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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Geographer Looks at EdTech - Part 8 - Questioning College

--- This post is the eighth in a ten part series examining top 2011 trends in education technology in the context of GIS and geography education. ---

The eighth theme Audrey Watters identified in her top ten list of ed tech for 2011 is what I like to call "Questioning College." It's the very valuable query from students and parents asking about the value of a college education and if it's right for any particular student. Watters points out how many have done fine without a degree (Mr. Gates, Mr. Zuckerberg to name two) and that only 29% of Americans hold four year degrees (the numbers are lower for minorities). So, this is a good a time as any to question the "traditional" college track, even if we know those with degrees make more over a lifetime than those who do not. She also points out all of the great resources for those who chose an alternative path - from Khan Academy to free learning from MIT and Stanford, among others.

I'm quick to assert college is not for everyone. My best friend, a brilliant writer and thinker, opted for a vocational path (two degrees in culinary) before returning to finish a bachelors degree, years later. After many years in culinary, she shifted gears to development (raising money), and perhaps ironically now works in that arena at Boston College. I'm a big fan of vocational programs in high schools, community colleges and in the workplace. The biggest challenge for someone at 18, 28, 48 or 58 is choosing which of these paths is right for them.

Now, what about four year college geography degrees? Many of the skills needed in today's "job market" can be acquired in other ways. The challenge can be that having those skills alone, may not be enough to get the expected job. Many of the companion skills, some of which are absolutely key to short and long term career success, have little to do with software or data skills. They are the softer skills, some of which I think, are difficult, but not impossible, to pick up outside of a formal educational program. What skills do I mean? I outlined five in a podcast/article we did at Directions: self-teaching, working in a team, self-direction, finding a mentor and communications.

And, frankly, it's that first one, self-teaching, that enables all the rest of the soft and even the hard skills, like GIS. The most valuable thing anyone can get out of any aspect of education is the ability to learn how to learn. I selected my college (Chicago) in part because at 18, I had no idea how to guide myself. By 22, I was more confident, and after grad school (where I did some rather non-conformist research on the Penn State Marching Band for my thesis) I was ready to face the world and the workplace.

Geography/GIS degrees can be a credential for a job. But how do hiring managers look upon a specific academic degrees, and/or GISP or Esri certification? Are these (or other credentials) the first pass filter for a group of job seekers? I used to believe they should be, but having been the real world, I'm less and less convinced of that all the time.

I learned the most about the value (or lack of value) of a credential from Barbara, the 50+ lady we hired in the organics lab at my consulting firm to wash our glassware. She had only a high school diploma. Managers far wiser than I knew she had the "right stuff," which included getting on with a bunch of cocky college grads ranging from 22 to 35. I know there are plenty of people like Barbara, with one or no credentials that would make great additions to the geospatial workforce.