mean that educators will need to find new ways to challenge their students. They will also need to increasingly become students themselves, continually adapting to new and evolving technologies in order to fully prepare their students for the days ahead. IT has changed nearly every aspect of life in the last 20 years — it is only fitting that IT education should change as well.
Advocacy Coalition. '2019 State of Computer Science Education Equity and Diversity.' Advocacy.org, Advocacy Coalition, 2019, https://advocacy. code.org/2019_state_of_cs.pdf
Guillén Mauro F. (2020). 2030: How today's biggest trends will collide and reshape the future of everything. St. Martin's Press.
Uldrich, Jack. (2020). Business as Unusual: A Futurist's Unorthodox, Unconventional, and Uncomfortable Guide to Doing Business. River Grove Books