The article ‘Is IT enough, what about basic sciences?' (The Hindu, Open Page, March 6) brought to the fore the contentious issue that IT is responsible for the skewed one-dimensional development of the country. The author makes a sweeping statement that the IT industry has equated the education-deficit of engineering students with “soft” skills. As a practitioner of IT for four decades, I have been crying from rooftops about the “hard” skill deficit — abstraction, synthesis, innovation, application of open-ended knowledge, criteria for good design, multi-disciplinary domain skills and so on. These are as much relevant to traditional branches of science and engineering as to IT.
The traditional branches of science and engineering have a well understood Body of Knowledge evolved over centuries. Hence there is a common understanding on expectation levels among educator, student and employer. Being still a nascent discipline, IT is still to evolve a universally acceptable common body of knowledge. There is a wide disparity even among employers what to expect of a “software engineer.” Same is the case with the academia. Until a common consensus develops, the industry has to normalise the knowledge of students educated at different universities and map them to their own requirements. Some IT companies achieve this by investing in training the raw graduates while some other companies pass the buck and responsibility to the academia.
The charter of a formal educational institution is much nobler and broader than manufacturing billable-from-day-one manpower for the IT industry. They should focus on knowledge of permanent value and resist “teaching” fleeting skills. It is unfortunate that some colleges have chosen to degenerate themselves into skill teaching shops. IT is the only department that “teaches” specific products of specific companies as part of their syllabus. Placement record is a marketing parameter for self-financing colleges. They cannot afford to antagonise the IT industry which recruits in large numbers. The gullible parents do not understand that the placements have happened not because of the college but rather in spite of it!
It cannot be denied that soft skills are necessary for every profession. All job advertisements irrespective of the sector demand communication skills and ability to work in teams. They form the core behavioural and attitudinal development of the student and in fact should begin at school. Credit is due to the IT industry for bringing the deficiency into focus, albeit with a disproportionate dose.
What is taught is far less relevant than how it is taught. The syllabus need not reflect the latest trends unless there is a paradigm shift and paradigm shifts do not happen every year. In order to produce employable graduates for every sector of the industry we need pedagogical changes in every branch of study. The subject thread should run through the entire course instead of being dissected into artificial modules to suit administrative convenience. The evaluation should not be open ended but focus on application of theory.
The project teams should start work from the second semester onwards and comprise students from across disciplines. In this peer learning process, core engineering students learn the necessary IT skills and the IT students acquire some core domain knowledge. I have case studies of colleges across the globe that have incorporated these ideas in their pedagogy and produced top-notch students, not all of them for IT.
(The writer is Vice President (retd.) Tata Consultancy Services.
His email is narayanan.makham @gmail.com)