Twin Challenges of Engineering Education: Stay Relevant and Remain Attractive
Kochi: Technical Education sector in Kerala is passing through a crucial period of transformation as more high-end global technology giants are coming forward to invest in the State’s IT ecosystem, mainly eyeing its ‘vastly promising skilled talent pool’.
Talking about the scope of automation that’s drastically altering the industry profile, Fariba Rawhani, CIO, Teranet, which recently opened its Off-shore Development Centre (ODC) at Technopark, says: “Our workforce in Canada is not trained in Robotic Process Automation (RPA). If we can source the right talents in Kerala, we could open more centres of technology here.” But is RPA going to be added to the list of buzzwords like Big Data, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Blockchain and so on? As a matter of fact, the debate on whether or not there is hype around Blockchain as an efficient data network is still rife on the internet.
Engineering education in Kerala is at the crossroads. It is facing twin challenges; the fall in the number of candiates opting various engineering courses and an urgent need to revamp the curriculum with a strong focus on new-age technologies. Here is an attempt to analyse how effectively the stakeholders, particularly the academia, are addressing these issues
Recently, Abhilash R, CEO of B-Hub, a popular co-working space in Thiruvananthapuram, wrote in social media about his interaction with some final-year college students: “Some students came to the B-Hub last week for doing their final-year project in Blockchain/AI. They said the college had made it compulsory.” Startups looking for seed funds, mentors and investors, too, aren’t reportedly very different from these kinds of colleges which are getting carried away and arbitrarily embracing such ‘trendy’ technologies.
On the other hand, sincere efforts are also being made by institutions like ICT Academy of Kerala (ICTAK) located at Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram by starting a fresh course in RPA on the lines of recent initiatives like Accelerated Blockchain Development (ABCD) program. ICTAK decided to start the eight-week course following feedback from the global IT industry. When asked if Blockchain is an overrated technology, Santhosh Kurup, CEO, ICTAK said: “With the launch of ABCD program, we have taken a chance. We will have to make such leaps of faith as ICTAK is an academic institution which seeks to bridge the skill gap between students and the industry. In the worst-case scenario, students may not land a job in Kerala, but can definitely find good slots in Chennai or Bengaluru.”
According to successful entrepreneurs, mentors and investors, the key to meaningful technological innovation lies in attempts to solve ‘real-world problems’. While it is true that there is a clamour for including industry-oriented technology training in formal higher education curriculums, will the experiments with technologies, unwittingly reducing them to the level of a fad, help private institutions in making students more employable and, thereby underscoring the relevance of large number of private engineering colleges? Another question which one can’t overlook in this context is how informed and educated are the tutors of these technical education institutions to assess and evaluate the inputs from students which are based on these new technologies?
Introduction of new technologies to undergraduates, according to experienced tutors in the domain, can happen only outside the present curriculum adopted by the universities.
“Fundamentally, there are two issues the students pursuing technical education are facing at present. Engineers are supposed to be problem-solvers. However, many of them aren’t even able to identify the problems let alone solve them. Further, they need to have the skills to solve the problems, which again are lacking. Besides, the curriculum which is not regularly updated fails to address these two basic issues. So we motivate and help students to put their university exam papers like ‘Sustainable Engineering’, ‘Design and Engineering’, ‘Life Skills’ and ‘Design Project’ to use by indentifying their respective final-year project which is expected to be addressing and solving a problem. When students study these papers in the initial years of the course, they should ideally be able to figure out the problem which they would be solving through his/her final-year project,” says Arun J S, Assistant Professor, Department of Electronics and Communication, Mar Baselios College of Engineering and Technology (MBCET).
According to Arun, who is also the Nodal Officer of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Cell (IEDC) under Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM), learning new-age technologies like AI, ML or Blockchain will not be easy for inexperienced engineering students who do not have prior learning experience. “We give prior training to students in order to take them to a stage from where they can start learning AI or ML through skill development programs. However, those engineering students who don’t have a computer science background are the ones who face difficulty while learning these technologies because coding is the key to learning them. So we bridge that gap by giving them training in ‘C’ starting from first year,” Arun says about the training methodology followed at MBCET.
Meanwhile, members of engineering faculty suggest that colleges, especially those in the self-finance sector, are not equipped with faculties who are well versed in upcoming technologies. “The State Government is keen on training the trainers in upcoming technologies. However, such efforts have not yet started yielding results primarily due to the flaws in the framing of training material,” a senior engineering faculty of a self-financing engineering college in Thiruvananthapuram, who preferred anonymity, said.
Most colleges do not have faculty members who can do qualitative work independently. Faced with a situation wherein there is a surfeit of engineering colleges, many college managements try to survive competition by ‘staying relevant’ by playing up new-age technologies and focussing on filling seats somehow. Often the new generation college faculties have to deal with students who are not particularly groomed for engineering education. “It is a herculean task to help prepare such students for writing university exams. Against this backdrop, if the college authorities also insist the students to take up subjects like AI, ML or Blockchain, it will definitely be counterproductive,” the tutor says.
The pattern of engineering courses has gradually transformed into an outcome-based education wherein students are expected to come up with solutions to specific problems. The AICTE has laid down 12 attributes of a successful engineering graduate. Engineering education is supposed to transform a Plus-two candidate into a complete engineering graduate by nurturing in him or her all the 12 attributes by the time he or she comes out of the four-year programme.
Outcome-Based Learning Process
Rajasree M S, Vice Chancellor, APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University, says that academic institutions should inculcate specific qualities in students during the course. Ability to think creatively and out of the textbook, problem-solving capabilities, capacity to analyse complex problems, ability to identify the tools to solve problems, willingness to function as an engineer for society, financial management capabilities and life-long learning mentality are some of the key qualities of an engineering graduate, avers the Vice Chancellor.
Immersive association of academia with companies is widely considered as better way to prepare students for the industry. There are a large number of issues to be addressed in the world and companies should bring the problems they work on to campuses and collaborate with students and academia, Rajasree says. “Students will be able to look at the problems holistically,” she adds. “Some companies associate with academia and students to work on real-world problems. That will help provide the students with a framework which enables them to work straight away on the problem and come up with solutions. During classroom practical sessions, students will not be able to get a larger picture of the problem. It is only when they work on real problems, which cut across several realms and have wider ramifications, will they be able to get a broader picture on how to go about solving them.
According to the Vice Chancellor, brilliant research works are published round the year. However, she points out, the gap between the application of research findings and the real-world problems could not be bridged due to stringent policies followed by academic institutions. “It means that as long as academicians are able to simultaneously engage in their work, research and initiatives to back entrepreneurial initiatives, startups will flourish on college campuses,” she said.
AICTE Cracks the Whip
All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) has observed that the number of vacant seats in engineering colleges for BTech courses has been increasing considerably in Kerala in the past three years. A data obtained from the APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University shows that the vacant seats in private self-financing colleges have increased from 19,468 in 2015-16 to 20,088 in 2016-17 and further to 22,819 in 2017-18.
“It is evident from the current statistics obtained that engineering colleges in the State are finding it difficult to fill all the seats in different branches sanctioned. With the current market-friendly policies and programmes, the technical education sector in India is drastically being transformed into a commercial business activity. Large number of engineering institutions has mushroomed in almost every State in the country during the last decade,” says a report published by AICTE in 2018, adding that it is imperative “to establish a strong regulatory mechanism to draw a directional path so as to enable overall improvement in the quality of teaching and learning process.”
AICTE, in its report, also recommended undertaking of measures by colleges in the State to improve the quality of education offered by each institution as per the advice of an expert body.