The Learn-What-You-Need-When-You-Need-It Education Model

by James A. Bacon

I stumbled across an ad on the Washington Post website that attracted my attention. AWS (Amazon Web Services) was advertising its cybersecurity certification training.

Click on the ad and you land on an extensive website promoting the company’s cybersecurity curriculum. “Start your security training journey,” proclaims the header.

Explore the paths to building security skills with this introduction to AWS Training and Certification. … Discover on-demand digital and live classroom training opportunities for all skill levels or roles. … Learn more about the comprehensive security curriculum designed by AWS experts.

The goal of AWS, the cloud subsidiary of Amazon, is to develop a cadre of IT professionals certified to use the AWS platform. What particularly intrigues me is how the training curriculum differs from conventional courses in Virginia’s community colleges and four-year institutions. The fact that classes are delivered in both digital and in-person classroom formats is the most obvious but least interesting difference.

The AWS website touts self-paced online digital courses as a way to learn new skills “when and where it’s convenient for you.” For those who want classroom training, AWS provides it. Indeed, AWS even provides a “private training” option of virtual or in-person classes with accredited instructors. Whatever level of intensity you’re looking for, AWS provides it.

Colleges and universities offer courses that stretch over a four-month semester. Classes meet two or three times weekly and last 55 to 75 minutes. By contrast, AWS training and certification is broken into much smaller, more easily digestible units.

E-learning sessions advertised on the AWS website vary in length from 20 minutes (“Basics of Amazon Detective,” a service that identifies root causes of potential security issues) to six hours (“AWS Cloud Practitioner Essentials,” an overview of the AWS cloud). Most digital sessions last about an hour. Classroom training courses vary in length from a few hours (“AWS Certified Machine Learning”) to five days (“Architecting on AWS”). Most classroom courses are day-long events.

AWS also provides different “learning paths” — learning by role (IT architect, developer, cloud practitioner), or learning by solution (networking, data analytics, game tech).

Oh, and here’s a real novelty. Not only does AWS provide a Pricing Calculator that allows students to estimate closely how much their certification will cost them, it allows them to “see the math behind the price for your service configurations.” The price of a certification is tied directly to the cost of providing it. Compare that to higher-ed pricing with all its cross-subsidies that vary by in-state/out-of-state status, family income, graduate/undergraduate status, and field of study in which prices (tuition) bear only a remote connection to the underlying costs.

The AWS approach, tailored to instructing students with specific technology-related skill sets, may or may not not be directly transferable to four-year colleges and universities that (supposedly) teach students a broad cross-section of knowledge along with the abilities to communicate clearly and engage in critical thinking. But they are indicative of the ferment taking place outside the ossified institutions we call higher education.

Do not be surprised if entrepreneurs begin applying technology-certification techniques to traditional college arts & sciences disciplines. Do not be surprised to see new enterprises teaching English, history, philosophy, foreign languages, and the social sciences, etc. with the same kind of pricing transparency — and at much lower prices.