Posted tagged ‘computing’

Higher education trending: what do students want to study and why?

May 21, 2013

Last month the Irish Higher Education Authority (HEA) published an analysis of the last five years of student applications to the country’s universities and institutes of technology. This revealed some interesting trends. Unsurprisingly, student interest in construction-related courses (including architecture, surveying, civil engineering and planning) has, in the wake of the near-collapse of the Irish construction industry, waned significantly. Over the five-year period to 2013 first preference applications declined by 55.3 per cent. Given that some of the academic departments affected had, only six or so years ago, been dashing for growth during the boom, this has created major problems in some institutions that had seriously over-invested in this field.

No other subject area has suffered anything quite as dramatic over the period, but other big losers were business and law, together suffering a decline in applicants of nearly 13 per cent over the same period. Interestingly some of the main growth areas have been computing, engineering and science. The re-emergence of computing as a popular choice for students – applications have grown by over 50 per cent in five years – is remarkable, given that for much of the past decade students (and their parents, teachers and guidance counsellors) were concluding that this was an industry in decline and to be avoided. But the emergence of some key companies as economic powerhouses – Apple and Google spring to mind – changed all that.

What does all of this tell us? Mainly that today’s news about economic and industrial developments determines a good many student choices. However the rationale behind these choices is pretty questionable. By the time these students enter the labour market the developments that caused the economic trends have long passed, and some other events will create different effects. Students who entered universities to study civil engineering in 2006 when construction was booming entered the labour market four years or so later when it had imploded. People who wouldn’t touch computing in the same year because they were convinced that the dot.com collapse earlier in the decade had destroyed the industry will have noticed that when they were ready for their first jobs the IT sector was one of the few to be growing aggressively.

We also know from British studies that students are looking more closely at the economic career benefits of particular disciplines before choosing their courses. That of course is a doubtful practice if those benefits cannot be securely predicted over a period of time, or if such predictions are based on palpably wrong assumptions. So how should such choices be made? There is no perfect answer, but one that is as good as any other is to choose according to talent and interest. If you feel passionate or engaged or stimulated about something, then that’s very likely a good subject to study. But don’t assume that today’s newspaper headlines are of any relevance to the success of a particular career to be begun four or five years from now. They aren’t.

Do university computer workstations still work?

October 20, 2011

Nearly ten years ago, when I was the fairly new President of Dublin City University, we opened the new O’Reilly Library in the university – a state of the art building designed to offer the right environment and facilities for today’s students. One key feature of the library was the availability of large numbers of computer workstations, on which users could consult online and digital materials. These were a popular feature of the library with students.

A few weeks ago I visited another university and was shown its library. It was also a very modern library, opened a year or two ago, and it also had a good deal of space set aside for computer workstations. But what struck me on this visit was that, despite the fact that it was close to exam time, the workstations were almost entirely unused. Other parts of the library were quite full, but here I noticed that many students were sitting at desks with their own laptops, netbooks or iPads. I asked one of the library staff, and she explained that over the past year or so they had experienced a dramatic decline in demand for the workstations. ‘If we were fitting out the building now’, she suggested, ‘we probably wouldn’t include many workstations, perhaps even none at all.’

As computers become smaller, and at least somewhat more affordable, it seems that student habits have been changing fast. Rather than looking for a university infrastructure to give them access to online materials and the internet, students are increasingly using their own hardware.

In fact, the provision of IT services in universities, even in the best ones, is often behind the times. I remember when Microsoft introduced Windows 95, which changed the nature of personal computing significantly (or rather, it brought it into line with Apple’s much earlier progress), many universities did not adopt it until perhaps three or four years later. I constantly see university workstations now operating on Windows xp, which really is so last decade. The reason for this is that universities usually prefer not to be early adopters, because often this would mean dealing with significant bugs and fixes that cost money and take up time. The risk is however that this will influence universities to make hardware and infrastructure decisions based on older technology which will involve early obsolescence.

Probably universities need to move away from a focus on hardware and instead see themselves as offering support and content for hardware owned by staff and students, as some are starting to do. This could possibly go hand in hand with the gradual phasing out of all printing services; but that’s perhaps another topic.

Forget pen, paper and textbooks: here comes the iPad

March 17, 2011

Apparently there is a school in Tennessee in the United States that is about to make ownership of an iPad compulsory for all students. The school in question decided not to renew all of its 700 computers (an amazing equipment infrastructure by our standards over here) and instead is focusing on having iPads as the computing norm. Leaving aside affordability, in terms of the future of computing this is probably a shrewd move. Desktop computers and even most laptops may soon be a thing of the past, and the new wave of tablet computers may take their place, gadgets that will combine computing with entertainment and broadcasting.

