Kids and certification: Professional credential or child’s play?

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

Kids get certs. Does that mean certs are less important?French mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote his first geometric proof on a wall with a piece of coal when he was 11 years old. American Irina Krush learned how to play chess at age 5, and became the U.S. Women’s Chess Champion when she was 14. And everyone knows that Mozart wrote his first symphony when he was 8 years old, which is right around the age when I discovered that my father’s binoculars shouldn’t be submerged in an aquarium to get a better view of baby guppies.

Historically, there have always been stories of child prodigies who have amazed their parents and the world with their startling intellectual gifts. Just last year, a couple of high-buzz news stories involving young kids earning IT certifications caught the industry’s attention. A 5-year-old British boy became the youngest-ever Microsoft Certified Professional, and a 12-year-old South African lad earned his A+ certification from CompTIA.

These are not the first youngsters to earn a professional credential in an IT field at remarkably early ages, but the recency of these accomplishments — not to mention the growing number of secondary school students successfully challenging entry-to-intermediate certification exams — has raised questions concerning the perceived value of entry-level industry certifications, as well as whether technology-adept kids are becoming the norm, not the exception.

What is “entry-level” technology in 2015?

Modern children are exposed to computing technology at an earlier age even than kids from only as far back as the turn of the century. Historically, the family computer was sequestered in a single room of the house, often a parent’s office or den.

Younger children (those without homework assignments) would have to wait a few years before being granted heavily-supervised play dates with the family PC.

This parental caution was well warranted — most home PC systems were relatively fragile and expensive items, and not everyone knew how to lock down a PC or the Internet to make it safer for youngsters. Today, on the other hand, it’s quite common to see very young children playing with smartphones that their parents have given them. These “play gadgets” are often hand-me-downs with the SIM cards removed, received from older siblings who have moved on to newer, more powerful (and fully activated) devices.

Computing technology is more user comprehensible today than it has ever been. By making hardware and software as accessible as possible, manufacturers have made it easier for even very young children — who are naturally curious about every object in their lives — to grasp and internalize beginning computing concepts. Basic understanding of technology has joined the more traditional child development fundamentals.

This early technology education kick start is reinforced when kids enter grade school, and are given greater access to computers in the classroom and at home. Computer networks are also commonly encountered during this time, enabling friends to play video games together online, or showing streaming cartoons and movies on a tablet before bedtime.

Kids get certs. Does that mean certs are less important?And there inevitably comes a moment when a game won’t load, or a movie freezes up. A child who is told that “the internet isn’t working” may want to take the next step and find out why, and from there find out more about how it all works. Every time a child interacts with technology, there is an opportunity for their curiosity to lead to a discovery of what powers that technology, which can lead to a desire to learn more about it.

These early encounters and experience with technology create older children who are remarkably skilled and conversant in entry-level computing and networking concepts. In many households, these kids are the ones who set up and configure new cable modems and wireless routers. They troubleshoot Mom’s smartphone lock-ups, but maybe let Dad clear the occasional printer paper jam, so he doesn’t feel completely useless.

In this context, it is not surprising to see that growing numbers of modern children are now capable of achieving entry-level industry certifications. Except, aren’t certification exams supposed to weed out candidates who don’t fit the profile of an IT professional, albeit an entry-level one?

Studying for exams, by studying exams

For most IT certification exams, candidates are not permitted to bring in textbooks, cheat sheets, or any other reference materials. They do not have access to the Internet on the exam computer, and their smartphones are turned off or turned over to a test center representative. A certification exam is all about what a candidate knows — both rote knowledge that they can recall from their brains, and applied knowledge that powers the process of answering multi-step scenario-based questions.

Even for smart kids who have had tons of exposure to computing technology from an early age, taking an entry-level certification exam should still be a difficult task because of the level of memorization required — particularly as rote memorization is no longer the primary focus of early education. What many modern children are proving to possess, however, is exceptional exam-taking skills, as well as a more sophisticated context when considering solutions to scenario-based questions.

Some of these skills can be attributed to the wealth of high-quality training material available for popular entry-level certifications like CompTIA’s A+ and Microsoft’s MTA. Bright kids who are supported in their technology training endeavors by their parents can easily get access to video courseware, virtual labs, and challenging certification exam simulations. Today’s kids also more commonly have access to older PC equipment that they can experiment on.

The availability of high-quality exam simulations from training vendors is a particularly important factor for children who want to challenge a certification exam. Exam simulators don’t just teach young candidates what sort of technical concepts they can expect to face on an exam. A good exam simulator demonstrates how their knowledge will be tested, by giving examples of the types of conventions an exam writer employs to create exam questions which are tough, but fair.

Kids get certs. Does that mean certs are less important?This lesson in particular is not lost on bright school-aged children, who approach every exam offered to them with an eye toward finding an edge. In large part, entry-to-intermediate certification exams tend to use a common standardized testing format: a given number of multiple-choice, multiple-answer, and fill-in-the-blank questions. While the skill level required by some of the questions may be daunting, there is nothing about the exam structure itself that an experienced grade school student hasn’t seen before.

A child with a solid foundation of technical knowledge and an awareness of how to approach questions on standardized tests stands an excellent chance of succeeding on many entry-level certification exams. The fact that a growing number of children are achieving this level of skill at an earlier age is representative of the evolution of human learning, particularly where technology is involved.

What do certified kids mean for the IT industry?

When a remarkable child enters a university at age 12 and earns a Ph.D. before they’re out of their teens, no one will seriously argue that their achievement detracts from the doctorate program, or that it devalues a Ph.D. degree. When, on the other hand, a growing number of grade school children are earning entry-level (and higher) IT credentials before they earn a high school diploma, what does this mean for the value of IT certifications, and for the IT industry at large?

In a recent article for the GoCertify website, I made these comments concerning the worth of IT certifications:

“[A]n IT certification stands as a validation of specific knowledge, and as a symbol of a candidate’s commitment to a career path in a specific industry.”

“Earning an IT certification is a symbol of intent. It demonstrates your desire to gain knowledge, and to apply that knowledge in a professional environment.”

In this context, it can be argued that the value of IT certification remains intact. It still acts as a validation of identified skills and knowledge, as well as a signal of a candidate’s desire to use their abilities in a professional capacity in the IT industry. This stated value is not compromised by what is the inevitable rise of more youthful certification earners.

It is likely that these younger IT credential earners will prompt certification vendors like Microsoft and CompTIA to look at their existing programs and possibly reconsider what constitutes “entry-level” knowledge in today’s technological world. Upon reflection, these certification programs could end up being adjusted to better reflect what is currently expected of junior desktop and network technicians in the industry today.

The growing number of young certification holders is not a blight on the industry. Instead, this trend is indicative of the evolution of modern learning — and of what being immersed in technology has enabled a new generation of future IT professionals to achieve early in their lives.

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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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