This feature first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Online learning, also known as distance learning, is the hottest educational innovation since the Socratic Method. It is becoming increasingly popular with learners — 32 percent of U.S. higher-ed students enrolled in at least one online class last year, the 16th consecutive year enrollments have increased.
Currently, more than 5,000 U.S. colleges and universities offer online courses. A great many of those courses deal with information technology (IT) and certifications. While demand for online instruction and IT certifications continues to climb, offering a professionally taught and relevant course with accompanying certs is no mean feat.
Effective instruction requires more than just a talented teacher standing in front of a class. Long before that teacher enters the classroom, many important things have to happen, almost all of them accomplished by dedicated school administrators quietly toiling behind the scenes.
While we often hear students heap praise on an IT instructor, almost never does a student refer to an administrator with similar gusto. This failure to notice is because administrators are the bookcases of education.
Both bookcases and administrators stand stoically by, performing the essential task of preserving organization and function. Few, if any of us, even notice the crucial role they play because we're usually too busy examining the books — or the students.
Rarely does anyone comment on a bookcase, except when it's not there and books lie jumbled on the floor — then people say, Hmmm. We need a bookcase.� It's the same for administrators when it comes to educating students.
A good administrator is able to plan, think strategically, set and meet deadlines, delegate tasks appropriately, and communicate and motivate effectively. On any given day they're juggling a multitude of important tasks, all while the specter of chaos and confusion dangles overhead like a looming Sword of Damocles.
Pillars of a thriving IT program
The oft-underappreciated reality is that successful IT programs have two things in common: great instructors, and effective administrators. While Certification Magazine has featured many such instructors through the years, administrators generally receive only a passing nod of appreciation.
That's one reason that we've chosen to focus, in this issue, on Jennifer Ayotte, a tireless champion of online IT instruction for Rasmussen College in Fort Myers, Fla.
Rasmussen College, founded in 1900, is a for-profit private college offering associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees at 23 campuses in six states and online. Ayotte is the Department Dean of the School of Technology, which currently offers nine associate's and bachelor's degree programs, all taught fully online.
Since 2013, the School of Technology has annually awarded between 90 and 100 associate's and bachelor's degrees with an accompanying multitude of IT certifications. This is all achieved because a cadre of experienced and knowledgeable instructors work closely with Ayotte, and all parties abide by one overriding premise: constant assessment of their educational efforts.
Each IT course is evaluated annually to ensure that content is current and relevant to the job market. We are constantly assessing how we do things, what is taught in the classroom, and the end result and placement of our students, said Ayotte.
Once we are done evaluating a course, we start over again. It's an ongoing, nonstop process that enables us to confidently say that we teach students the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.
Keeping up with industry changes
The focus of Ayotte's efforts is to infuse industry relevance into all programs and ensure market demands are met by a rigorous curriculum. We want to ensure our programs are designed with real world assessments and teach the skill sets graduates need to be desirable employees upon graduation, she said.
Course offerings are relevant to the job market because Ayotte's team maintains close ties with the tech industry and know what skills and knowledge new recruits should possess. Course instructors aren't ivory tower types who study the IT industry from afar; they are the industry. The majority of faculty are adjuncts who bring decades of real-world experience into the classrooms.
Being taught how to maintain a Linux platform by someone who actually does it as part of their day job is a very effective way to learn, said Ayotte.
An essential step in constantly assessing teaching methods and course content is Rasmussen's Curriculum Summit, an intense three-day deep dive into the requirements of the industry. To aid their efforts, team members, throughout the year, continue to utilize industry market research and insights.
During a summit, industry needs and wants are identified, action teams organized, and clear curriculum goals established. Upon conclusion of the summit, teams continue meeting weekly to ensure they are progressing in their tasks correctly and on time.
Team members combine academic experience and valuable industry insight to craft courses employers want, said Ayotte. And it works. The more experts you have agreeing on what makes an IT graduate valuable to employers, the more likely the resulting curriculum is relevant.
Gathering that much brainpower and strong opinions in one room can make for some interesting debate. According to Ayotte, there haven't been any fistfights, but there is plenty of serious back-and-forth discussion.
Building certifications into the program
Certifications play a major role in instruction and, in the course of their programs, students can achieve professional certifications from organizations like Microsoft, Oracle, CompTIA and many others.
Team members maintain close relationships with national employers and regularly review job postings to scan for required certs. We do our research and review large numbers of postings to know which certifications employers are looking for and then make certain to include them in the course, said Ayotte.
While students can complete their education without any IT certifications, the school encourages them to sit for certification exams. As an incentive to have them take certification exams, the school reimburses the cost.
There are a variety of benefits to being certified, including positioning oneself for a job prior to graduation, said Ayotte. The tech industry is competitive, and certs are a great way for a student, especially if they don't have actual work experience, to stand out among applicants.
Each student is also required to craft a comprehensive project demonstrating their holistic IT knowledge. The completed projects function as a professional portfolio for the students to take to job fairs and interviews.
According to Ayotte, student projects are a great enhancer on a résumé, proving that students have actually learned all that is listed in the course catalog and classes. It's a great tech artifact that shows they know how to design, implement and troubleshoot tech systems on a high level, she said.
A diverse student body
Ayotte's team serves students from a wide variety of educational backgrounds. Some hold college degrees, or have earned IT certifications (or both). Others' background in tech is limited to interacting with their smartphones.
