North Carolina is on its way to becoming the first state to offer Microsoft certification in every high school.

North Carolina is on track to becoming the first U.S. state to offer Microsoft certification and training in every high school.

The state’s Department of Public Instruction announced Nov. 15 that the Microsoft IT Academy will give students real-world technology skills from a globally recognized brand name.

North Carolina students are able to earn certification as a Microsoft Office Specialist or a Microsoft Certified Professional by completing the academy’s coursework and passing exams.

About three dozen North Carolina high schools are using the IT Academy program now. Another 20 school districts will test the program in high schools beginning in January. State school officials expect all of the state’s 628 public high schools to participate beginning next fall.

“In today’s economy, providing the Microsoft IT Academy to high schools just makes sense,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson. “The ability to effectively use Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access is an essential skill in most businesses and offices today. I am pleased that North Carolina can provide this opportunity for teachers to improve their skills and for students to be career-ready.”

The Microsoft IT Academy supports technology education for students, teachers, and other school professionals. The program includes access to online learning content, official Microsoft course materials, instructor resources, and support materials that include lesson plans, software licenses, and professional certifications.

“The course is comprised of multiple lessons that are geared to all types of learning styles,” said James Hardy, career technical educator for Leesville Road High School. “There are virtual notes, video lessons, interactive activities, lab activities, self-tests, and more. Students are very excited about the Windows Live cloud-computing component of the course. This program now allows students to work on course work at home, even if they do not have Microsoft Office software at home. As long as they have an internet connection either at home or at a library, they are able to go to their Windows Live account and work on assignments. This course has truly helped level the playing field for students in our classroom.”

There are currently 9,000 program participants in more than 100 countries, and the North Carolina school system’s adoption of the Microsoft IT Academy program is the largest in the world to date.

Watch state Superintendent June Atkinson discuss North Carolina’s partnership with Microsoft:

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction is recommending that all state high schools use the Microsoft IT Academy curriculum in teaching their students Computer Applications I, a course in the Career and Technical Education Standard Course of Study, by fall 2011.

Bob Gantt, director of career and technical education for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools, said feedback about the program has been very positive so far from both teachers and students.

“Wherever possible, Guilford County Schools’ Career and Technical Education tries to provide our students with a learning experience that reflects current standards and practices in industry.  Certainly, this partnership allows us to do just that at a time when budgets are being reduced in many areas,” he said.

“The certification offered to students helps confirm to potential employers that a student’s skills meet a level of performance equal to those set by the industry.  The certification helps validate the level of understanding the student possesses for each area of study.  This validation increases the student’s marketability in an extremely competitive job market.  We feel it gives our students an edge as they seek either part-time or full-time employment.  Microsoft certification also provides benefits for our local employers, helping them identify candidates that possess proven skills and reducing the training required after employment,” he explained.

Some observers, however, have questioned whether it’s appropriate for a state’s public education system to provide instruction and certification around a single company’s technology.