IT Training: How to Bring Together the Interests of Business and the State
By Aleksandr Vasilyev, editor-in-chief of the PROFIT website
The rapid development of information technology and its penetration of all aspects of everyday life not only releases a great deal of time and other resources – it changes the very nature of business processes and communications, and opens vast opportunities. But any technology embedded in hardware or software is nothing without the people who stand behind it all – those who invent and introduce it, and those who use it in the workplace. That is why the demand for IT-literate personnel is changing in both quantitative and qualitative terms.
Historically, IT businesses were the first to feel the desperate hunger for qualified personnel. They have had to help themselves, and many of them launched special training courses including authorised IT education. State bodies also recognise this problem: computer literacy is a prerequisite for reorientating the economy towards non-raw material production and implementing e-government and IT park projects.
However, the tasks faced by business and the state are somewhat different. Whereas business needs highly qualified specialists – true pros, the state is chiefly interested in the widest possible spread of basic computer knowledge. On the other hand, business also benefits from an increase in the number of advanced users, as they create additional demand, and the state, in turn, cannot do without professionals. Therefore, business and the state have a common problem – they just place different emphasis on it – hence the difference in approaches.
The main concern of the state is to overcome the "information inequality" – that is, to provide equal access to modern information technology for all. This inequality is not only caused by the unavailability of hardware or software or access to communications. Even if every person in Kazakhstan had a PC and access to the Internet, it would not solve the problem. The main thing is to explain the opportunities that IT technology can give, make people wish to know how to use them, and create true demand.
To address this task, the Agency for Information Technology and Communications together with other interested bodies developed the Programme for Reducing Information Inequality in 2007-2009, and Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov approved it on 11 October 2006. The Programme aims to achieve 20% computer literacy, to raise the number of Internet and e-services users to 20%, and to increase the role of information resources in the everyday life of a citizen. The total cost of the programme is 12 billion tenge.
The above threshold of computer literacy has not been set at random. According to international practice, after passing the 20% threshold the spread of IT in the masses turns into an avalanche, and the process no longer needs external assistance. At present, computer literacy in Kazakhstan hardly exceeds 5%.
As the first step, a network of free training centres will be opened in Atyrau, Aktobe, Zhambyl, Kyzylorda, Karaganda, West Kazakhstan and South Kazakhstan Oblasts. Today, one centre, in Taldykorgan, is functioning.
The first students of these centres will be the personnel of state bodies. In the next three years, training will be provided to 87,700 state employees, 47,600 children from orphanages, 62,500 military personnel, and 666,000 employees of budgetary organisations and unemployed. Other social groups will be able to receive training at 2,000 summer computer classes which will be opened throughout the country.
It is critical to ensure that computers installed in the training centres are being used as efficiently as possible and the trainers have the necessary qualification. This was stressed at the 6th International Forum on Information Technology in Education in Kazakhstan and the CIS held in Almaty on 18-19 October. Gul Nurgaliyeva, director of the National Science and Methodology Centre of Information Technology in Education, believes that training the trainers in the use of information and communications technology in education is the main problem of the day. The forum also included an IT exhibition at which 137 Kazakh universities and colleges demonstrated their electronic textbooks and correspondence study systems.
Close attention is being paid to the latter, because many villages and towns in Kazakhstan are located at a distance from regional educational institutions. Marat Nurguzhin, director of the Department of Higher and Post-graduate Education of the Education and Science Ministry, said that now the country has a sound legal framework for introducing correspondence study in higher education. He also said that the correspondence study technology plays a major role in implementing the state programme of education system development in 2005-2010 and the development of e-government. Therefore, some 2 billion tenge will be allocated from local budgets for preparing electronic textbooks and creating an educational portal under the e-government project. Another 616 million will be allocated from the national budget.
One of the recent state initiatives on the use of IT in education is the Multi-service Information and Communication Educational Network (MSICEN). This system has been designed as a means to create a common information and educational space and to introduce modern multimedia technology in education. MSICEN consists of a number of technically independent modules, and new modules can be added at any time as a particular school develops. The package also includes a set of digital educational resources. This system will make it possible to adopt interactive teaching methods, which in turn will allow different schools, teachers and students to interact at a distance.
Business and Education
The business community also takes part in education. A number of IT companies are implementing their own educational programmes in co-operation with universities. Some of them even provide grants to talented students and invite them to take practical training at their premises. Others run competitions for universities. For example, Samsung Electronics runs the annual INTECH competition for students, and the representative office of Ericsson holds various contests. Intel, along with various schools, holds various events to demonstrate modern IT.
The unquestionable leader in this area is Microsoft Kazakhstan. Within the framework of the Boundless Opportunities and Partnership in Education initiatives, it has implemented a number of successful projects, and in 2006 alone provided training to 5,000 people from vulnerable social groups, 19,000 schoolchildren and 1,300 teachers. For the first time in Kazakhstan, Microsoft held the 1st National Conference of Innovative Teachers, to allow the teachers to exchange experience, advanced knowledge and new IT. In addition, this year the company signed agreements on co-operation with four leading Kazakh universities and presented them with unique books by Microsoft Press and other publishing houses specialising in programming, databases, administration and project management.
