The Slothfulness Quotient

Cisco applies 'e-learning' solutions to the future workplace through its Networking Academy by Peter J. Joyce

Afriend of mine is always saying, "The world is moving faster and faster. How slow are you?" Certainly, our universe is expanding. Globalization is erasing geographical boundaries and technology is throwing more and more information at us everyday. But has the escalating pace become so extreme that today's performance metric is one's "slothfulness?"

We know quick-paced environments are becoming the norm for the business world, but what about schools? It seems too many commentators have established careers by criticizing American schools. Yet often their descriptions of the situation are misleading. Our public schools probably are not "broken," as often claimed. Instead, like business, I believe our education system is in the midst of a revolutionary change that eventually will result in a monumental transformation.

American schools now serve more students than ever before, and student performance as measured by most outcomes remains basically the same or improved slightly. In 1960, for example, only 40 percent of students graduated from high school and 8 percent graduated from college. Today, roughly 75 percent of students graduate from high school and 30 percent complete their bachelor's degree requirements, according to "Do You Know the Good News About American Education?" published by the Center on Education Policy and American Youth Policy Forum. Our schools have shown improvement. Unfortunately, school progress has been incremental in a period of exponential change.

Schools are unable to keep up with the rapid pace of change. This is precluding them from properly serving all students. Consequently, the number of highly skilled graduates falls short of the number of highly skilled workers our companies need. This situation is most evident in the informational technology industry. According to the Information Technology Association of America, more than 1.6 million private-sector IT jobs were created during the past year. More than half remain unfilled, twice the previous year's figure.

Businesses cannot grow without a skilled, technical workforce. The demands of the new workplace require that schools produce an expanding pool of skilled graduates. To ensure this happens, business is realizing it must partner with education to ensure that schools and young people are prepared for this changing world.

Clearly, preparing students and schools will be our shared challenge in the first phase of this new millennium. Cisco Systems brings two principal business strategies—leveraging of technology and focusing on ecosystems—to its relationships with schools.

Leveraging Technology

Not only has Cisco developed products that enhance the use of the Internet, but it has also leveraged the technology to dramatically change many traditional business practices. Most of Cisco's internal and external business practices are in the ether—that is, they have been automated on-line. Cisco receives more than 80 percent of its orders and conducts 83 percent of its customer support services on-line. Internally, the Internet fosters instant global communications, tracks company finances with a minimum of lag time and instills a sense of community among various facilities and outposts. The end result is that Cisco has increased productivity by 20 percent.

The first wave of Internet applications transformed how Cisco conducts business. Now, Cisco is creating the next wave of Internet applications to revolutionize how it educates its workforce. These "e-learning" solutions are offering a dramatic shift in the learning experience.

First, e-learning eliminates the barriers of time and distance creating universal, learning-on-demand opportunities. The old notion of the corporate classroom is being redesigned. Second, an e-learning system can automatically assess a student's knowledge by evaluating the student's responses to on-line questions. The system then delivers only content that matches the needs assessment via the media that best suits the learner. More importantly, the system continuously validates the coursework throughout the learning process.

Early on, Cisco recognized the value of these e-learning applications across the education spectrum. In 1997, Cisco Systems launched an innovative model for e-learning called the Cisco Networking Academy Program. The program was centered on teaching students in high schools, colleges and nontraditional settings to design, build and maintain computer networks.

Developed in concert with leading educators to ensure sound pedagogy, the Cisco Networking Academy curriculum is Web-based and delivered over each academy's network to students' desktop computers. But its significance goes well beyond the central lesson plan. Using Web technologies, the Cisco Networking Academy program prepares students for the 21st-century workplace and simultaneously serves as a valuable model for successful e-learning.

Cisco has invested more than $50 million dollars in what has become the largest e-learning laboratory in the world. Starting with 64 academies in seven U.S. states in 1997, the Networking Academy program now is delivered to more than 5,800 sites in 96 countries serving more than 140,000 students.

Applications to Learning

Several aspects of the Networking Academy program are worth noting, for I believe they will have a much broader impact on education delivery in the future.

First, instructors serve as a critical resource for this "high tech, high touch" program. An on-line instructor's guide provides teachers with a detailed blueprint for teaching the Networking Academy curriculum, including lesson plans, explanations of lab exercises and teaching best practices. Instructors receive on-line technical support 24 hours a day, seven days a week from customer service engineers.

