For effective IT education

Print edition : March 02, 2002

The course structure and teaching methods have to be overhauled in such a way that students develop into autonomous learners and acquire core capabilities that the workplace demands.

EDUCATIONAL choices in India after schooling are always dictated by the prevailing fads. The leading fad at any point of time could be medicine, engineering, commerce, management, electronics or biotechnology. Parents, the media and schools are, understandably, the chief contributors to this rat race. What is alarming, though, is that others, who should have been concerned with providing a stable environment in which students could pursue their natural talent (and ensure that there is a reasonable distribution of talent in a large variety of areas), are equally, if not more, culpable in this. These include the universities, the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Ministries concerned.

While one would like to defend a vision of India becoming a competitive industrial state in a decade or so, especially in view of its success in nuclear, space, information and biological technologies, this presumes that India will have a strong base of scientific and technical manpower, in terms of both quality and quantity. The existing situation in the educational system, however, does not justify such optimism.

The process of shifting the focus of research away from the universities to the then newly created national research laboratories started in the 1950s. Even at that time, voices against this movement, notably that of Professor M.N. Saha, were ignored. The universities were isolated from the place of work as well as from funds. An estimate in the late 1960s put the research expenditure per annum by an academic scientist at Rs.6,000. The corresponding figures for the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) were Rs.16,000, Rs.45,000 and Rs.72,000 respectively. In time the universities became institutions exclusively meant to produce teachers for the then expanding base of educational institutions. Research at universities, therefore, became purely academic and - owing to the enforced isolation - esoteric. What we are now witnessing is the terminal stage of this process, which makes universities irrelevant to society.

During the period before 1997 the university had a B.Sc. (Gen.) course with computer science as one of the disciplines.

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The opening up of the economy to external influences initiated a mushroom growth of "Vocational Courses" both in the universities and outside. This has, however, proved to be a cure worse than the disease. There are many reasons for this:

1. The university system, isolated as it is from the place of work, lacks the manpower and expertise to deliver these courses, especially as full three-year degree courses.

2. These are presented as terminal courses, not meant for top students. However, as these options are flaunted as "job-giving courses", primarily this group opts for them. The holding of entrance tests for these courses reinforces this perception.

3. An unintended side effect is the paucity of good students in the other, the so-called standard, disciplines in which the universities have both manpower and experience.

4. Wrong policies of the fund-givers: Since the 1970s the UGC has been liberally funding new disciplines, while being tight-fisted in even maintaining the standard ones. The limited funds have flown into the "job generating courses" at the cost of standard disciplines.

5. The UGC has arrogated to itself the mantle of designer of such courses. The liberal support promised for the controversial discipline of Vedic Astrology falls into this pattern of action.

6. The situation, financially and academically, is deeply de-motivating for teachers of standard disciplines, and this vitiates the learning environment further.

Thus it is this archaic notion of "vocationalisation" that has made the pursuit of sciences the last priority of students. We seem headed to a scenario, say in 2010, in which there would be jobs waiting to be done but no takers.

In 1995, the University of Delhi appointed a high-powered committee headed by Dr. Abid Hussain, with a brief to restructure the university radically to make it more job-oriented. Instead, the committee got sidetracked by the prevailing mindset into suggesting simplistic solutions such as starting new "job generating courses" within the existing framework. It ignored the warning that the major bottleneck in a proliferation of such three-year degree courses would be manpower. Out of several such courses that were suggested, the information technology (IT) courses were involved in the most serious controversies.

The IT bandwagon and its derailment have dominated news in the last few years. It started with the Y2K problem looming large on the industrial world. The problem was large in terms of the number of programs; most of them in what are now unfashionable programming languages, which had to be looked over with a fine-tooth comb for the use of the date. It was not a deeply technical problem for the most part. Thus anybody with an IT label was picked up by headhunters and all headed West, primarily to the United States where most of these programs were being used. By the end of 2000, with the problem over, most of these recruits were out on the road and heading for dotcoms or creating one, little realising that these were essentially commercial ventures and one had to have something or some service to sell and, alongside, commercial acumen. Thus a collapse was imminent and it arrived in due time.

HOW did the University of Delhi react to the situation? In 1997, it started two new courses: B.Sc.(Hons) in Computer Science and BCA, for a limited number of students (around 100). The university, however, buckled under pressure from students, colleges and parents and kept increasing the number of seats every year. The perception given by the media had a very important role to play in the building of these pressures. The growth has been really explosive (Table 1), far beyond the rate of growth of the employment market.

To be fair, the UGC played no role in this explosive increase. It was the Ministry of Information Technology (MIT) that kept on harping on the need to augment facilities for training in information technology, mainly to carve out a large share in the projected worldwide IT job market. One could argue whether investment in exporting manpower deserved to be accorded the highest priority by the MIT.

