FIRM SAYS NEW IT COURSES MEET NEEDS OF INDUSTRY

Stirring the calm waters of IT education

COMPANIES in Slovakia often complain about a disconnect between the country’s academia and the needs of its business sector. This is even more of a preoccupation in IT given the furious pace of development in this sector. But the situation could improve following the launch earlier this year by Indian firm Aptech Limited of the Aptech computer education centre in Bratislava. While it remains to be seen what kind of IT specialists it generates – and in what numbers – its ambition is to bridge the much-lamented gap between education and the workplace. Moreover, the courses being offered by the new centre may prompt universities to look again at their own offerings.

COMPANIES in Slovakia often complain about a disconnect between the country’s academia and the needs of its business sector. This is even more of a preoccupation in IT given the furious pace of development in this sector. But the situation could improve following the launch earlier this year by Indian firm Aptech Limited of the Aptech computer education centre in Bratislava. While it remains to be seen what kind of IT specialists it generates – and in what numbers – its ambition is to bridge the much-lamented gap between education and the workplace. Moreover, the courses being offered by the new centre may prompt universities to look again at their own offerings.

Aptech arrived in Slovakia in 2008 and opened its first courses here this month.

“We at Aptech Europe could see a distinct vacuum between what the academics were offering and what the IT industry’s needs were,” Owen Fernandes, managing director of Aptech Europe in Bratislava, told The Slovak Spectator as he explained the company’s decision to launch its centre in Bratislava. “To bridge the gap between the two, it was necessary to offer alternative educational programmes. Thus the idea of providing vocational training sprung up, as a type of lifelong learning programme which benefits both sectors and fills in the gap.”

Aptech already has 24 years of IT training and educational experience, and more than 5 million students in 36 countries across 5 continents. Aptech Europe is the first Aptech franchisee in Europe. In Bratislava Aptech offers its ACCP (Aptech Certified Computer Professional) courses in addition to other corporate services.

ACCP is a 2-year programme in IT in English. It is a comprehensive course equipping the student with advanced programming knowledge to build enterprise solutions, and is based upon a strong foundation of conceptual knowledge, the company said. ACCP graduates can seek advanced entry into the City University of Seattle’s Bachelor of Science in Information Systems (BSIS) degree programme, which can be pursued either online or on-campus in Slovakia and in the US, and can complete their BSIS degree within 6 quarters (1.5 years) after completing ACCP.

Apart from the ACCP programme, Aptech’s training portfolio also includes short-term courses focusing on core technologies, widely used applications, soft skills, PMP training, multi-media courses, and customised programmes for companies, governments and individuals.

Fernandes sees the response from students as being very good, but adds that “unfortunately, since we are a private organisation, we need to charge students for our course offerings to meet our expenses”.

The aim of Aptech is not to attract huge numbers of students for commercial gain, but to train and educate a select few and send them into the IT industry, Fernandes says.

“We are facing challenges to [create] the mindset that one needs to invest in one’s education to stand a chance of a better career prospect in a dynamic and sensitive world economy,” he said.

Aptech Europe is targeting only 60 students to start with and each group is restricted to only 10 to 15.

“We have students from China, Egypt, South Korea, Cyprus, Greece, Tunisia and India who have shown an interest in joining our programme in Slovakia,” he said. “Our programme has attracted their attention as we have linked up with City University of Seattle, offering them direct high-level entry into its Bachelor of Science in Information Systems degree programme. So for them it is study in Europe, and with that they also get an American degree.”

Aptech has grand ambitions for Europe.

“We would like to build from here, spreading into nearby countries in this region,” said Fernandes. “Our short-term vision is to open a branch in Košice and then move to Prague, Brno and Ostrava [in the Czech Republic]. We are looking for partners who share the same vision with us and we are already working on it. Thinking ahead, we see good potential in Poland, Romania, and Hungary, and also in some other new EU member states.”