Where IT Specialists Come From
However, these initiatives are really a social mission. And the question is, how do IT companies satisfy their own hunger for specialists? Business needs to solve practical problems and prefers more purposeful actions. As a rule, in order to enhance the qualification of their employees, companies send them on authorised training courses. Fortunately, at present this market is represented by many training centres, including the Russian IT Academy, lanit-Al network academy and Softline, and the Kazakh ABS Training Centre, High-Tech for Human, etc.
State bodies also avail themselves of the above services. The majority of training centres have the following client structure: 10% individuals, 40% corporate clients, and 50% the state. This suggests that the state and large Kazakh companies from the industrial, financial and telecommunications sectors constitute the main market of IT education services.
However, authorised training centres cannot produce new IT specialists. First, they have a different objective: to upgrade the qualification of accomplished specialists. Second, the domestic market of authorised IT education is somewhat lop-sided and rests upon the "three whales" – the solution courses offered by Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Oracle, which are the most popular among individuals, corporate clients and state bodies.
In other words, fundamental technical education is a must. But this is just another problem area. At present, information and communications specialists are being trained by 37 universities, including some leading schools such as the Satpayev Kazakh National Technical University, Almaty Institute of Energy and Communications, Karaganda State University, East Kazakhstan State University, and the Kazakh-British Technical University. About 20,000 specialists graduate from these schools annually, but, Marat Nurguzhin says, only 40% of the demand for these specialists is being met.
On the other hand, employers are not satisfied with the qualification of these graduates. "We have to send all university graduates for retraining, and it is very expensive", says Igor Mendzebrovsky, president of IT Ukraine Association at the roundtable "Integration in the World Market: Organisation of IT Parks and Interaction of IT Businesses in the CIS!". According to the participants of this roundtable which was held in Almaty on 21 September, the training of one highly qualified IT specialist requires an additional $12,000-20,000.
The main problem of schools is a lack of flexibility and slow adaptation to modern requirements and market needs. The majority of teachers are theorists who have no practical experience. We can only hope that the introduction of IT technology in education will be followed by new initiatives to revise curricula and employ more practical specialists as teachers.
The Kazakh company Futurtech intends to work exactly like this, i.e. to revise and correct training materials on an ongoing basis. In October 2006, Futurtech jointly with NIIT, one of the world leaders of computer education, established an IT training centre in Almaty. Futurtech plans to create a network of these centres in Kazakhstan. Training time will vary from three months to three years depending on the curriculum.
Good news also came from the International Academy of Business (IAB). This autumn it announced a new business education programme, Information Management (CIO). At present the importance of information technology for an average company has increased tremendously, and managers realise that an IT director is not a highly qualified "technician", but has a much more important role to play. A new term, "CIO", has come into use. A CIO is a manager of information technology who should participate in developing the company’s policy and strategic decision-making. The principal difference between a CIO and an IT director is that the former must be a professional in his or her field and in addition be able to think as a businessperson. In the West and Russia the CIO sphere already exists, but in Kazakhstan it is still evolving.
Although Kazakhstan focuses on innovation, and we should expect a tremendous demand for such specialists from IT companies, until recently none of the local business schools had trained CIOs. It is not easy to develop a curriculum in which business and technology aspects are combined in the right proportion. To find lecturers able to train top managers with an IT bias is even a more difficult task. That is why IAB is implementing its CIO programme in co-operation with established professionals on the IT education market – the Academy of People’s Economy of the Russian Government. Both partners promise to employ the best lecturers and practical specialists including top managers from various IT and consulting companies.
What Should We Do?
One could simply rely on the market and assume that it will sort things out by itself. If there is a demand for qualified IT specialists, there will be supply. If universities fail to fill the gap, it will be done by alternative establishments such as Futurtech information technology centres. Or, alternatively, authorised education centres will widen the range of their services and occupy this niche. It is just a matter of time. But the thing is that no one can wait: professionals are desperately needed right now.
If the problem is to be solved efficiently, it must be addressed jointly, and the business community and the state must pull together. First of all, the IT business must be allowed to play a greater role in education, since it represents the main market of IT specialists. This approach will require dialogue between IT companies and universities, to enable the latter to train truly demanded specialists. In addition, by employing professionals from the industry as lecturers, universities will improve the content of their curricula and make the education process much more interesting and relevant. Finally, the guaranteed opportunity for students to take practical training in real IT companies will allow them to consolidate their theoretical knowledge and provide an incentive to study harder. Naturally, the prestige of universities themselves will greatly improve.
All these simple steps will help to satisfy the hunger for specialists on the IT market. These measures should be implemented in a systematic manner, so as to take into account the interests of all players. And, of course, this process must be initiated by the state.
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