Cisco Networking Academy brings 21st Century education to connected learners.

Nearly a decade into the new millennium, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: a 20th century education is a bad fit for 21st century learners. Many of today’s learners fail to acquire the skills and competencies they need to find productive employment and meet the challenges now facing the societies in which they live.

Many educational institutions are not taking advantage of the latest learning technologies that could contribute to better student outcomes. Furthermore, educational institutions still tend to insulate themselves from each other and the public- and private-sector organizations that can provide them with valuable input and resources.

To align educational practice to 21st century workforce needs, a transformation is in order:

  • Curricula must be created that do a better job of preparing students to thrive in a globally networked, increasingly information-driven economy.
  • Enabling technology must be integrated more fully and consistently into the pedagogy.
  • Today’s connected learners require methods of engagement that correspond to the ways they interrelate and communicate outside the classroom.
  • Education systems must become less compartmentalized and insular by seeking partnerships inside and outside the education community

Current instructional environments need to change to better reflect 21st century life—ranging from the proliferation of interpersonal communications and the globalization of economic and social institutions to the diversity of the modern workforce. Networking, both digital and social, is key to this critical educational innovation.

Curricula must evolve

Educational content offered today needs to reflect a wider knowledge of relevant information in order to prepare the next generation to be useful part in the global economy. To be of greatest value, curricula must be more engaging and relevant to contemporary learners, many of whom have become quite accomplished at searching out information and collaborating with peers.

On the one hand, learners complain that their studies do not give them the pragmatic, job-specific skills they need to succeed outside the classroom. On the other hand, vocational and professional schools are often criticized for focusing too much on procedures (how to) and too little on the concepts and strategic thinking that will enable students to grow in their professions and deal with future organizational and technical change.

Furthermore, much of today’s vocational training is still aimed at equipping workers for a traditional industrial and manufacturing economy, rather than the new information economy. Soft skills such as collaboration, customer satisfaction, and cross-functional leadership that are important attributes of many 21st century jobs rarely find a place in the fact-based pedagogical approaches that still dominate many classrooms.

Traditional education is segmented into discrete buckets such as K–12, college, university, adult education, and trade school, a structure that has increasingly less relevance for modern students who are not well served by age-bracketed classes, instructional tracks, or subject majors. A 15 year old may be entirely capable of college- or vocational-level work in a field for which she has an aptitude, while an older person may want to study an unfamiliar subject as part of a career change or just for pure enjoyment. Curricula must be adaptable enough to present theoretical material for those who can handle it, whatever their age, and also deliver basic instruction in the same subjects for those who are at that level of comprehension. But adoption of new curricula has generally been slow and spotty, in part due to institutional inertia and chiefly because so much has changed so quickly.

Strong role for technology. Technology has the capability to transform the classroom into an interactive learning environment, but many educational institutions fail to make full use of the latest advances in networking and communications technologies. This enabling technology does not make the instructor obsolete; far from it. It can empower the instructor to act as facilitator or coach, bringing greater resources to bear in the classroom and adjusting the instruction to better fit the individual. Instructors also can take advantage of the networked classroom to collaborate more closely with their peers, enhance their own expertise, and tap the multitude of rich resources available online.

Computer networking in general, and second-generation capabilities (Web 2.0) in particular, give educators the power to implement interactivity, creativity, and information-sharing activities to an unprecedented degree. By using these tools, instructors can extend the classroom far beyond its four walls and reinforce the soft skills and critical thinking that students require to master complex tasks and compete for higher paying jobs. E-learning software and hands-on activities also provide effective pedagogical support, but they have to be implemented in an integrated, consistent manner that reinforces objective-based instructional criteria and builds on proven techniques.

Connect with “always-on” learners. Students live in a highly connected, interactive environment that little resembles a traditional classroom. In fact, about the only time a typical student disconnects is in the classroom. Sitting quietly and passively while taking lecture notes does not come naturally to a student population accustomed to a virtual world of instant messaging, pervasive Internet access, and online social networking. If these “always-on” learners are to excel in education, their learning environment should mirror the ways in which they engage the world.

The connected phenomenon is not restricted to the developed world. According to 2007 report published by the environmental research group World Resources Institute, as family income grows in developing countries spending on information and communications technology (ICT) increases faster than spending on anything else—including health and housing. Likewise, Wireless Intelligence estimates that 80 percent of the world’s population lives within range of a cellular network, and the International Telecommunications Union has determined that most of the world’s cellular users in fact live in developing countries.

Partnerships help bridge boundaries. Educational institutions in the 21st century require a supportive infrastructure of partnerships. One way to overcome the skills/knowledge gap—the gulf between what is taught and what needs to be learned—is for educators to enlist other stakeholders from the government, community, nonprofit, and business sectors. Many effective education initiatives involve multi-stakeholder partnerships that combine the expertise and resources of diverse contributors. Such involvement goes well beyond philanthropy. Companies, for their part, have an interest in developing a skilled workforce that can strengthen the business and help contribute to building healthy, stable economies worldwide.

Cutting-edge communications technologies have the power to bolster these partnerships by facilitating collaboration and delivering instructional tools where they are needed. With Web 2.0 capabilities, educational entities are no longer limited to the resources that are available from the local community or from a regional or national government that may be out of touch with their needs or strapped for funds. Potential partners abound in the connected world, and they can be accessed from anywhere at any time over the Internet.