Views from academia and the workplace



The Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Informatics at the Comenius University perceives the opening of the Aptech centre in Bratislava as a welcome opportunity for students of informatics to gain extensive practical experience in a particular new technology. It is a useful extension for current students and an opportunity for past graduates to get acquainted with new technology in a rapidly changing field. But the training programmes at Aptech are certainly not genuine competition for a university education, the faculty said.

“It is necessary to realise the difference between university education and courses, even those that are long-term,” Dana Pardubská, associate professor at the university’s Department of Computer Science told The Slovak Spectator. “A student needs to spend 5,000 to 10,000 hours of work to successfully cover the five-year master’s study at the university. Thus, short-term courses lasting some tens of hours cannot provide an equivalent education.”

Pardubská notes that the courses at Aptech focus on specific technologies and will serve to provide more IT skills to people who do not have a university education in computer science, adding that such courses can serve as a useful addition to students’ university education.

“On the other hand, the existence of such a programme is another impetus for universities,” Pardubská said. “It is necessary to ponder the concept of post-graduate (lifelong) education. Change in informatics is so rapid that those who graduated some time ago, as well as people working in the informatics field who do not have any academic education, would welcome the opportunity to learn about new developments in the field and to update their knowledge.”

According to Vladimír Šikura from the IT Association of Slovakia (ITAS), it is too early to assess the impact of the arrival of Aptech in Slovakia and it will be necessary to wait and see what kind of experts, and how many of them, Aptech Europe generates. Nevertheless, Šikura sees continuing education in IT after graduation from university as essential.

“The development in IT is so dynamic that any ‘sleeping’ by an expert results in his stagnation in his specialisation,” Šikura told The Slovak Spectator. He added that IT companies often have educational centres in which they systematically educate their employees. He cites as an example the Slovak company Soitron, which has been educating its workers via a controlled process for over 15 years. “Therefore I regard lifelong education in IT as a debt which should be settled.”



Academic versus practical knowledge



Pardubská said the interconnection between academia and practical knowledge or experience is perceived differently by companies and universities.

“From the viewpoint of most IT positions, an ideal graduate will have mastered concrete systems and tools used in that company,” said Pardubská, adding that such a worker can be replaced if technology changes. “But having such an education alone would be only a short-term investment for students. Moreover, each company has specific and often varied requirements in a certain period of time. Thus university education is always a compromise between the immediate needs of an employer and the long-term interests of a graduate.”

Šikura agrees that there will always be a conflict between what schools want to teach students and what companies need.

“This is also because practice requires a higher and higher rate of specialisation and schools, on the contrary, have to provide a universal education,” Šikura said.

According to Pardubská, the traditional philosophy of IT education at the Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Informatics is preparing quality master’s and doctoral graduates who, with their strong theoretical knowledge, have the required flexibility to be competitive in the labour market, and also in an environment of changing technologies. Along with this, the goal of the university is to provide its graduates with fundamental knowledge of the latest technologies, enabling them to quickly adapt to the specific needs of any company.

The faculty cooperates with employers to accomplish this, according to Pardubská.

“Universities and industry do not have a one-way relationship,” Pardubská said, adding that the faculty successfully cooperates with experts from companies who deliver lectures or lead seminars at the university. They also serve as supervisors when students are preparing their bachelor’s and master’s theses.

Šikura would welcome greater interconnections between secondary schools and universities, and the workplace, so as to better prepare IT graduates and possibly reduce companies’ costs in training them once they are hired.

“The current situation is that IT companies, if they do not substitute [universities’ role entirely], at least fulfil a considerable part of this task,” Šikura said. “Targeted and managed cooperation with IT companies would bring both sides, as well as students, win-win effects.”

Šikura cites as an example the initiative of Cisco Systems and its Cisco Networking Academy programme.

“Thanks to this programme the opportunities for secondary schools and universities to provide specialised education have widened,” Šikura said. “I have to say that the positive contribution of this programme in Slovakia in the case of IT graduates is very visible.”


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