An Equitable Start

Leveling the Playing Field from Education to Employment

Published on 2021-09-13T00:00:00.000Z by Glen Chua.

Booming, but for whom?

It’s become clear that the tech industry has been, and continues to be, booming. The current pandemic has not only intensified this growth exponentially, but has caused many to rethink their education, lifestyle, and career choices. The appeal: competitive salaries, employment growth, flexible work, and lucrative benefits packages, all attainable at a fast pace through short-term online resources and coding bootcamps. As the logic goes, “anyone can code and launch a career in tech faster than ever.” Is the tech industry as viable and open as it seems?

Yes and no. Here are four things we know for sure:

  1. While tech is for everyone, being a developer isn’t a perfect fit for all. Exploring career paths must begin with self-understanding.
  2. There is no effective employment without the right type of education, which is not a short-term investment in micro-learning, but a life-long journey of access to information and mentorship.
  3. While employees value diversity, equity and inclusion, and employers are making progress, there continue to be multiple barriers standing in the way of equitable education and employment.
  4. A career in tech has the potential to change lives for the better.

This article is the first in a series exploring equitable, open education and diverse and inclusive employment in the field of technology. In consideration of the factors listed above, it examines findings from the tech industry to better understand how education and employment practices can, and need to, evolve to make this space more equitable, diverse, and inclusive for all. And because access to education is at the root of every skilled and sustainable workforce, equitable education is a good place to start.

Equitable careers begin with equitable education

If the tech industry is to bring about equal opportunity for career development, a multiplicity of interrelated factors, namely access to quality education, has to be considered. If a career in tech opens doors for personal and economic growth, who has access to the resources needed to walk through? The barriers that may stand in the way are significant. Nobel economist Amartya Sen has long called for the expansion of people’s substantive freedoms through the removal of “unfreedoms”: poverty, limited economic opportunity, inadequate education and access to knowledge, deficient health care, and oppression.

The spirit behind equitable education values the significance in the power of access to knowledge to bring about positive change. The aim is to use information and open educational resources (OERs) to help equalize the distribution of high-quality knowledge and educational opportunities, both individually and structurally, throughout the world. While this movement to build community and collaboration around the creation, dissemination, and use of OERs is certainly not novel, it has gained a renewed sense of urgency and relevance under the current COVID-19 pandemic.

At a time of heightened socio-economical consciousness, contentious identity politics, jarring inequities, and financial instabilities, the global spread of a novel virus has shaken up former securities, leading many to question, reflect, and change. Since a major barrier to beginning a learning journey is financial, the demand for OERs has never been greater. In recent years, the online education market has reflected this demand. Starting from the rise of wikis in the late 1990s, the development of EdTech led to free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in 2012 and continues to dramatically change the way people engage with teaching and learning.

There are currently over 16,000 MOOCs spanning a broad range of subjects, from “Introduction to Computer Science” (Harvard/EdX), to “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects” (UC San Diego). As education and work shift to more remote and hybrid cultures, online platforms like Coursera and edX become increasingly relevant, innovating to better serve potential users and their varied goals, including up-skilling or re-skilling, pursuing different careers, exploring interests, or knowledge for the sake of knowledge. In fact, during the pandemic year of 2020, MOOCs saw exponential growth in user enrolments; Coursera, for example, grew 66% in just one year - 20 million new users compared to 8 million in the previous year.

With hundreds of millions of users around the world, online platforms offering free information and educational resources will only continue to grow and shape the evolution of how we access and engage with knowledge, ideally in more equitable and inclusive ways. But engaging with learning is not simply about accessing information. While the movement has substantially brought higher education out of the confines of ivory towers and costly technical schools, challenges of cultivating direction and understanding, as well as navigating novel fields of knowledge without proper guidance and individual assistance remain. Technology as the sole driver of innovation in education is insufficient, and innovations in curricula, organizational structures, and career hierarchies are needed to make the digital revolution in education a positive reality.

A culture of contribution

A key component in the evolution of OERs and equitable education is the personalization of an individual’s learning journey. Although they are valuable resources, mass, one-size-fits-all courses with little to no feedback or interaction often leave much to be desired.

Consider free online learning platforms that cultivate professional self-understanding, one-on-one mentorship with career insiders, peer collaboration on complex problems, and productive connections in an inclusive and safe space. These human-centric additions are invaluable in the transition from a student to a job candidate and eventually to a contributing team member in the tech industry. While marketing efforts for careers in tech tend to obfuscate the particular challenges and hurdles of the industry, it’s only through making meaningful connections with people immersed in the daily grind of the tech world that a more cogent understanding starts to form.

Bridging the gap between information acquisition and active engagement is where companies can, and should, play a significant role. As future employers of potential job candidates, companies may facilitate the development of the tech workforce in ways which benefit both sides. If a company invests in creating a more equal playing field from the education phase, it has a voice in cultivating the skills and knowledge it deems important. Moreover, there's an opportunity to build on principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the very core of its company culture. A diverse team is a profitable team, and cultivating this inclusive approach from the beginning helps to address several issues tech companies have been facing: high attrition rates, the expensive costs of inadequate recruitment, the mismatch of skills and goals between employer and employee, the misalignment of work cultures and values, and the lack of training and/or onboarding structures.

Is tackling these issues enough of an incentive for a diverse set of institutional stakeholders to develop and sustain a more productive culture of reciprocal contribution? Will the longstanding divides among student, candidate, employee, and employer be things of the past?

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