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Perspective | Leveraging online learning to narrow the technology skills gap

In August, most of North Carolina’s 1.5 million public school students began the school year online. Teachers, students, and parents had no choice but to adapt to remote education, depending on technology to teach and learn. As we learn to learn online, we should consider how students can apply these new skills to preparing for what comes after graduation.

In North Carolina, there were 26,305 unfilled IT jobs as of September 2020, and Charlotte ranked as a top city for tech hiring in November 2020. Many of the openings are “new collar” jobs — those that require relevant skills, but not necessarily a four-year degree — but less than half of North Carolinians ages 25-44 have the high-quality credentials or postsecondary degrees needed for STEM careers. Further, students in North Carolina completed 55,835 Career & Technical Education concentrations in 2019, but STEM occupations weren’t among the top three majors.

In order to meet the demand for STEM skills, North Carolina must build up its career and technical education capacity starting in high school to help its students prepare for the jobs of the future.

One tool that can help is Open P-TECH: a completely free and easy-to-use online learning platform that brings in-demand tech and professional skills to teachers and students at the high school and college levels. Engaging videos and gamified assessments spark and keep student interest, while explaining complex topics including: artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, cybersecurity, cloud and quantum computing —all at a 10th-grade reading level. Users can earn digital badges to demonstrate the skills they’ve gained and differentiate themselves as they apply for college or employment.

Along with students, teachers can quickly become familiar with the fundamentals of such technologies while using Open P-TECH as a classroom resource or extracurricular activity. There is a teacher-friendly digital library and platform for professional development and blended learning. Teachers can access special content and features to help them integrate the Open P-TECH modules into their curricula, and they can keep track of student progress and assign new content via an efficient dashboard.

Parents can support their students in using the Open P-TECH resource at home, leveraging their increased familiarity with online learning, as a means of fostering an interest in STEM subjects and potentially putting them on the path to a related career.

Open P-TECH is the online version of the brick and mortar Pathways in Technology Early College High School program pioneered by IBM in 2011. P-TECH is a program where a school district, private sector company, and local community college partner join forces to provide students the opportunity to earn a high school diploma and a free associate degree alongside valuable work experience and skills training. Although the brick-and-mortar P-TECH model isn’t present in North Carolinian schools just yet, state leaders are exploring the feasibility of adopting it.

One STEM teacher at Enloe High School in Raleigh, Georgette Kelley, had 36 of her students complete the professional skills badge in the Open P-TECH platform in November 2020. She explains, “I wanted to provide my students with additional career and college readiness opportunities, especially in the virtual setting, where social media branding is important in several ways for a successful future.” She says the experience was positive and the opportunity for students to earn a digital badge from such reputable and prestigious institutions such as IBM and NAF enabled them to have a competitive edge for the future.

IBM is constantly working to add more modules and improve the Open P-TECH platform, such as one exploring the launch of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), an AI and solar powered marine research vessel which will traverse oceans gathering vital environmental data. IBM has also just made Open P-TECH available to many more students and teachers around the world by adding Italian, Korean, Polish, and Turkish languages.

As students, teachers, and parents in North Carolina navigate the online learning landscape, they should consider solutions like Open P-TECH that help to translate newfound technology skills into in-demand potential majors and careers.

Steven Pearson

Steven Pearson is an IBM U.S. Corporate Social Responsibility Leader.