Virginia high school students are getting an upgrade to their technology education.

The state is implementing the Microsoft IT Academy Program at all of its public high schools and regional career technical centers, giving students access to industry certifications, training materials, online learning content, and software licenses.

The program, which supports ongoing technology education from computer basics to programming skills, will begin in Virginia this fall with 30 high schools and nine regional career and technical education centers taking part.

Virginia officials hope to get the program online and running throughout the state by the end of the 2011-2012 school year. Virginia is the third state to sign a statewide agreement with Microsoft for the Academy.

Anne Rowe, career and technical education coordinator for the Virginia Department of Education, said the first phase of the process will consist of curriculum mapping and aligning the technical resources from Microsoft with the appropriate goals and objectives in the classroom.

“This fits very nicely, because all students are going to need technology skills for any career they pursue,” Rowe said, referring to the Microsoft IT Academy program.

She added that 50 percent of today’s jobs require technical skills, with that number jumping to 77 percent in 10 years, referring to a recent estimate by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

“Since taking office, this administration has been looking at ways to provide more innovation in our classrooms and better prepare our students in the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math,” said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in a statement. “The Microsoft IT Academy brings greater technology to the classroom and ensures that students in every corner of the commonwealth have access to a quality technology education.”

Laura Fornash, Virginia’s secretary of education, said that the actual rollout of materials will happen in the second phase of the program.

“We’re reaching out to each region of the state for train the trainer programs and looking at an aggressive approach to work with school divisions individually so that they understand what they have available to them,” she explained.

Investment in the Future

The partnership cost Virginia approximately $484,000 for the Academy subscriptions for all state public high schools and career technical education centers. On average, Rowe said it came out to about $1,300 per school or center.

Although to some, such an investment may seem to indicate a preference for schools to use the Microsoft software and materials, Fornash and Rowe stressed the program doesn’t require being exclusive to Microsoft products.

“No one is going to police them, that’s for sure,” Rowe said. “We just can’t imagine them not using these.”

“We’re working on a plan with the Department of Education and Microsoft to drill down to use this program to enhance workforce skills,” Fornash added. “These services are available to students and teachers but also to parents. So parents can take advantage of these resources and learn alongside their students.”

Those taking part in the Microsoft IT Academy program have the ability to earn the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS), Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) or Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) certifications. Rowe said that some students are already working toward the certifications and vouchers to help cover the costs of those would be received as part of the program.

Rowe added that initially, schools would probably concentrate on “low-hanging fruit” such as the MOS certification, but she full expects students to take advantage of some of the other courses as the Academy materials are put into the regular curriculum offerings statewide.

“The MTA and MCP are very viable because we have courses that teach Oracle database, Cisco networking systems and we have a variety of levels of technology in our curriculum today,” Rowe said. “Now we’ll have more resources to help students get to a better level of preparation for the credentialing.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.