TECH TALK: The Discovery of India: Engineering Colleges
Indias engineering colleges hold the key to its long-term success in software. So far, the record has been mixed. While the quantity in terms of graduates is there, the quality in terms of software engineering practices leaves much to be desired. If India has to become an IT superpower, the software has to become part of the DNA of its engineering colleges. Specifically, three aspects of engineering colleges need consideration: the IT infrastructure at the colleges, the projects done by students, and the interaction with the outside world.
IT Infrastructure: Many engineering colleges in India have a limited number computers for use by the students. Much of the software in use is pirated. Connectivity within the campus and to the Internet is limited. All this needs to change. The four building blocks for the new infrastructure: thin clients, server-centric computing, open-source software and WiFi. The mix of the first three will help cut costs of computing and help proliferate them. Ideally, there should be one computer for every student. WiFi helps create an envelope which allows access to the network from anywhere on campus.
Student Projects: Most projects in the final year of undergraduate studies are done in silos. The aim is more to just get something done rather than make a notable contribution. The student projects are critical because they are the first interface of a student (now an engineer-to-be) with the outside world. The projects should solve real-world problems, rather than being a rehash of what has done the previous year. Faculty must take it upon themselves to co-ordinate multi-year projects. The open-source software community and the industry have many challenges which can be converted into a co-ordinated array of projects that groups of students can execute. This not only puts the IT infrastructure set up at the college to good use, but also brings out their learnings and inculcates a sense of purpose in what they are doing.
External Interactions: Students can become the bridges to various institutions even while at the engineering college. Each engineering college can adopt a set of schools, hospitals, SMEs and villages in a 100-kilometre radius (2-hour commute) around the college. A group of students can be given responsibility to set up and manage the IT infrastructure at these institutions. This will take care of two things at once: give the students real-world exposure to technology, and at the same time solve the problem of support that plagues many institutions. The students can become the ambassadors for the deployment and support of open-source software in the extended ecosystem. If they do their work well, they will have ready employment opportunities waiting for them at these institutions once they graduate.
Engineering colleges can thus become not just a provider of human resources for Indias IT industry, but also lead from the front in building a software ecosystem around them. For example, engineering colleges in Pune could take up projects related to the use of IT in manufacturing and SMEs, given the base that is there around the city. The objective should be that within 2-3 years, IT penetrates deeper in the industry, thus creating greater opportunities both for faculty research and student employment. This transformation has to be driven by Indias software companies.
As the engineers and enterprises will find, one of the large untapped opportunities lies in using technology to transform rural India.
Tomorrow: Rural India
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