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Universities and Their Underused Potential for Lifelong Education and Training

Juris Borzovs, Darja mite, Guntis Arnicns, Dainis Dosbergs, Maksims Kravcevs, University of Latvia
Kris Rauhvargers, Valdis Prodnieks, Mris Vti, University of Latvia

The IT industry has been declared to be a priority in Latvia. The industry has grown very rapidly to produce between 5 and 6% of Latvian GDP. At this time, there is a shortage of some 8,000 IT specialists. The importance of training new and highly professional specialists, as well as of supporting continuous professional growth and training for existing representatives of the industry this is an urgent need. In this paper, we describe efforts that have been made in upgrading and enriching the relevant study programmes and services at the University of Latvia so as to respond to the needs of the IT industry. We emphasise the fact that the university is not used sufficiently for lifelong education and training, our hope being that there will be stronger links between academia and industry.


INTRODUCTION
As information technologies have spread rapidly through every aspect of modern societies, the challenge of educating IT professionals and software engineers has taken on new form and become more complex and urgent [1].  The information and communications technology (ICT) sector has experienced very rapid growth over the last decade in Latvia, as throughout the world.  According to the Latvian Ministry of Economics [2], the sector produced 6.5% of GDP in 2006, with exports at a value of nearly EUR 130 million.  The IT industry continues to grow, and greater benefits can be expected in future years.
Latvia is a very small country with a limited ICT market, but demand for the training of software engineers and IT professionals increased when Latvia joined the European Union in May 2004.  It is expected that 4,000 new jobs will be created in the sector between 2007 and 2013 [3].  The demand for professional specialists in the industry is seen as an urgent problem [4].  According to Latvia IT companies, the shortage of IT specialists over the last few years has been around 8,000 people, and the number is continuing to grow.  The sector has been declared a national priority by the Latvian government, but discussions about government support for education in the sector remain on the agenda.  Only 1,300 students are graduated each year from those institutions of higher education which train IT specialists [5].
It has never been easy to train software engineers and other IT specialists, and there are two reasons for this.  First of all, the complex nature of the IT industry is based on the complexity of problems therein.  It is impossible to construct such complexity in a classroom setting.  According to Jazayeri, the situation is that if instructors try to reduce the complexity of issues to the point where students are capable of addressing them, that means that the work which they end up doing is not particularly realistic.  Secondly, successful IT specialists need a wide range of skills and talents.  Changes in the IT sector in terms of technologies, programming languages, development methodologies and tools are ongoing and very rapid.  The things which a university teaches today may well be out of date tomorrow.  Professionals, in other words, require ongoing learning, professional growth and training.

TEACHING IT: FROM INDUSTRY TO ACADEMIA
There are 13 institutions of higher education in Latvia where one can pursue an IT degree.  These are located in Rga, Daugavpils, Liepja, Jelgava, Rzekne, Ventspils, Valmiera, Jrmala and Jkabpils.  There are also 10 professional high schools where IT skills are taught.  Fully 80% of those who receive a degree in ICT are graduates of the Rga Technical University, the University of Latvia, and the Institute of Transportation and Communications.
The aim of higher education in terms of supporting the further development of the computing sector is dual [6].  First of all, there must be highly qualified and export-capable specialists who can work for companies and government institutions.  These are specialists who can design and produce complex information systems, manage projects, and learn independently about new technologies in the rapidly changing environment of computing.  Second, there must be academically educated specialists who are prepared to do scientific work research projects concerning the computer sciences in Latvia, as well as expert participation in the evaluation of new technologies and systems.
These are contradictory requirements, actually.  An academic higher education is based on science, while the knowledge that is needed in practical terms is based on engineering and a study of production processes.  The first bridge between industry and academia was established by representatives of higher education who developed learning profiles which address the needs of the IT industry.  The Latvian Ministry for Education and Science has a department which deals with practical education and maintains professional and occupational standards which allow employers to inform educators about the kinds of workers and qualifications that are needed in the industry.  No professional programme may be launched in Latvia until the relevant professional standard has been implemented.  ICT is the only sector in the economy which, thanks to the sectors Professional Education Council, has drafted all of the necessary standards (Table 1).

