University of Texas at Austin: Simulated Workplace Builds Skills, Confidence

You wake up on time, take the kids to day care, and arrive at the high-tech manufacturing plant 10 minutes before the day starts in time to grab a cup of coffee and chat with other members of your project team. By the end of the day, you’ve participated in two conferences and shipped a product to market. You leave in time to pick up the kids and get organized for the next day.

Sound like a typical day in the life of a U.S. employee? Well, it could be real—or it could be EnterTech. An innovative twist on work-preparedness training, EnterTech combines instructor-led classroom learning with a Web-based simulated high-tech environment. Students inhabit a virtual plant—called EnterTech—to engage in role play exercises, solve problems, collaborate on projects, and learn how to succeed in the world of work.

The solution is beautiful in its simplicity. Immerse people in a high-tech environment as you work with them to develop skills they need in that environment. Substituting a virtual company for a real one not only guarantees a consistent, flexible, modular learning environment, it also reinforces the importance of technology.

EnterTech was developed by researchers at the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. The researchers, who later formed a division called the E-Learning and Training (ELT) Labs, developed training materials to address the needs of underemployed and transitional workers, including welfare-to-work participants, at-risk high school students, and the working poor.

The goals of the project were to impart crucial personal growth and development skills and help people succeed at work. The Texas governor’s office funded the project, and the Texas Workforce Commission administered the grant. The program has received the eTexas Commission’s Best Practice Award and the Education That Works endorsement.

“According to the United States government, the 25 fastest growing job areas are in high-level skills areas,” says ELT Labs co-director Alexander Cavalli. “We wanted to help people prepare for work in these fields.”

EnterTech includes some training in basic math, reading, and writing, but the focus is on job training. Says Cavalli: “Education and training are not the same thing. How will we maintain a highly skilled workforce unless we train people for employment?”

EnterTech is a rich virtual environment that not only simulates the tasks and workflow of a real manufacturing company, but also requires students to develop their personal skills. The program teaches 44 entry-level skills in eight target areas: job, personal, organizational, communication, number, and reading and writing skills. The 45-hour “blended learning environment” combines instructor-facilitated work with Web activities. There are decision-making scenarios, group-based projects, print materials, and a self-paced curriculum that adapts to a wide range of instructional models, learning styles, and schedules.

“Instructors act as facilitators, workforce supervisors,” says Mindy Jackson, project manager of EnterTech. “Part of their role is to instill a work ethic and give students inspiration. They also are critical to giving students the social experience of work.”

Aware that personal problems hamper workplace success, EnterTech’s developers have created a “Personal Planner,” which addresses the intersections of life and work and covers issues such as child care, money management, and transportation.

The program has been in place since 2000. More than 250 students across the state of Texas have completed modules. The program is being adopted beyond Texas to other states and to institutions in Brazil. University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College have adopted the curriculum to train local workers and those transitioning into the workforce.

According to Jackson, the program has spread via the grass-roots enthusiasm of those who have been exposed to it.

“Word has gotten out,” she says, about the program’s success. Officials at ELT Labs point to EnterTech’s impressive outcomes: higher GED completion rates and an increase in community college enrollment among its graduates.

Many EnterTech grads credit the program for their salary increases and promotions. More than 67 percent of EnterTech graduates found jobs or enrolled in future education. This success rate, says Cavalli, matches those of four-year schools. “That a computer program can achieve this is amazing,” he says.

For more information, contact ELT Labs, Austin, Texas, at (512) 482-0273 or www.entertech.org.

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