The state of IT education

Ulrika Hedquist talks to computer science and engineering departments to find out why ICT enrolments are up

Computer science departments have struggled to attract undergraduates in recent years, but the tide is turning as qualifications in ICT-related fields become increasingly sought after in the job market.

Computerworld surveyed New Zealand’s top universities to find out what courses are on offer.

University of Auckland

Over the last few years, there has been a shift in what students are interested in, with topics like human computer interaction growing strongly in popularity and database systems becoming very well established, says professor Robert Amor at the Department of Computer Science, University of Auckland.

“In our degree we focus the students on a limited core of courses in their first and second years, which means that all students completing our degree have a guaranteed skill-set,” he says. “We are confident they have core computer science skills, which are then specialised by their selection of courses in their final year of study. We also endeavour to offer a range of development activities over their courses, so almost all students will have had experience working in groups, writing reports, etc, alongside the discipline-based learning that takes place in their courses.”

There are also many extra-curricular opportunities at the university in which computer science students have become enthusiastic participants, for example the Spark entrepreneurship programme, he says.

The university provides advice to students about the combination of courses that would lead “most naturally towards a particular career”, says Amor.

“With hundreds of graduates every year we see students moving into almost all types of jobs available in the industry,” Amor says. “What is most pleasing to us is the number of major New Zealand companies who are looking to take on our graduates. We are getting placements in almost all the top companies in New Zealand and have a number of students who are getting into great jobs at the big companies overseas, for example Microsoft and Google.”

The university has employed a number of “top” researchers and lecturers over the last year, says Amor, “looking at areas that we foresee an increased demand within New Zealand and that we think will require specialist skills”.

To help grow the capabilities of the local workforce the university is introducing a range of masters programmes, he says. The first of these is a MProfStuds(Data Science) which targets graduates who have been in the industry for a number of years and want to enhance their skills in the data science area.

“This Masters of Professional Studies gives skills to handle the explosion in the quantity of data available, from databases to the web, tweet streams, online transaction records, sensors, government repositories, etc. [The] programme blends postgraduate courses in computer science, statistics, information systems and entrepreneurship to provide a particular strength for this growing area,” he says.

Over the next few years, the university plans to offer further MProfStuds in targeted areas, with a visual computing programme coming in 2014.

“With the new researchers and lecturers we are also adding extra courses, or growing the coverage in existing courses, in their areas of expertise,” says Amor.

This includes security and data communications; computer networks and internet measurement; data science; data mining, machine learning, and information retrieval; and artificial intelligence and cognitive science.

“We are seeing strong growth in student numbers both at the entry level for our BSc degrees and also in our postgraduate programmes, following the dip that was experienced in computer science entrants in all the developed countries around 2004-2008,” says Amor.

In 2012, there has been a 12 percent growth in students entering the first compulsory course for the computer science degree, compared to last year. Enrolment numbers into postgraduate degrees are up 10 percent compared to 2011.

Massey University

Massey University has also seen a significant increase in interest in ICT courses, says Chris Scogings, associate professor of computer science and programme director for the Bachelor of Information Sciences course at the Institute of Information & Mathematical Sciences, Massey University.

“This is particularly noticeable at the Albany campus where student numbers in first-year computer science have increased by 30 percent from 2011 to 2012,” he says.

Massey offers an introductory course in C programming, which is becoming ever more popular, says Scogings.

“A good knowledge of C leads naturally onto C++, C# and Java, and these languages make up a large percentage of the language skills required by employers,” he says.

To be successful in the job market after graduation, the best option is to complete a specialist degree that includes courses across the spectrum, he says.

“Massey offers the Bachelor of Information Sciences in which students can choose to major in computer science, information technology or software engineering. The computer science major focuses on applied programming in C++ and Java along with the well known topics of artificial intelligence, networks, internet programming and operating systems,” he says. “The information technology major offers courses in the areas of systems analysis and management, software design, mobile systems, databases and human-computer interaction.”

Students can choose to major in either of these areas or they can complete a double major in both of them.

The information sciences course also allows students to incorporate a minor in the degree.

“We have had students completing a minor in anything ranging from finance to Japanese,” he says.

The third major is software engineering, which draws on topics from both computer science and information technology in order to give students a full overview of the skills and processes required in developing and maintaining large software applications, continues Scogings. The software engineering major includes more courses than other majors – for example it requires a team project that runs for the whole of the third year.