Table 1. The standards of the ICT profession

Information Technology

Telecommunications

Electronics

5th-level qualifications

IT project manager; systems analyst, software engineer

Telecommunications engineer

Electronics engineer

4th-level qualifications

Software developer; tester; computer network administrator

Telecommunications specialist

Electronics specialist

3rd-level qualifications

Software technician; computer systems technician

Telecommunications technician

Electronics technician

Unfortunately, educators are unable to use formal education to provide those skills that will be needed in the future of the rapidly changing world of technology.  As a result of this, there are attempts to create innovative approaches to create courses of learning which respond to  current trends and demands.  Universities and colleges are happy to offer electives which are sponsored by ICT companies.  Companies provide the equipment, software, textbooks and instructors.  Alternatively, they can simply provide the necessary financing.  Several universities and colleges in Latvia, as a result of this, have a Microsoft IT Academy, a CISCO Academy, or courses of study that are supported by Exigen Services DATI, the Baltic Technology Group, IBM Latvia, etc.

THE UNIVERSITY OF LATVIA:
AN INNOVATIVE APPROACH TO COMPUTING CURRICULA
The demands in the Latvian economy for highly qualified computing specialists have led the University of Latvia to take an innovative approach in terms of its academic programmes one which differs from that which is applied in other areas of the exact sciences.  In particular, the university offers undergraduate and graduate courses in the following areas of specialisation [7]:

1)  Computer science (CS), where the programme covers the mathematic processes of computer science, systems modelling, and issues related to artificial intellect;
2)  Information technologies (IT), covering the design and use of computer networks and clusters, as well as processing of sound and images;
3)  Information systems (IS), focusing primarily on database management systems, as well as the design, implementation and maintenance of information systems;
4)  Software engineering (SE), focusing primarily on software design and the production of software, including embedded systems;
5)  Computer engineering (CE), which covers the design and manufacturing of electronic equipment.

All students in the programme must spend one semester doing an internship outside the university itself.  This is done at the conclusion of the second year of undergraduate studies.  The professional internship allows students to decide whether they have made the right choice in selecting their study programme and their profession.  Close links with the industry are maintained with more than 50 internship contracts that have been concluded with leading IT companies such as Exigen Services DAT, Tieto Enator Alise, Datorikas institts, etc.
A particularly high level of academic co-operation with the industry involves the writing of doctoral dissertations on subject matter that is of interest to companies in the ICT sector.  Authors use the infrastructure and information base of such companies in preparing their dissertations.
As the provision of state-of-the-art training courses expands, academia hopes to establish a second bridge between industry and academia this one focused on lifelong professional education.

A LIFELONG EDUCATION PROJECT
In response to demand from the industry, the University of Latvia is involved in an EU-funded project known as Life Long Education for IT Professionals.  The aim is to prepare and distribute learning materials that are demanded by globally known industrial companies and certification programmes.  In particular, these include:

1)  Courses commissioned by IBM Latvia Service-oriented Architecture and Rational Tools in Software Development, developed by lecturer Dainis Dosbergs and docent Maksims Kravcevs for the university;
2)  A course commissioned by Exigen Services Latvia (ESL):  IBM Mainframe Architecture, developed by the ESL business centre manager Valdis Prodnieks and his colleagues;
3)  A course commissioned by the Latvian Information and Communications Technologies Association (LIKTA) in support of certification for IT professionals Using and Managing Information Systems: Plan, Build and Operate, developed by docent Darja mite and doctoral student Kris Rauhvargers;
4)  A course commissioned by LIKTA and the IS Cluster in support of certification of software testers in accordance with the scheme of the International Software Testing Qualification Board (ISTQB):  The Basics of Software Application Testing), developed by associate professor Guntis Arnicns.

