Friday, December 01, 2006

College Degrees and Training: Are They So Different?

This week has been marked with the constant negotiation with various certification entities to provide training for their products. I say negotiation, because most training departments are geared for professional training organizations with a for-profit business model. And, as a consesquence, they take various steps to ensure the training quality is acceptable to be associated with their name.

Working with eBay, we had several companies that were "Education Specialists", which meant they sepent the $150.00 to go through the online training in order to be considered officially licensed by eBay to provide training. If an educational facility wanted to provide similar training, they had to use the same method with no exceptions.

This example is actually very minimal considering the requirements that other tech companies have for their training. Many require high investments initially, high investments for training materials, and still more strict quality control through course evaluations. All of this most educational facilities are unable to expense, and therefore are not able to include in their curriculum. So the division between educational institutions and business training gets wider, and students need to go elsewhere in order to receive the training that they need.

Many educational institutions then begin to write off the inability to provide industry standard certification training as "beneath them", and unfortunately many of the students buy into the rhetoric from their professors, and think it's better not to get a certification...until they get out there in real life and realize their potential employers want either experience (which education is rarely considered as a replacement), or a certification of some sort. Why is that? Why do businesses see degrees from institutions as less-effective than certifications?

Experience is hard to teach, and even harder to fake. While learning theory and development is great for the thought process, the business world wants a more targeted focus from their employees. Granted, having a great problem-solver is a huge benefit to any company, but as problem-solvers are hired after proven track records the newly hired college graduate will be tasked with doing the basic tasks. They may know the theory, but they don't have (in the company's view) the experience or the proven track record that shows they can react in a real situation.

Training Strengths
Then enter those who have pretty much taught themselves in their field (usually within mechanical or technical fields). These people are generally exceptionally gifted, and often do not go on to get an actual college degree. Why? Because they don't have to. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on a 4-year degree that focuses on "liberal education", they go to a trade school or study on their own to pass the industry certification. With that certification, they have a proven track record of understanding which satisfies the industry. What could have been thousands of dollars can cost as little as just the testing process, and perhaps the purchase of one $50.00 book.

For those that go to a training facility, the costs are often offset by the employer. Employers like to have their employees certified in their respective fields, as it boosts confidence in their abilities and makes the company look more experienced. The boost to the share-holder confidence can often make the expense of training a worthwhile investment.

Training Weaknesses
But the problem with training is the "short-cut" techniques to get the certification. Many computer jobs have been ruined by an influx of low-quality employees with certifications that were earned from training geared towards a test and not the actual subject in hand. Test questions are memorized, time is spent more on quizzing than on applying the knowledge.

As the tests are generally multiple choice (for ease in scoring), they are fairly easy to pass with this method. Therefore, the certification becomes less of a benefit, and almost a liability. In fact, back in the dark ages at Packard Bell, I had intended to get my MCSE. I stopped (thank goodness!) when I found that many of the MCSE holders were grossly underqualified for the jobs they were getting. So I decided to move away from the industry in general, and move towards something a little less known. That is what originally pushed me towards open source operating systems.

But the real mystery is, businesses still look for the certification as a sign of competence. Why? Why do they rely on something as arbitrary as a certification, and often times treasure it more than a college degree? The answer is in the focus, as I will outline later.

College Degree Stengths
Nothing, in my opinion, can take the place of a college degree. The higher the degree, the more likely you have someone that will be able to reason, make real decisions, and overall benefit any organization with thought and logic. Colleges currently focus on liberal education, meaning that you need to have a broad exposure to your learning in order to graduate. Both the Arts and Sciences are taught to undergraduates, regardless of their focus in study. As both sides of the brain are excercised in this way, the ability to identify and reason is increased.

And even within the specific discipline that is being studied, the strength of the College education shines through. Theory is explored, experiements are used, and students understand the foundation of their craft before they build upon it. This is something that Training often neglects in the interest of time, which means a certification will generally represent less depth than a college degree.