I suspect that some universities will be looking at similar measures. There are, for gadget lovers (and iPad owners) like myself, interesting times ahead.

Careers in ICT

November 14, 2010

The Celtic Tiger – and it may be useful to remember that this phenomenon was real enough for ten years or so – was built on the back of innovation and investment in the ICT sector. Even before Ireland became prosperous, key multinational companies such as Intel, Digital and Microsoft built up a major presence here, which in turn gave some encouragement to indigenous enterprise. There then came some high profile Irish success stories, such as Chris Horn’s Iona and Fran Rooney’s Baltimore Technologies. Of course around this time, in the late 1990s, many technology start-ups across the developed world were seriously over-valued, with market capitalisations of nearly $1 billion not uncommon for companies that employed few, owned almost no assets and had  intellectual property of really very questionable value.

The growth and glamour of these companies produced a surge in demand for computing and engineering programmes in the universities. But almost as soon as capacity has been extended to cope with this demand, the dot.com bubble burst and previously celebrated companies suddenly found themselves facing insolvency. There then followed a student flight out of computing and electronic engineering, as parents and some teachers concluded that this was no longer a desirable career path. The impact of this was unfortunate: yes, some jobs in the ICT sector had gone, but they tended to be jobs not requiring much in the way of educational qualification. The skilled and leadership jobs in the sector, however, continued to grow. Staff in DCU’s Computing School started to do annual research into job vacancies in the sector, and by 2009 they were reporting that there were up to 3,000 unfilled positions in the Irish ICT sector for computing graduates. Employers looking for graduates could not find them in Ireland, or at least not enough of them, and some started looking to other countries for new recruits.

This month Silicon Republic reported that there has been a major demand for information security professionals, and in this case again it may turn out that we cannot supply the graduates needed by the companies concerned. Recruitment from overseas will gather pace.

So what are we to conclude from all this? The most important point is that today’s business news stories ate not a good guide for career choices as people enter higher education. Whatever conditions caused these stories, good or bad, will long have disappeared by the time a student has completed the degree programme. But we must also be aware that if we cannot supply skilled graduates, then companies in the ICT sector will stop investing in Ireland. This is an urgent matter. So what the country needs is high value computing and electronic engineering programmes, and students who understand that this is still a most lucrative sector for Ireland and potentially for them.

The changing world of operating systems

June 2, 2010

My first computing experience as an academic was in Trinity College Dublin in 1981, when I persuaded the Computer Centre there to let me use the DEC (Digital) mainframe computer for word-processing purposes. If I recall correctly, the software used was called ‘Runoff’, and it was all command line based. It was great fun but amazingly complicated; though what was even more complicated was how to store my files on computer tapes, and how in turn these were loaded and dismounted. Happy days! But at the time I would have had no sense of what a computer ‘operating system’ might be.

Then my department, the School of Business Studies, took the revolutionary step of buying a personal computer – one, for the whole department – and this was a massive machine made by a company called Shelton. And here I was first made aware of something called an ‘operating system’, in this case CP/M (‘Control Program for Microcomputers’). For wordprocessing purposes, we used something called ‘WordStar‘, again using command lines but with some WYSIWYG features (‘What You See Is What You Get’). And from there we followed the industry trend and soon had a small number of IBM-compatible PCs using Microsoft’s MS-DOS.

A good friend of mine had started using the very first Apple Macintosh computer, and in 1986 I followed suit and bought my first Mac, the old box-like computer that looked revolutionary and behaved in a revolutionary manner. As I progressed my computing skills I also watched how my colleagues managed with MS Windows, and then Windows for Workgroups. For a short while I went back to the PC standard when Windows 95 came out, and I stayed there until the launch of Windows XP; at which point I returned to the Macintosh.

Of course while I was jumping around between operating systems, Microsoft was establishing its total market dominance with Windows – which at first had been a graphic interface essentially sitting on top of MS-DOS, but which later became a full operating system in its own right. But right now that dominance may be fading somewhat. Partly this is to do with the growth of other operating systems, in particular the Apple OS and Linux. Interestingly Google has just announced that it is phasing out the use of Windows in its operations.

In mobile devices there is also a healthy development of competition between market leader Apple, Microsoft and Google’s Android.

But perhaps the whole computing world is moving away altogether from visible operating systems. As computing is perhaps going to be done more and more in the ‘cloud‘, where software and file storage is provided on remote servers and the device you have in your hand merely gives you access to that server. The interface you work with for these purposes is really just part of the internet, and operating systems (which essentially control what you do with your personal device) may become much less of a feature, or may slip away completely as far as the average user is concerned. This will be a challenging setting for Microsoft in particular, which for the first time recently fell behind Apple in market capitalisation.

Clearly we are in a era of technological transition. It should be exciting.