Are our engineering labs stifled by proprietary software?
The lack of employability of our engineering graduates has been a pet peeve of the IT industry. Its discourse, however — often limited to soft skills and communication — has not emphasised enough on the technical quality of engineers.
Experts point out that seven out of 10 engineering graduates can barely write their own code. Why is it that four years of technological training does not breed the kind of innovation that comes out of the IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) or the IISc. (Indian Institute of Science)? Universities, that have for long harped on industry-academia partnerships, have failed to find an answer. While industry-academia partnerships have brought with it a focus on jobs, and have given colleges a perspective on what the offshoring-heavy industry wants, fostering innovation has not been atop its priority list.
At a panel discussion on including Free Software in the engineering curriculum, held at the convention on “Free Software in Research and Training”, academics and researchers reflected on what ails the system. While the debate focussed on the Visvesvaraya Technological University, the largest technical varsity in the State, panellists also partook in a discussion on how Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) can play an important role in helping cross this barrier. The convention was organised by the Free Software Movement of Karnataka, in collaboration with REVA Engineering College.
The VTU's engineering syllabus — like most State universities — has practical lab work dominated by proprietary software, a lot of them outdated. The course mandates and recommends the use of several proprietary tools: be it incorporating a case study in Oracle in the Data Base Management Studies subject paper, or forcing students to learn .NET or Visual Basic, or narrowing the Operating Systems subjects to studying the general structure of MSDOS and Windows 2000.
Prabodh C.P., faculty at PES College of Engineering, points out that proprietary tools have stifled most engineering labs. “The syllabus must only mention the technology, not the tools. Most institutions still use obsolete compilers such as Turbo C, built for 16 bit machines, instead of GCC, a Free and technically superior compiler.”
Affiliate colleges, some of which have wanted to opt for FOSS labs to save money (here the “free beer” part becomes important, as opposed to “free speech”, to quote the famous Richard Stallman metaphor), are unable to. Even the All India Council for Technical Education recently inked an MoU with proprietary firms Microsoft and AutoDesk for free licences of their tools, a deal that was heavily criticised by Free Software activists. VTU too had inked a similar deal with Microsoft in 2009.
But why is it important that GNU/Linux ware be part of engineering labs? It's obvious, says K. Gopinath, IISc. professor and ardent FOSS advocate. “Our research labs use no proprietary tools. Because without access to code, there's no learning.” Free software — that offers the freedom to run, copy, study, change and improve — is critical here.
As C.R. Venugopal, Chairman, Board of Studies for Electronics, VTU, puts it, with proprietary software, you're just operating one layer above the operating system. “They know the functions (open, run or close a file), but not how the system makes this happen,” he says, adding that in the U.S., courses emphasise on the systems side. Engineers today are closer to technicians, believes Prof. Gopinath. Courses have their minds set on jobs, not learning. . “If you're simply operating the tools given, you're not an engineer.” An engineer must tinker; only FOSS tools allow students to play with code, understand it and then build on his (or her) own, he emphasises.