Sunday, November 21, 2004

IT Education : Time for a Radical Change

IT is an acronym for what many people consider to be the path to more money, a better career or land at the highest echelons of the social circle. Judging by the existence of various round-the- corner IT institutes in various localities of Karachi, demand for an IT education seems to know of no limits. The abundance of institutes and universities offering courses in the various disciplines of IT is often used to assess Pakistan's relative strength in this area. However, we fail to realize it is the quality of education and not its quantity that would actually determine Pakistan's place in the field of IT.

Information Technology (IT) refers to the various means to facilitate the collection, transmittal and storage of information. The most common means for information processing is the use of computers. However, it would be a huge mistake to equate IT with computer sciences. In fact, this mistake has often been made by some of our IT gurus. The American Heritage Dictionary defines technology as, "the application of science." Hence, an accountant managing the ledger books is just as involved with IT as a network engineer. However, since a computer makes the processing of information rather easier, IT has become linked to computers. This article discusses the state of IT education in Pakistan and how we can improve our chances to out-compete IT monsters like India and China.

Unfortunately, the state of IT education in Pakistan is pathetic. The principle problem is the obsolete material that is taught by most of the universities in Pakistan. Instead of a curriculum that would prepare the students for the future, most of the courses fail to adequately address the needs of even the present. A student pursuing a computer science program is offered a preliminary course in the C language. However, the days of C language are numbered and its scope is quickly fading out. With the extreme penetration of Internet and use of mobile devices, the curriculum should instead focus on technologies that would enable production on such medium. Preferably, the curriculum should include Java language as an introductory course followed by courses in the .NET Framework.

However, this is not to say that the entire syllabus is out of sync. Although, universities do offer courses that are in line with the industry's demands, such courses are not industry or business oriented. Most of these advanced courses fail to impart the analytical skills.

Just like the construction of a building is based on a blueprint design, the construction of an information system and all its components (including the software) also requires careful planning and designing. The lack of adequate analysis and design skills has left us far behind our neighboring IT giant, India. Most of the IT projects outsourced to India are those that require analytical skills. Unfortunately, the curriculum in Pakistan emphasizes more on the programming side of things, rather than the design. It is not the shortage of programmers but of people with analytical and design skills that has slowed our growth. To fill this gap, universities must include courses that can help the students build their analytical and conceptual skills. Business administration courses can help, especially courses related to finance and economics. This integration of business education with computer science and engineering should be a priority for the government and schools offering professional degrees.
The teaching methodology also deserves some remarks. Teaching a course in the classroom and flipping through the PowerPoint slides is a tactic that needs to be eliminated for good. Instead, teachers should adopt creative ways to impart knowledge. Teachers need to find ways to make the students learn by using the means that they love; for example Internet chatting. Internet chatting is quite an addiction worldwide. The technology also supports voice chatting and video conferencing. Using Voice and Internet chat, students can easily be taught communication skills, customer service skills, skills required to run a call center, etc. All chatting is not bad and using MSN as a teacher's aid would increase the students' interest, and consequently the level of motivation, in the course.

With the advent of video conferencing, holding classes over the Net has become a reality. Why not arrange for that extra session on a Sunday over the Internet, rather than asking the students to commute to the university. Since attendance is usually short during these extra weekend sessions, distance learning might be just the cure. Besides, making the students aware of video conferencing and chat etiquette is just as important as teaching them conventional manners, because professional careers would require the IT graduates to make the most of these technologies.

This training to use the latest technologies is also needed to tap into the outsourcing opportunities provided to South Asia by the corporations of the West. According to a research conducted by Gartner Group and IDC, about 80% of the IT based projects would have been outsourced by the year-end. Unfortunately, Pakistan is not part of the statistics and is seldom the location of preference for any major project. Although outsourcing has solutions to some of the most sought after macroeconomic problems such as employment and poverty, the IT curriculum in Pakistan remains oblivious of such global trends.

Another major problem lies in the editions of the textbooks that are used. Most of the universities prefer to use outdated editions even though revised editions are easily available in the market. Most of us are aware of the exponential pace of technological changes, yet the students still using editions published in the late 1990's. Although this situation holds true for many of the other disciplines, it has greater consequences for students enrolled in a technology-based curriculum. In fact, the very use of obsolete material fades the purpose of IT - IT required Information to be relevant and timely.

Apart from the traditional classroom instruction, IT education is also promoted through electronic media. The media, which is most often credited with having the potential to mass educate and bring about societal changes, has failed to bring about any substantial changes or IT awareness amongst the masses. We cannot reasonably expect the entire Pakistani population to benefit from any educational program as long as the channels continue to use English as the medium of broadcast.

The education system is quite unique from the IT perspective. Information Technology education is actually a subsystem of a system that also includes (besides schools) ISP's, Internet, VPN's, and utilities such as the telecommunications (PTCL) and electrical (KESC and WAPDA) agencies. We are all well aware of the problems experienced while browsing the Internet. We have all faced poor bandwidth, connection problems and disconnection. It is high time that the government takes measurable efforts to revamp the infrastructure that is so crucial in developing an information based society. Without an extreme overhaul of the facilities, the IT graduates cannot produce substantial gains. The system must be changed. There is no way out.

First it was the Industrial Revolution now it is the Information Technology Revolution. The way that information has penetrated into all parts of our life and, inevitably, would continue to do so is remarkable. A revolution brings about changes in a nation's socioeconomic structure, which the IT seems to be doing. However, instead of embracing it as a revolutionary force and implementing it in all walks of life, IT has become akin to a fad for most of us. Fads come and go while revolutions almost always bring about some positive change. Introducing a radial change in our educational system is the only way to bring about this positive change.

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