6 Trends Shaping the Future of Technical Education
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If you’re looking for the trends that will have the highest impact on your technical education program, look no further. We’ve compiled the latest updates from technology and the workforce into the top trends that will impact tech ed in the next few years. Use these to help guide your strategy as you plan for your program’s future.

Tech Ed Trend #1: The edge to cloud continuum

Think about your smartphone – loaded up with sensors of all kinds, your phone is constantly taking in data, sending it to the cloud, receiving data back – all in fractions of seconds so you can be connected with anyone, anywhere, anytime. At the cloud level, your smartphone provider is using data from millions of phones like yours to optimize their products, debug software issues, send you updates, and develop the next generation product.

Image credit: Alexander Spotnitz | Medium

This same phenomenon is happening in every single industry including manufacturing, precision agriculture, healthcare, food production, retail, transportation, telecommunications…the list goes on. Imagine an automotive plant where 15,000 robots, all loaded up with smart sensors, can predict their own future failure and alert the system for preventative maintenance before the failure ever occurs. The seamless flow of data from edge devices to the cloud is not just about optimization but about redefining how we teach students the IT/OT convergence, data analytics, sensors, and the application of these within different industries.

Example: Precision agriculture

Today, sensors on tractors collect data in real-time, optimizing planting patterns based on factors like soil conditions and weather patterns. Think about all the programs and learning outcomes in just this one example:

Tech Ed Trend #2: The rise of third party credentials

This is an era where what you know and what you can do are far more important than where you went to school. In this workforce, third-party credentials are rising up as a premier option for individuals to validate their skills to employers.

But beware: there are hundreds of credentials a student could earn, but not all credentials are created equally. As an educator considering which credentials to offer your students, consider the following questions:

  1. How were these credentials developed? Does the process start with a piece of equipment or a software platform, and then tests the user’s knowledge of the system? Or does the process start with the learning outcomes and workforce skills, then tests the user’s mastery of these skills? (hint: look for the latter)
  2. Who is making money from these credentials? Sadly, some organizations use credentials as a way to make money either off the backs of students or off equipment sales. If your students have to pay an outrageous sum to sit for an exam, and then pay again for each retake if they don’t pass immediately, then you might want to look elsewhere.
  3. Who has validated these credentials? Did the organization handing out their credentials include any outside consultants or experts to create and validate their assessments? Or did their internal team just come up with the tests? If credentials aren’t developed, reviewed and validated by third-party experts (i.e. industry experts), then they’re not truly third-party credentials. ISO 17024 verifies that a credentialing body follows these procedures. When possible, stick to ISO 17024-compliant credentials.
  4. Do these lead to a job for your students? If industry doesn’t value the credential, then don’t waste your students’ time with it. Make sure what you’re teaching and assessing is so closely tied to what the workforce needs that the certification can help your student land a job.

Tech Ed Trend #3: Artificial intelligence should be taught in every classroom

AI might be the most talked-about topic so far in 2024, with good reason. There’s a lot of opinions out there about how artificial intelligence should (or shouldn’t) be used in education. Our stance is that it should be taught in the classroom (and not just in the computer science lab, either). Every class, every subject can leverage AI tools to make learning more engaging, memorable, and to teach the skills students will need for their future. Because the truth is, AI is here to stay, and employers value individuals who aren’t afraid of AI.

Here are some great resources to help you think about how to leverage AI in your program:

Keep in mind: ChatGPT is AI, but not all AI is ChatGPT. There’s so much more for you and your students to explore. Leading technical educators will look beyond the language generators (chatbots) and content creators and look at applications that have tech ed-specific learning outcomes.

ExampleSelf-Driving Car Labs

This self-driving car lab is a STEM project for K-12 programs to let students see AI applications in vehicles. These cars are loaded with smart sensors, LIDAR, camera and processors that communicate with each other and the system in real time. They can see, think, communicate and make decisions, just like autonomous vehicles on the road today. There is a self-driving car research lab version for higher education, too.

Tech Ed Trend #4: Industry is getting more involved in technical education

Education and industry are both recognizing the need to work more closely together, especially in technical education. Companies realize they can’t wait until senior year (of high school or college) to start engaging with students. Schools realize they can’t stay on top of all the changes happening in the workforce; they need input and aid from experts in industry to keep their programming current.

