Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Beyond conventional IT education

Indian IT industry got a boost when the US faced the Y2K problem in the last decade of the 20th century. This crea­t­ed an enormous necessity for graduates with expertise in information and communication technology skills. The department of electronics, wh­i­ch became operational in the late 70s, triggered teaching programmes by giving financial grants as well as academic support through creation of curricula at the po­st-graduate level in some universities. Other universities w­e­­re quick to appreciate the importance of launching graduate and postgraduate teaching programmes. In a few yea­rs, they initiated several engineering programs in IT and co­mputers and degree progra­mmes in computer science th­at attracted the best talented young minds. All these activities produced significant amo­unt of skilled human power in software as well as computer hardware. The quality of these graduates might be questionable but the IT industry had no complaints as they were helping them to be world leaders in the support service industry. Several universities, in the past two decades, have established independent computer science faculties. Tteachers, who were teaching pure m­a­thematics or physics/ el­ectr­onics, switched their lo­y­alties to computer science a­n­d technology. The IITs also lau­nched e­xclusive progra­mmes in co­m­­­p­uter science ed­ucation. In­dia became the hub for IT industry.
Now, in the 21st century, India is not just recognised as a haven for BPOs, KPOs and EPOs, but is moving up the value chain towards research and development (R&D) projects in sectors like IT, automobiles, bio-sciences, genetic engineering and pharmaceuticals, to develop new products to meet localised needs and global markets. This is reflected in the number of research and development centres that maj­or multi-national corporations (MNC) like Samsung, In­tel, AMD, Panasonic and Suzuki have, in the past few years, created in India. A study done in 2009, ‘R&D Globalisation — A China Perspective’, by Zinnov Management Consulting, reve­aled that China was home to ab­out 920 MNCs who have established 1,100 R&D cent­res, while the numbers for In­dia were significantly lower at 671 MNCs with 680 centres. Th­is scenario is now changing. At present, over 700 MNCs ha­ve R&D centres in India and more than 2 lakh engineering and computer science graduates are working in them. The rep­o­rt shows that the Indian cent­res are much ahead on the ov­erall maturity curve. With all the requisite processes in place and better talent, they are indeed well-positioned to take up more work in the overall R&D value chain as compared to Ch­ina. The India-advantage is at two levels; firstly there is immense intellectual power for carrying out research activities in a time-bound manner and secondly, there is the competitive cost of hiring talent. In the past few years, operating cost of R&D centres in India has gone up by 9 per cent but it is still 25 per cent lower than in China. Multinational companies with their R&D subsidiary centers in India will need to re-define th­eir approach towards globalisation over the next 12 months, according to a study conducted by Zinnov Management Consulting. The study titled ‘Compensation and Benefit Study 2010’, highlights that changes will happen in terms of controlled salary increments; cuts on campus hiring; increasing role for service providers and focus on tier II and tier III locations for non-core functions.
The challenges for India to remain at the forefront of research and development are manifold. We must realise th­at innovation, competency in handling complex problems and working at cutting edge te­chnology with a proven le­a­d­ership are going to be of importance in the future. The curricula, both for computer science and engineering in IT, need to be changed to meet the demands of R&D activities. The delivery methods ha­ve to be changed with blended education, wherein one sh­ould combine face-to-face education with e-learning objects. Teachers should use the virtual environment to bring real time experiences to students through interaction wi­t­h researchers working in R&D centres in India and abroad. Students should be encouraged to take up projects that are aligned to futuristic problems in various applications in emerging fields.
The teaching emphasis has moved away from memorising facts towards finding, evaluating and using information. Increasingly, we are seeing the following trends, directions and movements in teaching and learning. Now, course time is devoted to discovery-based (that is, inquiry-based, resource-based, project-ba­sed, and active) learning over traditional lecture modes of transmitting knowledge. The course content is predomina­ntly interdisciplinary, interdepartmental, and team-tau­ght; it is publicly accessible and sh­ared beyond the members of an individual course. Re­sea­rch and teaching are pe­rcei­ved as mutually enhancing ra­ther than antithetical. The research component has to be seamlessly integrated in the entire learning and underst­anding process. This is a new challenge for our teaching co­mmunity. But we must ac­cept it, mainly because th­ere is a larger advantage to the Indian IT industry. They wo­uld remain at the forefront of ch­ange in science & technology related to IT.

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