National College of Ireland’s Anu Sahni discusses the changes in how tech education is delivered and what students need to know.
The education sector, like many others, has been shaken up by advancements in technology. The way students, graduates and employees learn and upskill has changed due to developments in online learning and tools, and this has become more prevalent in the last two years due to the pandemic.
However, the changes in the tech landscape have also impacted the skills that are most in-demand and in turn have expanded the courses and education options for those interested in a career in tech.
The growing demand for tech workers and specialised skills has led to both education bodies and industry players offering a range of tech courses.
In the last year alone, University of Limerick teamed up with tech companies to develop an immersive software engineering programme, Microsoft Ireland added a cloud skills programme to its list of free courses, and University College Dublin partnered with global analytics company SAS to provide a free online skills programme with data science training.
In June 2021, more than 10,000 places on almost 300 courses in Ireland were announced under Springboard+, an initiative in higher education that offers free and subsidised courses. The aim was to help people upskill or reskill in critical areas such as cybersecurity, virtual reality, health innovation and logistics.
The expansion of digital skills is great for the tech industry and helps thousands of students, employees and jobseekers upskill in new and evolving areas , but how is all this change affecting the education and training sector?
Anu Sahni is the programme director for the MSc/PGDip in data analytics at the National College of Ireland (NCI).
Outside of her work on the data analytics curriculum, Sahni also organises hackathons and inventathons within the college so that students experience the process of developing an idea with input from experts and the rigour of pitching to industry.
Sahni told SiliconRepublic.com that technology has became a major tool in terms of pedagogical resources in education and training.
“Technology has made the connection of theory with the real world stronger. Easy access to online resources, communities and social media has made projects and assessments more practical and real-world oriented.
“For technology students, practical tasks such as coding, projects, problem-solving, research, surveying, data analysis, etc have become more important compared to theory-focused, essay-type, written exam-based assessment.”
Theory v hands-on experience
It’s this focus on practical, hands-on experience that can change how people are educated when it comes to tech. However, a balance with theoretical or academic learning is still needed, so that students can go on to apply what they’ve learned to a wide range of areas from autotech to healthcare.
“The theoretical concepts should be demonstrated, validated, taught and exemplified by hands-on experience. The assessments should then be based on testing students’ comprehension and application in solving a real-world problem,” said Sahni.
“The theoretical concepts should ideally be supported and exemplified by practical work before moving onto the next theoretical concept. The teaching of theoretical concepts should be illustrated with real-world examples.”
In terms of how technology has changed education itself, Sahni points to advancements in simulation, 3D modelling and visualisation, all of which have led to a better understanding of theoretical concepts.
“For example, there are 3D models and simulations of human anatomy available that make it easy for medical students to visualise the concepts learned in theory without having to do dissections.”
However, while a more dynamic education experience is of great benefit to students, it can also come with its own challenges as the technical content has to be regularly updated.
“Documentation sometimes lags quite far behind the changes that have taken place in the software, so students have to rely upon the forums and community to stay ahead,” said Sahni.
The future of tech education
Sahni said tech education in Ireland is keeping good pace with the fast growth of the industry itself, especially with the growing number of third-level institutions offering courses in areas such as AI, data analytics, cybersecurity and AR/VR.
“There are many free resources, forums and communities that learners can leverage. There are many successful initiatives that are bridging the gap between industry and academia.”
As part of the NCI data analytics course, students competed in Enfuse, a Dublin City Council and Local Enterprise Office initiative.
The Enfuse competition matches companies and social enterprises in Dublin with master’s students, with the student teams presenting solutions to address challenges these enterprises face.
Sahni said there should be more schemes like this. “There should be repositories, similar to libraries, where learners can find the latest tools, devices, software, etc for conducting experiments and collaborating with experts. There are certain labs, such as CeADAR [Ireland’s centre for applied AI], but they are largely limited to the institutes where they are based.”
For tech students looking to progress on their future career path, Sahni said don’t be afraid of using new tools and technologies.
“Let your imagination and passion go wild. Get a good grip of theoretical concepts and what’s going on underneath the hood. No concept is fully clear without hands-on experience, therefore practice, research, collaborate, innovate and explore,” she said.
“Don’t hesitate to reach out to educators, other learners and experts, they are more welcoming than you expect. Before you implement or invent something new, judge the impact on society carefully, not only in present but in future too – everything should be ethically and morally right. For data science students, respect privacy.”
Applications for NCI’s Springboard+ and Human Capital Initiative courses starting in January 2022 are now open, with courses in areas such as data analytics, cybersecurity, software development and artificial intelligence.
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