How IBM is helping build tech-innovators of tomorrow

How can industry help academia in nurturing the talent that will shape the future? Experts offered answers at a webinar organised by Dataquest along with IBM

As part of its capacity-building and information-sharing initiative of bringing together experts from the industry to talk about technology trends, latest developments, challenges and strategy, Dataquest along with IBM recently organised a webinar on ‘Building Tech-Innovators of Tomorrow’. The speakers included Naguib Attia, Vice President, IBM Global University Programs, Mona Bharadwaj, Global University Programs – India Leader, IBM Research, Prof. Emmanuel Shubhankar Pilli, MNIT Jaipur, Prof. Arun Sharma, IGDTUW Delhi, Prof. G Shobha, RVCE Bangalore, Prof. V Karpagam, SREC Coimbatore, and Mani Madhukar, Program Manager – Global University Programs – IBM Research.

Kick-starting the discussion, Attia presented a glimpse of what IBM offers to the academia. “The world is facing a shortage of relevant expertise or qualified employees, universities are running fast to fill the gaps. However, without industry-academic collaboration, this gap will be difficult to fill, rather it will grow bigger,” explained Attia. With the increasing uptake of disruptive technologies, organisations across sectors are undergoing major business transformations globally. As a result, new jobs demand new skills.

To bridge the skill-employability gap, IBM has been strategically studying what the academia is looking for that will help them to fulfil relevant skill demands by the industry. “We understood that the first thing which is needed from us is access to the latest technologies that we provide under the umbrella initiative called IBM Academic Initiative. Under this, any faculty or any student will get access to almost all IBM technologies, both archaic and new-age, for teaching or research purposes free of cost,” said Attia. The second initiative, IBM Skills Academy, offers hands-on courses to help academicians in training and teaching.

Eight technology areas covered under the training programmes by IBM Skills Academy are AI, blockchain, cloud computing, cyber security, data science, design thinking, Internet of Things and quantum computing.

The presentation was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Bharadwaj. She pointed out that most companies find it difficult to tap and attract appropriate talents that suit their needs because there is a shortage of talents who have the right match with technology skills. “So, there’s an enormous gap between the industry’s demand for workers with relevant technological skills and the availability of such skilled applicants. IBM has been working closely with many educational institutes across the globe to address this gap through its various initiatives,” said Bharadwaj.

Agreeing with Bharadwaj, Prof. Shobha noted that most Indian institutes do not equip students with the right skills. Talking about the shift to online teaching due to COVID-19, she said, “Technology and infrastructure to support this shift were the biggest challenges that our institute faced,” she elaborated. “Also, faculties were not equipped with necessary knowledge or training to use technology. The challenge was not only to learn new technologies, but also to keep on upgrading skills as new technologies get implemented. The third challenge was the varying learning styles of students – some are more active learners than others,” she explained.

In her experience, IBM has been quite helpful by providing various technological enhancements and conducting multiple useful webinars for students as well as training sessions to enable faculties to learn new technologies and their uses.

In corroboration, Prof. Pilli mentioned that most leading institutes get good students, however, to be equipped with the technical knowhow or to create the required backdrop for faculties for the disruptive and emerging technologies is a real challenge. Another challenge is to set up the infrastructure or to develop any application, associated with high-performing computing for training or teaching purposes, as it incurs heavy costs. “This is where some of the resources that IBM provides through cloud and remote access are very helpful. We are into the research environment and we get all updates on latest technologies, yet preparing lecturing models and deliveries or creating students’ resources and content is what we struggle with. This is where resources that IBM offers, mostly free of cost, help tremendously,” said Pilli.

Prof. Sharma said, “It’s true that technology is changing very fast nowadays. In academia, we keep on changing our curriculum accordingly, still we cannot adapt to changes so fast and frequently. There are multiple reasons – skill gap and development of faculties, investment in required infrastructure… This is where industry-academia partnerships, like the one we have with IBM, play a crucial role in enabling us to bridge the gap and upgrade skills of students and faculties on latest and evolving technologies.” The institute encourages students to opt for skill-based courses offered by its industry partners on latest technologies. “Awards are also given to them on the basis of certificates or badges earned. I must thank IBM to help us bridge this gap and to enable us to prepare our students to get better placements,” he said.

Prof. Karpagam agreed: “The onus of bridging the skill gap cannot lie with educational institutions alone, although they have a major responsibility towards that. Bringing the industry-academia ecosystems together has the potential to go a long way in addressing this issue. We at SREC have already done that with IBM.” As part of its academic initiatives, IBM offers free courses on the emerging technologies and also gives enterprise-grade, licensed software for use of both faculties and students for free. “Some of the software can be used for research purposes and we made best possible use of these freely available resources offered by IBM,” said Karpagam.

“IBM has also helped us with experts from time to time, whenever we have requested. This partnership has emerged as a boon for SREC, for its online learning initiatives during these pandemic-induced, trying times. IBM’s training programmes for faculties also helped us a lot to keep updated with latest and changing trends and technologies. IBM’s webinars conducted by its experts help our students to get informed on various topics including leadership tenets,” he added.

Bharadwaj pointed out that companies want their executives to innovate continuously and succeed in this constantly evolving landscape. Only those individuals can navigate through this who can apply problem-solving and critical-thinking skills to drive innovation, use new technologies effectively and draw insights from a vast amount of data. IBM’s academia initiatives are designed to address this requirement and prepare students of tomorrow with the right skills and tools. However, it is important to understand from the academia directly whether these efforts are in line with what is required for the tech innovators of tomorrow and make individuals ready with the relevant skillsets.

In response, Shobha noted the National Education Policy 2020 attaches great importance to holistic growth of students. “We have been equipped to do that through IBM’s programmes, course contents with specialisations and case studies that have been delivered by various IBM SMEs during the last four years. It has been very useful for students,” she said. “Similarly, faculties could deliver and showcase various technology trends and their applications to students by using the resources available from IBM. The numerous faculty development programmes that IBM offered to our colleges have also been extremely effective and beneficial. We also have a CoE on quantum computing – IBM has supported to develop that by training faculties and, in turn, faculties could provide relevant training to the students,” she added.

Pilli said that the remote training courses conducted by IBM are of great value. “I have personally been part of a couple of IBM faculty development programmes which have benefitted me immensely.”

According to Sharma, his institution’s curriculum offers an option called ‘Generic Open Elective’, wherein students can opt for any subject from any domain. “Many students from non-technical courses prefer to select many subjects from the technical domain to enhance their knowledge. The IBM Skills Academy has been playing a key role in enabling these students’ passion to learn the latest technologies,” he said. “As part of our MoU with IBM, they have been conducting multiple faculty development programs, workshops and training programs which have been extremely beneficial. IBM is also helping us to arrange several guest lecture sessions on various technological innovations. Based on these learning students also participate in hackathons and work on innovative projects,” he added.

In agreement, Karpagam noted that through the courses offered by IBM, students not only learn new technologies and latest industry trends but also earn badges which they can show to recruiters. This automatically improves their chances of better placement, salary packages and also increases the value of the institute in terms of attracting better students in the future. “We always encourage our students to undergo and complete the various value-added courses through credit waivers. Our institute’s approach of hands-on learning makes our students more confident when they are entering the workforce and IBM’s Skills Academy and other such initiatives help a lot towards this.”

The webinar was concluded with a walkthrough of the IBM Skills Academy portal by Madhukar who showcased how academia can leverage IBM’s offerings.

By Piyali Guha

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