In some ways it's easier to teach those with no prior knowledge and experience using computer technology, Ayotte said with a grin. They have no bad habits to break.
As a former instructor, Ayotte appreciates the challenges students face, and puts in extra effort to keep costs down by utilizing inexpensive e-books with a typical price of around $15. E-books aren't just saving students money, they also help teach digital fluency.
With e-books Instructors can call out specific chunks of a book and easily customize sections relevant to a class. Students are able to quickly search for correct info and sources, something they will do regularly working in IT, said Ayotte.
While the entire department is essential to the school's success, Ayotte leads the charge with an infectious enthusiasm and vision.
Jennifer has been our true north in regard to leadership. She has provided the ultimate in leadership, direction, and encouragement, said Rodney Crater, Department Chair for Data Analytics and Computer Science.
Her nature is always positive and her insights regarding the Rasmussen College's mission and method has helped the School of Technology become an exemplary standard of what educational technology curriculum should be.
From designer to dean
As effective as Ayotte is, she didn't start her career with plans to become an educational administrator. Graduating from college with a degree in graphics and web design, all she knew for certain was that she wanted to get into an industry that was continuously evolving.
She also wanted to live near a beach. So, with no money and few belongings she packed her bags and moved to Florida, soon settling into a job in graphics and web design.
I really enjoyed my work, and then Rasmussen opened a local campus and I thought it would be fun, as a side-gig, to adjunct teach graphics and web design, said Ayotte.
She began teaching at the Fort Myers campus in 2008 and quickly realized she had found her calling. In what she refers to as her big a-ha moment, it dawned on Ayotte that as much as she enjoyed working in graphics and web design, she loved developing a curriculum and teaching it to others even more.
After five fulfilling years of fulltime teaching, in 2013 she was named Dean of the School of Design and, because a good administrator's plate can never be too full, in 2015 the School of Technology was also put under her guidance.
She assumed responsibility at a challenging time. 2012 had been a year of change for the country. On the heels of a presidential election between two strong candidates of differing visions, uncertainty in the tax code slowed business expansion and hiring, as corporations held $1 trillion of their profits in offshore accounts and the Affordable Care Act went before the Supreme Court.
Each of these events impacted businesses and, by extension, students. Students were increasingly looking to complete their schooling quickly and with a credential that made them employable. Enrollment at non-traditional campuses was increasing as older workers looked to buttress career prospects with additional training, or even to reskill for new careers on technology.
Realizing that they were serving a different type of student with a more practical vision of education, the school administrators knew changes were necessary. In order to teach students pertinent courses in a more efficient manner, we made the decision to deconstruct our degrees, said Ayotte.
Keeping pace with student expectations
The change wasn't easy, and it didn't happen overnight. It was a long journey to get to where we are today, said Ayotte. We began trying to be proactive instead of reactive for what students were asking from us. We had to stop doing what we were comfortable doing and start doing what the students and industry were demanding — and that was online learning.
Many of Rasmussen's students weren't looking for a four-year degree. Unlike high school graduates entering college for the first time, older students often possessed some college experience and, in many cases, had completed degrees.
So many of our students come here just looking to add onto their credentials, said Ayotte. There is no need for them to start again at the beginning.
To assist students who have completed prior schooling, Rasmussen, when warranted, waives certain requirements and applies previous credits toward degrees, saving students time and money.
A required introduction course in computers can be waived if a student already has their CompTIA A+ certification, explained Ayotte. There is no point making students relearn what they already know.
Rasmussen operates on a quarterly system with two starting dates each quarter making it convenient for students to complete their education and get out into the workforce as fast as they wish.
Being able to control the speed of her education is something Ayotte wishes she could have done in college herself. She completed all of the requirements for her major and was still required to wait to graduate.
I ended up taking a semester of 14 credits of art history for a minor, she said. There is nothing wrong with art history, but my goal in life wasn't to go to college. It was to get to work earning a living.
What makes IT all work
Online students enroll for a multitude of reasons, but primarily for convenience. Their time is already filled with work, family, friends, and with the endless vicissitudes of life. The traditional model of going to a central campus at a set time each day doesn't work for them.
Online students have passion, commitment and drive. What they don't have is four hours on a Wednesday afternoon, said Ayotte. Online courses enable students to fit school into their lives and not fit their lives into school.
Under Ayotte's direction, Rasmussen is offering an innovative online learning environment involving leading technology, lab simulations, and real-world projects. It all helps enable students to complete their educations according to their own timetables, while maintaining important connections with the content, their peers, and their instructors.
As long as Ayotte is at the helm, certification will remain an essential component of tech teaching. I think certifications will always remain relevant and be a valuable addition to a degree, she said. They can very well be the aspect that makes an applicant stand out among the competition.
Online instruction is the wave of the future. Each day more institutions put more courses online. While an instructor can make a course great, they are just one part of the equation.
Behind the scenes, school administrators are constantly planning, laying, and shoring up the foundations of any educational experience. They make sacrifices, plan curriculum, handle personnel issues, and fight constant budget wars long before any instruction begins. They do it all because they believe in IT and certifications.
So, the next time you're deciding on which cert to pursue, take a moment to think who contributed to its creation and what they had to do to make it so. There are a lot of Jennifer Ayottes working away in the background and they deserve your respectful consideration.