And, for the degree, the student can often cover broad areas of the discipline, focusing on how everything relates to each other, rather than how one particular area works. Training is rarely designed in this fashion, as a specific skill is being targeted. A broader range would mean more training time, which starts to eat into the cost-benefit for the employer.

College Degree Weaknesses
But there are also colleges that spend too much time on the theory, and not enough time on the practical application. Therefore students leaving the academic world find themselves unable to perform at a level demanded by the employer. This leads to the decline in the value of the degree, and what ultimately lead to the need for industry certification in the first place.

Companies are looking for specific skillsets within specific situations that are often not covered by the college through theory. Instead, they expect the student to figure it out for themselves as they get out into the real world. Often times they can, but so many have not that even Universities have started to orient their educational structure toward skill training, and away from heavy theory doctrine.

And finally, there is the arrogance factor. As much as I respect professors, graduate students, and other experts in their respective fields, they can be condescending and rude to those that they feel do not "measure up". Often this arrogance is rooted in the belief that expertise in one area makes you an expert in all areas. This, in my mind, is the worst kind of folly any person can fall into. As the great scholar Socrates said, "I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance" (from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers). Acknowledging your ignorance is the first step to brilliance, in my mind.

Can the Two Be Resolved?
So, can the two methods of education be reconciled? I think it is very possible. The idea would be that students need both skill training and educational theory to strengthen their base, and therefore strengthen their marketability to the industry they want to enter. This can be done very easily by including industry certification training as part of the College or University curriculum as electives. They are not required for the degree, but give the student a chance to build up their skillset as part of their degree. Therefore the students get the best of both worlds, while often avoiding the pitfalls of each.

So Why Isn't It More Common?
It's a very good question, and one that has no simple answer. Businesses tend to enjoy their programs adoption into a College or University curriculum, as it lends a level of validation to their efforts. But, in the same token, they often price their curriculum out of the reach by most educational institutions. Also the various legal and procedural limitations put in place to preserve the quality of training and the brand name often becomes too difficult for a College or University to navigate.

Another problem is timing. Businesses are generally able to devote more time and energy to a project within a quarterly time frame, and can start or stop training on a dime. Education generally needs to have offerings planned for months in advance, if not a whole year. This means that education doesn't have the patience that Businesses have when it comes to contracts, funding, and start-up costs vs. projected revenue stream.

The Good News: It's Changing
Businesses realize that they need to start getting more reliable employees that have a stronger background in their respective fields. Colleges and Universities realize that they need to give their students more skill sets on top of their theory of understanding to keep the degree program popular. Both realize that they can benefit each other by making it easier for the partnership to exist.

One excellent example is Novell's Education program. They provide educational institutions with experienced faculty with the necessary tools to teach to their certification without the red tape they normally have for businesses. The universities win by getting certifications integrated into their degree programs, and the business wins because they are getting exposure to a whole generation of future technical professionals.

As more businesses start to learn from this model, and more universities start incorporating the industry certification program into their curriculum, the ultimate winner is the student. Students now have both the theory and certified skill set to be a major player within their chosen field.

1 comment:

Levi said...

I don't think there's any problem at all with universities concentrating on the theory of computer science or software engineering. Furthermore, I don't think certification in specific technologies belongs in a university degree at all.

This supposed problem is not with the schools, but with the businesses, who expect that it's the job of a university to do vocational training. That is not at all the charter of an institution of higher learning.

Certification institutions are not the answer, either. That's not real-world experience, even if it is geared towards specific technologies. I think the answer is to admit that software and IT in general is a craft-based industry and adopt the kind of mentoring and on-the-job training that are expected in the craft and trade businesses.

Just as it's silly to expect that a carpenter straight out of wood shop class is going to be able to design and build quality furniture, it's silly to expect a programmer straight out of a university program to be able to design and build quality software. You can certainly expect either to understand the theory and basics of their respective crafts, but the nuances and skills need time and tutelage to develop.