Trends shift in computer education

Even as personal computers are nearly as much a fixture as televisions in households, and children seem to be born conversant in HTML, there is a subtle evolution occurring. Mirroring a national trend, Northwestern Michigan College’s Extended Education Services department is experiencing a downturn in enrollment in basic computer courses, while interest in more advanced courses is ever increasing.

This is not news if you consider the population under 30 was born with a mouse under their right hand. However, this is not the population that attends EES courses, NMC’s vehicle for community and continuing education.

This population, usually 35 or older, has traditionally turned to EES computer courses to receive the groundwork education they never would have received in school. EES served 9,000 students last year in a wide range of subject matter.

According to Carol Evans, director of EES, this shift in enrollment, which occurred about a year ago, was not unexpected.

“We knew we were riding a wave,” Evans said. “Anytime there is something new, there is a window to learn it.”

It seems the learning window on the basics, such as Word and Excel, is closing, while it is opening on applications such as Dreamweaver, which is used to create websites.

Mark Tuller, an instructor with EES and NMC in math and computers, is not as convinced of the steepness of the downturn in basic computer education. Teaching basics like Excel or navigating Ebay, Tuller said he still sees plenty of people that need the groundwork. However, even in the basic level courses, Tuller has seen a change in the student population.

“They’re asking more questions and have a better idea of what they want to get out of the class,” he said. “They have some computer experience, so they know what they want to do. They know what tasks and issues they want to address, which is good.”

Another shift Tuller has noticed is students using the EES courses to polish off knowledge they have acquired through trial and error. For example, someone might be able to navigate an Excel spreadsheet, but would take a course to learn to create and use macros.

Evans recognizes the need for basic computer courses and says they will be available through EES for some time to come.

“In community education, we will offer a broad array of courses for a long time,” she said, adding that as a culture we are at an in between place in general computer literacy, and will remain in this spot for a while yet.

Keith Kelly, an information technology training specialist at Michigan Technical Education Services (M-TEC), also sees the computer education trend more as a transition, focusing more on the increased demand for higher-end applications and tools. Kelly, who works with organizations on information management solutions, believes the education trends are being driven by changes in how data is presented and shared. For one, the public has become more demanding of businesses.

“People expect you will know who they are when they call…people expect that there’s a web page. Not only that, they expect more dynamic web pages. It’s nice to be able to review resources, but it’s better to be able to request a reservation,” he said.

The second factor is the universal motivation of the bottom line. Kelly says the answer to this usually lies in some sort of different implementation of technology.

“For a long time, there’s been a focus on user productivity. Windows Office brought a lot of productivity to the workplace,” he said. “Now with all the network environments that exist, (companies) are looking more toward collaboration and work flow applications.”

EES at NMC is sensitive to these shifting needs and is offering more courses to meet them. For example, Evans said they are starting to develop courses on networking for the smaller office.

Another development is the Summer and Fall Shorts workshops. In a mix and match format, attendees can customize a morning of compressed computer education covering topics such as managing files and folders, working with digital photos, and buying on Ebay.

As the continuing education population becomes more computer savvy, their interest in online courses has also increased, which Evans said is slightly surprising.

“Our enrollments academically and in the non-credit areas have increased dramatically,” she said. “Personally, I had not speculated it would do so well in community and continuing education.”

The online courses follow the same topic trends as the in-house offerings: webpage design, desktop publishing, and computer applications among others. BN