Cisco® Networking Academy is one example of an educational program that has partnered with a broad range of organizations worldwide to create an e-learning environment aimed specifically at 21st century students and their needs.

Technical education at Cisco

Established 10 years ago, Cisco Networking Academy offers a curriculum designed to augment traditional technical education with hands-on skills education in the latest networking technologies. Today the program reaches 700,000 learners each year (19 percent of them women) in more than 160 countries, helping to alleviate the global shortage of ICT professionals in a broad range of industries, and providing opportunities for career advancement, continuing education, and economic growth.

Recently Cisco Networking Academy rejuvenated its curriculum as part of a continuing effort to stay current with technological advances, industry trends, and pedagogical resources. The overall aim of the rejuvenation process was to improve student outcomes, while keeping instruction globally consistent and yet flexible enough to accommodate a variety of educational approaches. To this end, instructional designers built on already successful instructor-led classes that are supported by hands-on labs.

Two new paths

In response to input from the Networking Academy community, the Cisco CCNA® curriculum that introduces students to basic network design and operation was replaced by two new curricula: CCNA Discovery and CCNA Exploration. Both new curricula give learners a firm grounding in networking technology, but each is tailored to a particular segment based on past academic accomplishments and future goals.

CCNA Discovery features interactive tools, easy-to-follow labs, and quick-application exercises intended for general students with only basic PC skills who want to acquire the everyday expertise that enables them to set up a network at home, at school, or in a small business. CCNA Discovery may be delivered as independent curriculum or as part of the course of study in a secondary school or other educational institution.

CCNA Exploration takes a more top-down approach designed to engage learners with advanced analytical skills who can handle more technical depth, especially those in post-secondary schools, as well as working professionals looking to advance their careers. For example, students enrolling in CCNA Exploration are expected to know binary math and understand concepts such as algorithms and logic trees.

From e-learning to e-doing

Networking Academy pedagogy employs multimodality instruction that includes Flash-based interactivity, computer visualization, sophisticated simulations, and in-class discussions centering on culturally specific scenarios. The curricula place a strong emphasis on the idea that the learning experience should replicate real-world tasks. Visual, auditory, and tactile reinforcement is combined with many opportunities for instructor feedback and participation in exercises that reflect the students’ specific culture and circumstances.

Networking Academy experts have developed network simulation software called Packet Tracer that allows students to perform a variety of tasks just as if they were administering a real network. Packet Tracer improves visualization to help students understand the inner workings of a network and make it easier for instructors to integrate simulations into their lesson plans. In addition to providing a real-time mode that simulates a network without the need to buy and install expensive equipment, the software allows students to create their own what-if scenarios and supports self-evaluation activities that give students immediate feedback about how well they are learning.

To maintain high standards, course content and assessments must be consistent no matter where they are delivered, which can be a problem in areas where schools find it difficult to obtain equipment and the instructors may need additional training themselves to be effective teachers. The Networking Academy makes training available to instructors in person or remotely through Webinars, videos on demand (VODs), and podcasts, along with supporting online course materials such as interactive course guides, instructor reference guides, and case studies.

Accurately measuring success

Networking Academy takes a pragmatic, business-oriented approach to measuring success by collecting data and applying metrics to outcomes. An important means for improving curricula and instructor performance are the comprehensive course feedback survey that every participant must fill out at the close of a class, and the Student Outcome Survey that is completed several months after the last class. . The Student Outcome Survey gathers information about students’ employment and education accomplishments after their Networking Academy classes, and the Academies’ impact on these accomplishments.

By comparing the initial course-satisfaction survey with the follow-up survey, the Networking Academy has been able to link the evaluation of the instruction, materials, and instructor in each class with the learners’ subsequent success in pursuing their education, using their expertise, and job performance. Not surprisingly, the key predictors for later success have turned out to be high course feedback ratings for the instructor and the course materials

Relying on these and other metrics, the Networking Academy is moving to improve educational performance. Some of these metrics are fed back to the instructors and institutions to help monitor their success. Others are being used to improve the initial teach-the-teacher courses for new instructors and resources for existing instructors. .

Partnerships to improve curricula

Public-private partnerships are critical to 21st century educational advancement. The Networking Academy conducts its courses in close association with a variety of established institutions: secondary and post-secondary schools, universities, vocational schools, even prisons and homeless shelters. The Networking Academy also helps build linkages between secondary and post-secondary schools and encourages students to further their educations at a college or other institution.

One example of a partnership that has helped improve the Networking Academy curriculum is the relationship that it has cultivated with the Cisco Learning Institute (CLI), (a non-profit organization with a mission to change the way teachers teach and students learn using technology) and Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and School of Education.

CLI and the university co-sponsored the Indiana University Cisco Networking Academy Evaluation Project to evaluate the success of the CCNA program, particularly in terms of its impact on the students’ education and employment opportunities. The project conducted a series of surveys that collect detailed data on CCNA students, non-CCNA students and instructors, determining that the program led to an increased enrollment in four-year colleges for high school students and increased employment and salaries for community college students.

From one-room rural schools to world-class universities, networking is transforming the way we learn just as it is transforming the ways we live, work, and play. When Networking Academy students acquire networking skills, they are learning to create the collaborative connections that link the world’s individuals, communities, governments, and businesses together.