Graduates holding a Bachelor of Information Sciences are well prepared to enter the workforce, he says. This degree is “totally focused” on preparing graduates to enter a number of career paths, primarily in the areas of software development, software engineering and systems analysis but most graduates are capable of taking on a considerably wider career range, he says.

Among the new offerings this year is a graphics-focused course.

“We are constantly redeveloping the Bachelor of Information Sciences degree to ensure that graduates have an edge when entering the job market,” says Scogings.

Canterbury University

At the department of computer science and software engineering at Canterbury University, courses include software engineering projects that simulate the kind of environment students will encounter in industry, says Tim Bell, professor and deputy head of department.

“Feedback from students and employers is that this makes them particularly well equipped,” he says. “We are now in the process of introducing a software engineering degree which has even more emphasis on gaining this kind of experience through placement in industry as part of the degree requirements.”

As long as students have good grades and general people skills, Canterbury computer science graduates are in very high demand, says Bell. “There are companies that are hiring graduates by the dozen.”

Graduates are employed in a wide variety of jobs, ranging from working for large corporations to small entrepreneurial companies.

“Even better, some graduates form their own companies and end up being employers,” he says. “Christchurch has literally hundreds of successful software companies, so many graduates end up working locally, but many are also attracted out of town and overseas. For example, Google’s Sydney engineering office has become a significant employer of our top students.”

Enrolments in computer science at Canterbury University are gradually increasing, says Bell.

“There was a significant decline in interest from the year 2000 until a few years ago, but students seem to be latching on to the demand for graduates with a computer science or software engineering qualification,” he says. “The new computer science offerings that were introduced to schools in 2011 have already been taken by hundreds of students, so that bodes well for increased visibility of the subject at schools.”

AUT

At Auckland University of Technology, some of the most popular courses include Java programming and software design; networking; IT security; database; UML modelling; enterprise systems analysis; IT project management; and .NET and web development.

“There is strong demand for graduates from software development, networking and security, computer science, information science, analytics and IT service science majors,” says Tony Clear, associate professor and head of AUT’s school of computing and mathematical sciences.

Many students have secured jobs even before they graduate, he says.

“In the final undergraduate year for the Bachelor of Computer and Information Science students undertake a capstone project in which they work in teams for a client,” says Clear.

This is often an industry sponsor, and sometimes the team works on site in the sponsor’s workplace.

“This experience develops an understanding of how to work professionally, communicate within a team and externally and deliver quality outcomes to match a client’s expectations,” he says.

Clear says that strong demand for bright and well-prepared graduates remains.

“We are also seeing increasing interest by employers in developing internship programmes, hopefully inspired by a developing degree of responsibility to the future IT industry and the development of tomorrow’s IT professionals, but maybe just driven by desperation given their struggle to get and retain good staff.”

This year, AUT is offering a new degree – Master of Service Oriented Computing at its Manukau campus, with new courses including cloud computing and service oriented architecture, Clear says.

Another new course planned for next semester is in intelligent surveillance within the Master of Forensic IT programme.

Student numbers at the undergraduate level are up around 10 percent from last year, says Clear.

Lincoln University

The most popular courses at Lincoln University’s Department for Applied Computing are in the areas of advanced end-user computing, as well as web technologies and the design of information systems.

“In semester two we are offering a special topic in mobile apps,” says Clare Churcher, senior lecturer in software and information technology and head of department. “This will comprise technical issues as well as business considerations. We expect it to be very popular.”

In order to stay relevant in a constantly changing world, the department has an industry liaison group, which meets a couple of times a year, says Churcher.

“We invite our industry colleagues to come and talk about what they think is important in various areas,” she says. “They tell us that things like communication, being able to work in a group and being independent [is what] they most look for when employing graduates. We make sure all our grads have some experience in working in a group and we emphasise independent problem solving in our courses.”

Demand from local industry has been “huge” this year, she says. “We cannot provide enough good graduates. A number of our grads have gone to jobs for development companies, [such as] Orion Health and Tait Electronics. They work as both developers and testers in their early years.”

But quite a few graduates go to small companies. For example, some recent graduates have found employment in developing software for small agricultural companies, she says.

Enrolment numbers for first year courses are about the same as 2011 but the proportion of domestic students is higher than in previous years, says Churcher.

“Interest from local employers has gone through the roof. We need more students!”