Here are some ways schools and industry can work together:

  1. Have students design & build a solution to a company’s manufacturing challenge (example: SDU students solve challenge for Zirocco)
  2. Help finance new equipment for the school, through matching grant funds or donations (example: Wausau High School gets new industrial robot through grant + industry sponsors)
  3. Partner with a single program in multiple ways, like financial support, tours for students, job shadowing, and guest speakers. The more touch points your company has with the same group of students, the more likely they’ll come to your company first for a job (example: four schools + four businesses create manufacturing 4.0 co-op)
  4. Host summer camps for elementary and middle school students. Early exposure is a great start! (example: Kohler skilled trades camp introduces kids to manufacturing)
  5. Hire students as interns and youth apprentices while they’re still finishing school. That relationship you’re building with them can turn into a full-time employee. (example: read about companies building connections with students in 3 different ways)

When it comes to building education-industry partnerships, there’s one simple rule educators should keep in mind:

If you ask for money you’ll get advice. If you ask for advice, you’ll get money.

Tech Ed Trend #5: Technical education has replaced shop class

Gone are the days of shop class, where the only classes available were woods and metals (small engines too, if you were lucky).

Today it’s called technical education, and it builds on the foundation of woods and metals to encompass a wide array of advanced technologies like 3D printing, CNC machining, and robotics. The equipment is clean, high-tech and modern. The courses are relevant and engaging. The students can range from gearheads to math geeks, tinkerers, builders and creatives.

Jacob White, Williams Bay High School Tech Ed teacher, with two of his robotics students

Today’s technical education classroom has…

Just take it from Jacob White, the Tech Ed teacher at Williams Bay High School, who launched a new series of Industry 4.0 courses to supplement the woods and metals classes he was teaching. “I was always gonna be a woods guy,” he said, “but taking this job and learning about these new cutting edge things, I just like my job that much more because I’m learning these new skills myself.”

While we know tech ed is modern, there’s still a stigma surrounding these programs (and the kinds of students who go into them). One way to solve that: stop calling it shop class.

Tech Ed Trend #6: The four-year-degree will be all about flexibility and responsiveness

It’s no secret that the traditional four-year college degree is facing challenges. Demographic shifts and changing attitudes toward higher education are leading to a decline in college enrollments. More students are seeking alternative educational pathways, such as technical certifications and associate degrees, which can lead to lucrative careers without the need for a four-year degree. Even high school graduates are finding high-paying jobs in technical fields straight out of school.

In many ways, this is a positive shift. Students are making more informed choices about the long-term financial impact of different career pathways. They’re taking the time to explore different options to see what they want to do, rather than jumping into a degree that will lead to a career they don’t want. They’re looking at alternatives to enter the workforce with more targeted skills in less time. This is all great for employers and the economy as a whole.

But what about four-year institutions? The four-year degree isn’t going to disappear anytime soon (nor should it). Many careers still require it, and for good reason. But it does mean that universities need to be aware of these trends and adjust accordingly.

Hear how 3 different types of institutions of higher education are responding:

  1. From a traditional liberal arts university: Why STEM Can Future-Proof Private Universities Against the Enrollment Cliff (Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, President of Augustana University)
  2. From a two-year technical college: What Technical Colleges Should Prioritize in this New Era of Higher Education (Dr. Roger Stanford, President of Western Technical College)
  3. From a polytechnic university: Groundbreaking Automation Leadership Degree is a Fast Track to Industry 4.0 (Dr. Katherine Frank, Chancellor, and Dr. David Ding Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout)
This last example tells the story of perhaps the most innovative four-year degree anywhere in the world. Students can earn up to 88 credits of a 120 credit bachelors degree by earning Smart Automation Certification Alliance (SACA) credentials from any SACA member company or school in the world, then finish their remaining credits through UW-Stout remotely.

Tech Ed is Constantly Evolving

These are the six most impactful trends shaping technical education today. These are the trends to focus on as you think about the future of your programs. But as things continue to evolve, we’ll continue to remain on top of the latest technologies and trends you should know!


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