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Broad Courses and Specialized Courses: Two Sides of the Same Coin

By Dr. Shampa Chakraverty, Head of Department - Computer Engineering, NSIT, Delhi | Friday, 22 Jul 2016, 09:07 IST

While specialized courses aim to make students more industry ready, courses that focus on core concepts are also important as they provide a firm foundation upon which innovative and creative ideas are continuously built. This is absolutely essential in order to sustain innovation in society. One needs to strike a considered balance between courses that impart core concepts and specialized courses.  

True, many institutions offer grossly limited specialized courses, either due to an outdated curriculum or due to lack of capable faculty. Either way, students gradually lose interest in the discipline and their initial enthusiasm to learn and apply discipline-centric knowledge wanes. On the other hand, many institutions have randomly incorporated specialized courses at a very early stage in their programs simply to follow the trend and create an impression of being industry oriented. This is equally dangerous as it may lead to water tight compartmentalization of our potential workforce and harm their long term employability.  Institutions need to revamp all programs of higher study to incorporate a healthy dose of core courses that cover fundamental concepts and augment them with a much wider range of choices among specialized elective courses than are currently being offered.    

However, updating a curriculum is a fairly complex process involving multiple stages of deliberation and coordination among several stakeholders.  In some universities, especially those that focus on specific domains of knowledge such as technical universities, this task is carried out centrally and the affiliated institutions adopt the changed curriculum. Over the years, well-established universities have streamlined their processes. With recently stipulated stringent accreditation requirements, all institutions and universities are expected to comply.   

Both programs with very few specialized courses and programs that replace broad-based courses with specialized ones without adequate thought have a deleterious effect on employability. At the end of graduation, students find themselves at sea with neither a firm hold on basic concepts nor an expertise in any specialized area. Institutions must strive to avoid both these pitfalls. The issue of employability must be seen in a holistic manner. Institutions of higher learning have a wide vision for society and aim to produce graduates who may join various industries or enter into research and teaching or become entrepreneurs. Therefore it is neither desirable nor possible to cater to a particular segment that may demand specialized training for inducting fresh graduates.

Currently, all institutions suffer from a severe crunch of motivated faculty who can be engaged for specialized courses, more so in engineering disciplines.  Institutions engage guest faculty from the industry, retired professors who had served in premier institutions, adjunct faculty, visiting faculty and even research associates who can pitch in to fill this gap to some extent. Also, free web-based online courses on a variety of generic and specialized subjects are available such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), India’s National Program for Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) courses and Coursera. Students and teachers enthusiastically enroll in these courses to boost knowledge and participate in a barrier-less educational environment.

There is a long way to go as many more teachers are needed at the entry level with the drive to usher in innovative styles of teaching and a desire to keep themselves up-to-date with current knowledge.  With improved salaries and raised barometers of performance, a positive change can be expected in the quality of fresh incumbents and greater engagement of the younger lot of teachers. 

The real problem is not so much in the preponderance of broad over specialized courses as with the pedagogy. If taught properly, both broad and specialized courses can mould students and make them fit for being inducted into the industry.  Sadly, courses are taught in a staid manner without adequate emphasis on the practical applicability of the concepts involved. Therefore, they fail to evoke interest among students or improve their employability.

Some of the ways to solve this problem include-

  1. Balance core courses and electives: To address the issue of employability of students, institutions must overhaul their curricula and replace them with a flexible scheme with a well thought out of proportion core conceptual courses that strengthen the fundamentals and a liberal offering of specialized elective courses to allow students to gain a foothold in specific industries.   
            
  2. Industry Institute Collaboration: Academia cannot alone take the onus of preparing an industry-ready workforce. In fact, the academia and industry must work together in synergy to enhance higher education and improve employability. Industry should play its role in specialized education by strengthening internship programs, liberally sponsoring specialized labs, offering summer/winter workshops and initiating training programs between industry personnel and faculty. Both academic institutions and industrial organizations must recognize that it is their long term cooperative engagement that would lead to significant improvement in employability. 
     
  3. Focus on quality: Let me re-iterate the need to focus on excellent pedagogy and faculty quality. Some Institutions over-emphasize infrastructural requirements but ignore the urgent need to invest on improving the quality of faculty. It must be understood that the approaches discussed before will be successful only if there is a talented pool of faculty in place, who are continuously trained on the pedagogical aspects of education and are adequately supported for innovation, research and international exposure.    

About the Author: Dr Shampa Chakraverty

Dr Shampa Chakraverty did her B.Tech in Electronics in Communication from Delhi College of Engineering, M.Tech from I.I.T.-Delhi and Ph.D. from Delhi University. She is the current Head of Department of Computer Engineering at NSIT, Delhi

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