Second, on-line assessment helps to monitor progress and aids accountability. This tool enables globally standardized on-line testing and provides immediate feedback to students and instructors. The learning objectives are clear and the assessment process lets students know how well they understand the material and provides them with the supplemental content and assistance necessary to meet the objectives. Through continuous tracking of performance and frequent program refinement, the assessment process ensures accountability for results.

Third, the Internet-based community server provides a forum for shared intelligence. All Networking Academies enjoy access to an on-line community with downloadable curriculum and software, discussion forums, articles on education technology and announcements about the Networking Academy Program.

Finally, an account maintenance system simplifies general program management. This convenient electronic resource allows Networking Academies to manage student information, program contacts, applications, equipment listings and training schedules.

The Networking Academy program has demonstrated the value of the Internet technology to the learning process. Cisco plans to apply the lessons learned and the engines developed to other education endeavors through our newly formed non-profit, the Cisco Learning Institute.

Focus on Ecosystems

Technology will remain a critical success factor. However, relationships are proving to be the competitive edge.

Cisco has positioned the concept of the Internet ecosystem as its core business model for the Internet economy. Unlike the value chain model, where linear relationship exists between people who produce, distribute and purchase products and services, the ecosystem model emulates biological processes. Value is created as companies form communities with partners, suppliers, distributors, employees and customers to leverage each other's strengths and create extra worth for customers. It's more of a collaborative relationship than a competitive one.

For example, if Cisco wants to provide a voice solution for an Internet service provider, it may ask Hewlett-Packard to offer part of the technology solution. Or Cisco may have Telcordia provide services and software as part of a messaging solution. Both HP and Telcordia are therefore part of Cisco's ecosystem. There are product ecosystems, a consumer market ecosystem, a systems integration ecosystem, a professional services ecosystem, as well as network management and technology ecosystems.

Cisco's approach to workforce development is based on the same ecosystem model. First, Cisco defines workforce broadly. It does not rely on protectionist practices that might meet hiring goals at the expense of business partners and customers. Instead, Cisco works closely with its ecosystem partners on training and skills development.

Second, Cisco views education partners as critical resources. It depends on K-12 schools to produce graduates who meet set academic standards in reading, math and technology. Cisco works with secondary and postsecondary school partners to ensure that students understand emerging technologies and possess the technical skills foundation necessary to pursue careers in the industry. More importantly, Cisco uses its leadership in the industry to encourage and support business partners in its work with schools.

For example, Cisco is working with ecosystem partners in Rhode Island to ensure the state has the skilled workforce necessary to sustain economic growth. Several years ago, business and education representatives formed the Information Technology Academy to serve as a broker in the creation of an effective workforce development system. Even though Cisco does not have facilities in the state, it has a strong presence through companies that sell and use Cisco products and end-user customers. Cisco has a stake in the quality of the state's workforce.

Together with ITA, Cisco has established the Cisco Networking Academy Program in schools across the state. Cisco is working with ecosystem partners such as Verizon and Fidelity. This type of collaborative effort is becoming more common across our domestic and international markets.

A Collaborative Race

In its earliest days, Cisco Systems supported what we jokingly called the "take a router to school program." It made sense. Cisco was a relatively small company and thought contributing products was a good thing to do. It didn't take long to realize that the schools didn't know what to do with a multi-protocol router. It also didn't take long to realize the world really was changing and education had to be part of it.

The wiring of America is changing the way teachers teach and students learn. According to a U.S. Education Department survey, two-thirds of public school teachers say they now employ computer applications in lessons and at least 30 percent use the Internet. Exchanging e-mails with "key pals" in foreign countries, taking "virtual field trips" to museums and historic sites and researching a range of academic subjects on the Internet are becoming part of the regular curriculum. Studies are becoming less linear and sequential—one page or textbook chapter after another—to becoming more spontaneous. Where these changes are penetrating schools, teachers are doing less lecturing and changing from classroom know-it-all to "learning coach" who guide students to what they need to know.

Ecosystems are evolving where K-12 systems, community colleges, four-year colleges and businesses are working closely with one another. Resources are being shared, articulation agreements are put into operation and instructors are forming collaboratives. Student learning is not only taking place in classrooms, but in work sites and the community.

The world is moving faster than ever before. We do not know exactly what the future holds. Yet we do know that the race cannot be won without education. Business and schools must continue to run the race together.

Peter Joyce is workforce development manager with Cisco Systems, 3750 Zanker Road, San Jose, Calif. 95134. E-mail: pjoyce@cisco.com