Keep IT curriculums aligned with industry

A "holistic and multifaceted" curriculum development may let graduates enter the workforce with relevant knowledge and skills.

Developing curriculums that are holistic and multifaceted can ensure IT graduates enter the workforce with knowledge and skills that are in sync with the fast-moving and highly-dynamic industry.

Associate Professor Ashraf Kassim, vice dean of academic affairs at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Faculty of Engineering, said a curriculum needs to be developed from a "holistic point of view".

"You cannot change just one thing and one module or one course, and [leave it as that]," Ashraf said, in a phone interview with ZDNet Asia. "What you have to do is to develop it in a holistic manner."

He explained that this might even involve making changes to the curriculum at the foundation level. For instance, schools need to think about and identify "what kinds of science--[physics, chemistry or computing]--topics you need today, that you didn't need yesterday".

Ashraf added that the NUS "constantly evolves" its curriculum to ensure students are prepared for new technology areas that may emerge in the IT industry.

Curriculum development is "taken very seriously", he said, and is not under the purview of "just an individual". He noted that committees were formed to look specifically at curriculum development.

"They look at [various forms of] information, [such as] what's taking place in the research domain, what's taking place in the industry, and so on," he said.

Apart from looking at curriculum development in a holistic way, Ashraf said that "small, specialized committees" may also be formed to review the topics that are taught in classrooms.

These committees would identify the types of courses that prepare students who specialize in intelligent machines, for example. "You need a committee that will think things through, [even though] they may take quite a while, and study other programs [or] visit research labs," he said.

Multiple stakeholders
According to Ashraf, curriculum development is "multifaceted", where there are lots of activities initiated from ground up.

The NUS "interacts with industries and other agencies" through programs such as industrial attachments, so its students are exposed to new technologies, he said. "[There are] lots of elements so we're not in a vacuum, so to speak."

Ashraf said: "For your graduate to be viable, you need to know the demands of the industry."

Engineering graduates, in particular, "have to be very relevant, otherwise [the] industry won't hire them", he said. "You need to produce people who can basically be able to not just function, but also be very highly productive in this new industry."

At Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore's second oldest university, maintaining close ties with commercial industries worldwide and understanding the expectations of graduates have also helped ensure the relevance of its curriculum.

Associate Professor Seah Hock Soon, chair of NTU's School of Computer Engineering (SCE), said: "By studying what industries need, we enhance our graduates' marketability among employers. Our curriculums are continuously reviewed and fine-tuned to cater to changes in the environment."

"The SCE's strengths lie in constantly maintaining industrial relevance in its training of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as pioneering innovative cutting-edge research," Seah said, in an e-mail interview.

In addition, the NTU's academic committee ensures that SCE students undergo professional training and acquire practical skills that are valued by the employers, he said.

For instance, students under the university's Global Immersion Program (GIP) "will have the opportunity to develop an edge in their career, build a global network and achieve significant personal development by spending a semester abroad". Seah added that the university's Industrial Attachment (IA) module "serves to supplement NTU's education and training, as well as to instill students with the right kind of work attitude and work professionalism".

Ashraf noted that academic staff also have a role to play in ensuring its curriculum remain relevant. Professors who work or conduct research in IT-related "cutting-edge areas" can contribute to the curriculum as they "know what is in the horizon", he said. Universities can then "evolve their higher-level courses and projects to ensure that they are up-to-date", he added.

Academics from the University of New South Wales Asia (UNSW Asia) also "play an active role in curriculum development and [ensuring that courses are in] keeping with international developments", said Arcot Sowmya, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, and dean of Engineering Science and Technology at the UNSW Asia campus in Singapore.

"UNSW Asia also encourages strong industry links and research collaborations, which in turn feed the curriculum," Arcot told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview. "[In addition], a twelve-week industrial attachment is a core requirement of all our engineering degrees, and students are encouraged to find placements in relevant industries."