As computers have become an integral part of our lives, the need for computer proficiency has become essential. Each year, four million Americans graduate and enter the workforce. Without understanding things like word processing, presentation software, database management, and e-mail they will find it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to land a decent job.
Fortunately, our educational institutions have recognized the importance of these skills. Today every high school, college, and university now teaches IT in one form or another. Each year, dedicated and skilled information technology (IT) instructors work diligently preparing millions of students for the opportunities computer proficiency provides.
As such instructors go, Suzanne Fell is one who is hard to beat. For 24 years, she has taught office and computer courses at Maranatha Baptist University in Watertown, Wis.. The University is a private religious institution. Its name, Maranatha, is Aramaic and means Lo He Cometh (1 Corinthians 16:22).
In a sense, Fell has been on the front lines of the introduction of personal computers into the workplace from the beginning. In 1990, she began teaching secretarial science, including the important skills of typewriting, shorthand and office procedures. With the introduction of personal computers, she was soon teaching Microsoft Word, desktop publishing, and Excel along with related courses. Eventually, it was a natural fit for her to teach all the computer application courses offered by Maranatha.
Fell believes that computer skills are an absolute requirement in all industries. In addition to communicating orally and in writing, computer skills are essential in every industry, she said. Even people working on manufacturing floors have to interact with various computer programs.
The smartest kids in the room
In addition to her time at Maranatha, Fell also taught at another institution for five years. During all that time, she has seen just about every type of student there is. One trait common to the younger generation is that they have grown up with and are comfortable with computers and other electronic devices. As such, they often have an inflated sense of their computer skills. Sometimes when new students come into the class, they think they already know a lot about computers, she said.
After a class period or two, students begin to realize that the Microsoft Office Suite (MOS) is immensely powerful and useful in ways they never considered. Frequently a student will say, That was so cool. I didn't know (Excel or Word or PowerPoint) could do that!
Students find Fell's appreciation for the applicability and power of MOS to be infectious, often sharing their out of class experiences about various capabilities of the course. I love it when a student applies what they've learned to something outside of class, and they can't wait to show me what they've done, said Fell.
Of course, teaching young people also has its challenges — particularly their attempts to cut corners. It may be stereotyping, but, in my experience, students typically want to put in the minimum effort for the grade they want, said Fell. Taking shortcuts can mean skipping key learning components that will actually help them in the long run.
Teaching a generation of students constantly connected to their devices requires an instructor to wrestle for their attention. It is very easy for them to be distracted by their technology, said Fell. Cell phones and games are inviting and they can easily get in the way of learning.
A personal touch
For all their capabilities, computers are unable to make that human-connection, something that Fell works hard to do. I like to connect with students at the beginning of a course, ask their learning goals and get a feel for their level of interest and skill.
Course learning objectives are posted weekly online, along with a Bible verse or two from Fell. I try to share a short message about how a particular verse is inspirational to me. It helps me connect with the students, she said. At Maranatha, we strive to teach all of our classes with an emphasis on biblical truth — it's sometimes difficult to do that with a computer class.
Fell's students include a wide range of experience and ages. According to her, there are lots of dual-credit high school students, of course, a lot of college students, and regularly some professionals looking to brush up on their Microsoft Office skills.
Even more seasoned individuals come seeking computer training. One student Fell remembers with fondness was a retired grandmother who came to the course with a rudimentary knowledge of how to use Facebook and Microsoft Word. In her words, she recognized that younger students were down the road miles ahead of me in computer skills.
Fortunately, there is no age-limit to learning computer skills and earning certifications. This grandmother was tentative at first, but once she got into the course, she got comfortable with the subject-matter, applied herself, developed new skills and earned a passing grade, said Fell. She later wrote me the nicest note expressing her appreciation for the course and what she learned.
Everyone needs Office skills
Fell's teaching emphasis is Microsoft Office because, as she put it, Everyone needs it. She makes the point that it is almost impossible to think up a job that does not use some aspects of the program. Somewhat ironically, Fell doesn't use Microsoft resources to teach her students, but instead relies on the Desktop Pro course created by TestOut Corporation as her preferred approach to preparing students for Microsoft Office certifications.
(Desktop Pro is in the process of being rebranded and will be relaunched later this year as Office Pro.)
She is a fan of the courseware for the advantages it provides her students as they prepare for certification. The flexibility of Office Pro's LabSim learning platform is particularly useful to Fell and her students. Some learning programs limit the way in which you can solve a task, even if there are other ways of doing it, said Fell. LabSim enables a student to complete a simulation via different paths, because, as with most computer issues, there is often more than one way to reach a solution.
