Preparing the Next Generation of IT Pros

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For some time now, the number of American students entering computer science has been in decline.

Experts often point to college as the place to remedy this problem and stock the IT infrastructure with a sufficient workforce. But education provider Pearson is going back even further.

“The division lines between high school and college are beginning to blur a little bit,” said Greg Tobin, Pearson’s president of mathematics and statistics, who points out how sharply the United States’ ranking for students completing college in six years or less has fallen.

“If you look at the stats, our completion rate for students in college has dropped to 18th in the world. We used to be first and now we’re 18th out of 29 counties that report out. One of the reasons is that students arrive in college increasingly unprepared.”

According to Tobin, students are ill-prepared in reading, writing and mathematics. Pearson has targeted mathematics specifically for improvement.

“One of greatest predictors of whether or not a student will proceed to college and graduation is whether or not they complete three or more years of mathematics in high school,” he said.

For that reason, Pearson has sponsored a yearly International Conference on Technology in Collegiate Mathematics (ICTCM) for the past 21 years. This year’s conference was held in March.

“The focus of the conference has been exclusively on how technology can improve student performance in mathematics,” Tobin said, noting that when the conference began, “technology meant the graphing calculator.”

“You’d go into class, sit down, the teacher would work problems at the board and then they’d say ‘Your homework is problems X, Y and Z out of your book,’” Tobin said. “Then you would go home, open up your book, do your homework problems and hand them in to your teacher the next day. And the teacher may or may not look at them. You’re probably not sure why you did that in the first place, and then you have to prep yourself for the test.”

Today, publishers participating in the conference are focused on online instruction, interaction and participation. 

And applications make this process more in-ter-active, and therefore make students more likely to succeed.

“In the new Web world, students do all their homework online,” Tobin said. “So they’re given constant personalized attention to solve the problems that the teacher has given them. They work their homework until they get 100 percent using all the tools that we have online. Teachers don’t have to spend all that time grading, if they ever did in the first place. They can spend more time going online and looking and see[ing] where students are actually falling short, and then calibrating their lecture time to the places where students are falling down.”

Pearson has seen quantifiable success from the application of this technology, Tobin said, in some cases leading to a 20 percent improvement in the pass rate for students in community college math courses.

“If we can keep kids in college and they can persist through and continue to demonstrate success in mathematics, then they’re more likely to take calculus and move through STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses,” Tobin said. “Right now, we have a huge number of students who arrive in college and end up taking the same mathematics they took in high school and they still can’t pass it. And so they say, ‘I’m just going to be an English major.’ It’s a huge filtering process that’s going on.”

The intention of Web-based math education applications is to teach students to work collaboratively on math problems. The belief is that collaboration further enhances students’ ability to work in professional environments, particularly IT, where team interaction and problem-solving ability is crucial.

“Let’s say that you have a big hairy math problem and you actually want to work on it with a team rather than by yourself,” Tobin said. “That’s key to the workplace skill, to be able to work together to solve problems rather than plowing your way through an unending stream of math problems. So that’s certainly on our road map: enabling the program to be more collaboratively based.”

- Daniel Margolis,

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