Waikato University

The number of students doing computer science and computer graphic design courses at Waikato University has noticeably increased this year compared to last year, according to professor Geoff Holmes, dean of the faculty of computing and mathematical sciences.

The most popular first-year courses are in the area of software applications, he says. “At second year level, a database paper is popular while at third year level, papers in human-computer interaction and web applications development are popular.”

The courses required for the Bachelor of Engineering degree in software engineering have a particular focus for providing a career path, says Holmes.

“In our other undergraduate degrees, Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, one can choose a specialisation within the computer science major which is focused on particular careers, for example information systems, games and multimedia, and internet applications.”

The goal is to prepare graduates for entering the workforce.

“Of course, we would hope that our graduates are not just knowledgeable in the ICT/computer science material they have studied, but have other attributes such as critical thinking skills and learning skills in which they can fully utilise any workforce training,” says Holmes.

Waikato would like to offer new courses in networking and cyber-security, he says.

“However, staffing is an issue. We are seeking suitable staff at the moment.”

Victoria University

“It may surprise a few people to know, but engineering and computer science’s most popular senior undergraduate course in 2012 is our course on artificial intelligence,” says Stuart Marshall, senior lecturer, school of engineering and computer science at Victoria University of Wellington.

This course has been popular for quite a few years now, he says. “We expect there will still be strong interest in artificial intelligence in the years to come, but we also expect it to have some rivals from our courses on software methodologies, databases, operating systems, analogue/digital electronics and embedded systems, just to name a few.”

As a complement to the existing BSc major in computer science, a new Bachelor of Engineering degree offers specialisations in software engineering, network engineering and electronics/computer systems engineering, Marshall says.

The university is working to fully accredit this degree with the Institute of Professional Engineers of New Zealand (IPENZ). This is a “professionally-oriented” degree that covers a wide spectrum of project management, engineering and professional practice, he says.

To meet the demand for database skills in the industry, Victoria offers a popular third year software engineering course in databases. “Similarly, our third year network engineering courses in network design and concurrent programming are important skills in an increasingly connected, distributed world.”

There are several aspects to how Victoria equips its Bachelor of Engineering graduates for the workforce, says Marshall. All graduates from the degree are required to do third and fourth year engineering papers that focus on professional practice, ethics, ethos and working in a team environment.

“As well as this, all graduates must also complete 800 hours of work experience prior to graduating, and this gives them a feel for the industry that also informs their later studies in the senior undergraduate courses,” he says.

“Lastly we also require our students to do a coherent set of courses from outside of their specialisation. This gives the students breadth that allows them to understand different ways of thinking about problems, or different perspectives on issues, or simply different skills.”

In a collaboration between the school of engineering and computer science and the school of design, Victoria University is offering a new postgraduate qualification in computer graphics. The new courses have had input from companies such as Weta Digital, he says.

“We’re particularly excited this year to be starting up [these courses],” says Marshall.

Victoria University is seeing a “significant increase” in interest for its courses, says Marshall.

“As an example, our first trimester introductory course in computer science went from around 180 registrations in 2011 to around 300 registrations in 2012. Similarly, registrations into our first trimester introductory engineering course went from around 100 in 2011 to around 160 in 2012.”

University of Otago

The University of Otago has seen a fairly consistent trend in papers and level of enrolments over the last few years, says Grant Dick, senior lecturer and deputy head of the department of information science at the University of Otago.

“Having said that, our most popular papers at 200-level are our systems analysis paper and application development paper, while the most popular paper at 300-level is our distributed information systems paper.”

The University places “significant emphasis on practical problem-solving through projects and case studies”, says Dick.

“In addition, we have a capstone paper that requires students to work on real-world problems for external clients, and this requires them to test their professionalism and problem-solving skills.”

Dick says the applied science majors in software engineering and telecommunications provide a fairly clear career path for graduates. The information science degree has a more general focus, with an emphasis on skills across a range of disciplines, such as databases, networking, systems analysis and design, application development, distributed systems, and business intelligence/analytics to provide options over several career paths.

The university has just completed a revision of its 200-level offerings, which included new sections on ICT strategy, mobile technologies and complex data analysis, for example big data, says Dick.

“We are currently extending this revision into 300-level, with new offerings expected in 2013 focusing on adaptive business intelligence, advanced ICT strategy, and information assurance.”

Overall, there is a “slight increase” in second year numbers this year, approximately 10 percent averaged over all papers, he says.

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