A study done before the IT meltdown has estimated the fractional requirement of personnel in various categories of pay packets in 2008 and determined that most of the manpower needs will be in the lower brackets (Table 2). The study was based on the projected expenditure in 2008 by the IT industry ($87 billion) and the predicted manpower demand (two million jobs).

At the University of Delhi most of the time has been spent in creating the physical infrastructure. One has not even started handling the major bottleneck of manpower training. In fact, the number of teachers available on any sort of a stable basis is only 0.8 per college as against a requirement of six to teach 75 students in three different years of a three-year degree course.

The university has had to cut down drastically the number of colleges offering IT courses; and these will now admit students only for the B.Sc.(Hons) Computer Science course. Unfortunately, the major problem of the shortfall in teachers has not yet been addressed. The course also remains loaded in favour of subjects directly related to Computer Science, compared with the course in any Indian Institute of Technology, where the faculty is much larger and better trained. Success might yet elude this programme.

Finally, one should realise that the 2,243 students admitted last year will come out only in 2003, and that too under-trained. The majority of them formed the cream of school-leaving students in their batch. One is thus forced to ask the question: Are we being fair to them?

THE main problem here is that a system with a long response time, the university, is sought to be linked to one with a very short reaction time, the market. Our commitment to fixed three-year degrees, coupled with delays in getting courses framed and passed in the academic bodies, will clearly determine the lag. This lag, from the perception of the need to the first students arriving in the market, is at least five years. The market, on the other hand, with state-of-the-art communications, can react faster than in a year. As any system theorist can vouch for, this is a situation which is all set for uncontrolled oscillations.

The second problem is that college education does not promote qualities such as learning to work in a group, investigating an issue, or communicating with one's peers or a larger group orally or in the written form. It does nothing to enable one to learn to acquire and process information from a variety of sources, which is so important in today's IT-dominated world. Even traditional "science" skills such as observation, analysis of data, estimation and learning to make accurate measurements are not really tested.

Science education in the college today seeks to promote the acquisition of fixed, domain-based knowledge, which employers do not care about. It does nothing for qualities such as the ability to communicate and cooperate, which are in demand. No wonder students feel that college science education is irrelevant.

Clearly, the whole picture of university education needs a change. The Centre for Science Education and Communication (CSEC) at the University of Delhi has been working on an alternative for the last few years as a way out of this dilemma. It supports the concept of having linkages between institutions, which may be in different sectors.

A major initiative for restructuring the undergraduate science curriculum is currently under discussion in the University of Delhi. The thrust of the initiative is to:

* Build flexibility into the curriculum without having too many programmes;

* Integrate the use of IT in the curriculum so as to make every student IT-aware;

* Provide a flavour of the workplace to every student, according to her/his aptitude;

* Promote cooperation by introducing group work; and

* Help students develop communication skills. The main features of this scheme are:

1. Mainstreaming of skills in the early stages. The goal of an IT-enabled society can be realised only if all students, not merely a select few, go through programmes with an IT thrust, so that they emerge as informed users of technology. The university intends to use this year-long slot to enable students to learn to work in teams of four or five and use IT and electronics. The work will always be grounded in the context of the science subjects that they will be learning.

2. Strong disciplinary base in the intermediate stage. This time slot of three semesters will be used to cover almost the entire content of the present honours courses. This slot is bigger than it appears, as there is only one subject to cover.

3. A full-time connection with the workplace/environment in the terminal stage. The space for possible training in a specific technology should be provided for in the last semester of a three-year degree programme; this temporal compression would reduce drastically the system's reaction time. Spatial compression achieved by allowing students to enrol for the final semester at any college, irrespective of their parent college, would make more economic use of the infrastructure and manpower. Thus each training course needs to run in only one college, with a manageable number of students. Different colleges can provide a variety of professional courses, each serving a small group of students and managed by a small faculty. Their partner institutions in industry laboratories and so on could support them in planning, training and actual teaching.

The dream behind this restructuring is the creation of a student body that is broad-based in its foundation, open in its interaction and variable in its skill profile. Since the aims are quite different from those of the current B.Sc. programmes, mere updating of the syllabi will not do. What is needed is a radical overhaul of the course structure, teaching methodology and examination system. Every student must develop into an autonomous learner, because only then can he or she cope with the workplace demands of a knowledge-based society.

A university that is open to society may be a risky proposition, but the alternative is the status quo with its attendant instability. Are the planners and thinkers in human resource development, the Ministry, the UGC, the AICTE, the universities, and the academics at large ready to take this risk?

Prof. P.K. Srivastava is a former Professor of Physics, Delhi University, who is now Director, Centre for Science Education and Communication (CSEC), Delhi University.

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