The good and bad of pitching IT certifications to high school students

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This feature first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Are high school certifications good for IT?In October 2014, IT industry association CompTIA announced it had awarded its one millionth A+ certification — the organization’s flagship credential for IT technicians around the world. Established in 1993, it took a little more than 20 years for the A+ certification to reach its 1 million milestone. Earlier this year, CompTIA celebrated awarding its two millionth certification overall.

These are big numbers. But they pale in comparison with what Microsoft has accomplished in just one U.S. state, in a little less than five years. In North Carolina, more than 200,000 high school students and teachers have earned Microsoft certifications since 2011. To add some perspective, this is like Microsoft awarding four certifications to every single resident of Redmond, Wash., where Microsoft’s corporate campus is located.

This remarkable achievement was reported without great fanfare on the Microsoft Learning blog and in a North Carolina Department of Public Instruction press release. It offers clear evidence, however, of a growing movement that some industry experts are calling “IT youth-ification.” Additionally, the Microsoft news confirms the viability of a still relatively new marketplace where IT certification vendors will compete for both revenue and consumer mindshare.

North Carolina and Microsoft ITA

In 2011, North Carolina’s Board of Education launched a statewide initiative that partnered every N.C. high school with Microsoft IT Academy (MS ITA), the software giant’s program for providing discounted training and certification to academic institutions. The MS ITA program is available to education centers that qualify for Microsoft’s volume licensing agreements for academic institutions.

The North Carolina MS ITA offers courses and certification opportunities in the following categories:

● Microsoft Office
● Network Administration I
● Computer Programming II
● E-Commerce I and II
● Database Programming I

The MS ITA courseware is all digital and self-paced, so students can work through courses while at school and at home. This is similar to Microsoft Virtual Academy, the company’s free online education portal that offers online courses across the entire spectrum of Microsoft’s technology portfolio.

Microsoft wisely does not limit MS ITA program access to just high school students. Faculty members can also take courses and earn certifications, giving the program a dynamic, integrated participation component. Teachers and students can interact and relate with each other as they work through the courseware, mutually supporting each others’ efforts.

North Carolina piloted the MS ITA program in a number of high schools in the fall of 2010. A year later, the program was rolled out to every high school in the state. Early results were impressive: more than 8,000 students and teachers earned certifications during 2011, the first full year of the statewide program. That, however, turned out to be small potatoes compared to what lay in store.

Here are the number of MS ITA certifications awarded to North Carolina high school teachers and students over the last five years:

YearNumber of Certifications
20118,227
201240,508
201349,863
201450,500
2015 (as of May 29)55,479
Total:204,577

Information taken from NCDPI press release.

Both Microsoft and the North Carolina Board of Education were surprised by the success of the MS ITA program. The Board of Education appreciated the heavily-discounted courseware and testing, which makes the program relatively cost-effective. In a June press release, state superintendent June Atkinson said that the MS ITA program has saved students and teachers more than $20 million in certification costs since its inception.

According to the same press release, almost 50,000 students are currently enrolled in MS ITA courses, and education officials are confident that the number of certifications awarded in 2016 will be the largest yet. Finally, near the end of the press release is an offhand, almost casual statement — an omen of a game-changing development for the certification industry:

The state also began piloting the Microsoft Word and PowerPoint course in middle schools in the fall of 2013.

It’s only a trial of one MS Office course, but it’s not a stretch to predict that North Carolina could roll out components of the MS ITA program to students aged 11-15 in the very near future.

Schools as Certification Resellers

Microsoft isn’t the only IT firm marketing its training and certification programs to the education market. Cisco Systems has the Cisco Networking Academy, which offers IT skills and networking courses designed to prepare students for CCNA and CCNP certification exams. Cisco has been aggressively recruiting high schools and universities for its CNA program for years.

Google has a comprehensive program for K-12 schools which includes courses in computer science and software development. For Google, the tie-in is more about services than certification, but the basic motives are the same. Putting tools like Google Docs and Gmail into the hands of students increases the chance they will become fully invested in the Google ecosystem (and its related mobile platform, Android.)

Are high school certifications good for IT?Programs like Microsoft’s MS ITA and Cisco’s Cisco Networking Academy offer discounted courseware and resources to traditionally cash-strapped K-12 school systems, which on the surface looks like a win-win relationship. The arrangement does, however, raise an ethical question: Is it right for high schools to essentially act as resellers for vendor certification programs?

Ethical issues aside, the potential benefits of Microsoft’s collaboration with the North Carolina education system are immeasurable. If the state’s MS ITA program maintains its current achievement rate, N.C. high schools will produce another 300,000 Microsoft-certified students and teachers over the next six years. These results will surely garner the attention of education boards from other states looking to integrate more IT and computer science training into K-12 schools.

North Carolina’s new pilot project, where a Microsoft course is being offered to middle school students aged 11-15, is potentially very significant to the future of IT certification. “Get them while they’re young,” the saying goes, a lesson not lost on marketers since the dawn of kids influencing the purchasing decisions of their parents.

Very few people object to giving K-12 students more technology education, especially in the context of the potential skill shortages in key IT and computer science job roles being predicted by some employment experts. The question of awarding IT certifications to children, on the other hand, has raised the eyebrows (and sometimes the hackles) of current industry professionals.

Certs are for Kids?

If a candidate passes a Microsoft exam, they receive the related certification or credit towards a more advanced certification … as long as they meet the program requirements.

Ask Ayan Qureshi, who was only 5 years old when he became a Microsoft Certified Professional: There are no age restrictions on Microsoft certifications.

Ayan’s story doesn’t map directly to North Carolina’s MS ITA program, which is currently only available in high schools. As certification vendors continue to push further into the education space, however, and middle school administrators choose to take advantage of highly discounted IT courseware and testing, it is only a matter of time before the average age of new MCPs and MS Office Specialists drops below legal voting age.

When Microsoft certifications are being earned by thousands of middle school students across the country, the credibility of those credentials is going to take a hit. It can’t be helped — no manager is going to reward an adult employee for earning an MCP certification that the manager’s 13-year-old child received in school the week before.

Are high school certifications good for IT?Kids continue to get savvier about technology, and at earlier ages than previous generations. Microsoft’s IT certification programs are not addressing this development. The bulk of the company’s standardized certification exams sit right in the wheelhouse of today’s grade school student, and these exams currently don’t do anything to measure other desirable qualities for IT pros — something that would help to differentiate viable professional work candidates from school-aged students.

Does this sort of advanced evaluation go beyond the function of an IT certification? Not when the bar on proficient tech knowledge is inexorably slipping towards school-aged children. The rote memorization of information, coupled with well-honed exam taking skills, is going to reduce current certification exams to child’s play. It’s time for Microsoft and other vendors to change their certification programs to make them more relevant for experienced IT professionals.

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Aaron Axline

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Axline is a freelance technology writer and knowledge management specialist based in Edmonton, Canada. His work has appeared in titles from Que Publishing, and on many tech blogs and websites. His professional writing site is AaronAxline.blogspot.ca.

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