Office Pro's instant feedback feature is also a hit with the students, as it lets them know how well they are learning the concepts and what areas may need more review. Fell appreciates its timesaving benefits. I love it because it frees me from endless hours of grading and it works, she declared.
According to Fell, when it comes to demonstrating mastery of a specific task, Office Pro is a big step up from other programs. Most programs have students listen to lectures, read the book or watch a video and then complete an assignment, she said. They don't have the valuable component of a simulation that requires a student to correctly complete a task, giving them help or feedback until mastery is achieved.
(Office Pro) lets students see, hear and do. Anytime you can bring more senses into the learning environment means the student is more likely to learn and retain the information.
For Fell, the hands-on component of LabSim is vital to a student's learning experience. I don't think a student really learns something until they have to demonstrate their ability to do it, she said. Hands-on performance is the best way for them to know they have mastered the subject matter.
Another effective aspect of Office Pro design is that students are able to easily progress from learning the subject matter to demonstrating mastery of it. The three different levels of the course are terrific, said Fell. The first phase is instruction where student watch a video or read the notes. The second step is the skills and challenge phase where they work to solve labs with hints, if needed. And the final stage is completing the labs by themselves.
With such effective courseware, it's easy to imagine how an instructor might feel like they aren't really even teaching. While a few students have commented in course evaluations that Fell did not really teach the subject matter, she strongly disagrees:
It is true that I did not teach each individual aspect of the course, but I'm there to offer support and help, and there are a few things not covered by the course materials that I make certain to cover on my own.
Rather than just turn students loose on the course, Fell wants them to understand the format for learning. To ensure that students get the most out of the course, she takes the time to explain the strategy of TestOut's design and the pedagogy behind that design. TestOut's developers have built the courseware in such a way that progressing between the three different levels of instruction gives a student a better experience and quicker mastery of the subject.
Even with great courseware, Fell maintains that instructors are as important as ever. Because technology changes so rapidly and the speed of information increases every day, she said, students need to see the relevance of what they are learning and the why behind how things work. Explaining how it all ties together is an important part of being an instructor.
With all thy getting, get certified
Fell also encourages her students to earn certifications. Office Pro is packaged with TestOut's own cert (also called Office Pro), but also effectively prepares students to take and pass the Microsoft Office Specialist certification exams in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access.
Certifications are an advantage when looking for employment or career advancement, Fell said. Another advantage to the Office Pro courseware is that the cost of the Office Pro certification exam is included in the course. Students who complete the course have the option to get an Office certification under their belts before attempting the Microsoft exams.
Prior to using Office Pro, Maranatha's course curriculum consisted of classroom instruction and an expensive textbook. At completion of the course, students had the option to sit for their MOS certification exam, but the cost of taking the exam meant that few students did so.
With (Office Pro) it's easy to know whether a student has mastered the concepts, said Fell. Completing the lab simulations proves they know the material and since the certification exam is covered in the cost of licensure, all my students take the exam.
Fell herself has a number of certifications and believes that, as valuable as the credentials are now, they will be even more so in the future as employers struggle to find qualified workers. Hiring managers want to know that they're getting some who actually has requested skills. Certification is verification of a person's skills and ability from an established third party, Fell said.
She has also heard from employers who said they hired a student because that student already had a certification. There are also plenty of success stories of students landing jobs because of their certifications. One of my students applied for an internship and was told that the position was filled, but because she had an Excel certification the company created a second intern position for her.
Another student applied for an accounting position. He was not an accounting student, but got the job because the main requirement was working with Excel — and he had his certification. Upon graduation, the company hired him as a full-time business analyst.
Certs put students ahead of the pack when it comes to job seeking, said Fell. Anyone with a cert on their resume will stand out; it shows a level of ability beyond just taking and passing a class.
Ready for retirement
Just as all good things come to an end, so too has Fell's 29-year career in the classroom. Now that her three children are grown and on their own, she and husband Tony are pulling up stakes and leaving Winconsin behind. Like many a retiree before them, the couple are heading to Arizona for a warmer climate and new opportunities.
Fell loves the outdoors. Her hobbies include fishing and kayaking and horseback riding. Having grown up on a ranch in southern California, she is an adept equestrian. As Fell heads off into the sunset and a future filled with promise, we wish her success and all the good fortune in the world.