This project is an excellent example of successful co-operation between industry and academia.  The courses are available to all universities, colleges, private educational institutions and even individuals in Latvia who are interested in them.
The project on lifelong education is still proceeding, but some results are already seen.  IBM has supported bachelors and masters degree courses at the University of Latvia.  In 2007, the ISTQB established a national committee in Latvia to prepare and certify software and system testers.  The learning programme, which was developed by software testing professionals from all around the world, helps to disseminate standardised content for the ongoing training related to the international qualifications scheme.  It is known as the ISTQB Certified Tester.  Some 50 professionals have already been certified by ISTQB representatives.  Professional European IT certification will be available as soon as LIKTA receives the necessary license.

ATTENDING SELECTED COURSES
Because IT companies need to ensure that their employees can learn the latest information and skills, the University of Latvia allows employees of ICT companies to attend one or more courses as part of the overall educational process.  Employees do not have to enter the university as such, they can simply audit the course that are of interest to them.  It is also possible to organise independent and more focused courses from groups of professionals.  This encourages companies which seek to improve the skill profiles of their employees to support continuous learning throughout each employees career.  Courses which are selected most often are Software Engineering, Software Quality, and certain courses which are focused on the industrys specific issues.  It seems, however, that most personnel departments remain unaware of what is on offer.

EUCIP CERTIFICATION
EUCIP [8] is a pan-European qualifications scheme for people who are entering the IT profession, as well as for IT professionals who wish to continue their professional development.  EUCIP is an independent, European-recognised scheme for IT professionals.  The certification allows IT professionals to document and affirm their knowledge and skills, thus improving their standing in the marketplace.  There are two levels of certification EUCIP Core (roughly equivalent to a college diploma) and EUCIP Professional (roughly equivalent to a professional bachelors degree).
LIKTA joined in an EUCIP-Mat project which is part of the Leonardo da Vinci Programme in 2006.  The aim is to develop courses and disseminate learning materials for information technology professionals.  In collaboration with colleagues in Estonia, Italy and Sweden, LIKTA plans to adopt interactive course materials which will be put online so as to help specialists prepare for professional EUCIP Core certification.

CONCLUSIONS
The increased applicability and popularity of information technologies are rapidly spreading through every aspect of modern societies.  This makes it more challenging to educate IT professionals and software engineers.  Professional growth is urgently needed not just among new specialists, but also in the existing resource pool.  The maintenance of a wide range of skills in the face of rapid technological progress means that industry must demand continuous professional growth and training for employees.  This means a true need to build bridges between industry and academia through the provision of educational services in response to this demand.
The University of Latvia has taken an innovative approach in the training of IT specialists.  The university seeks to enrich and expand the services which it provides to students and professionals alike.  The thing is, however, that all of the processes which have been discussed in this paper response to professional profiles, creation of industry-based courses, offering selected courses, implementation of professional certification programmes have met with a very poor response from the IT industry.  Specific and selected courses, for instance, are poorly attended.  There can be two reasons for this.  Either people just are not aware of the universitys potential in terms of offering lifelong education for It professionals in the industry, or the industry is simply reluctant to take advantage of those opportunities.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This paper received support from a European Social Fund project (VPD1/ESF/PIAA/05/ APK/3.2.4.2./0001/0063) and from the Leonardo da Vinci Programmes EUCIP-Mat project (Agreement No. 2006-EE/06/B/F/PP-169000).

REFERENCES
[1] M.Jazayeri. The Education of a Software Engineer. In: Proceedings of the 19th International Conference on Automated Software Engineering (ASE04) Vienna Tech. Univ., Austria, September 20-24, 2004, pp. xviii- xxvii
[2] Report on Economic Development of Latvia. Ministry of Economics, Republic of Latvia, Riga, December 2007, pp. 160.
See http://www.em.gov.lv/em/2nd/?cat=137&lng=en. Last viewed 22 March 2008.
[3] G.Kavia. Pieci gadi brvaj tirg. In: Sakaru Pasaule, Nr.4(48), April 2007, pp. 40-45.
[4] G.Kavia. K pankt straujku eksporta pieaugumu IKT nozar. In: Sakaru Pasaule, Nr.4(48), April 2007, pp. 48-50.
[5] J.Borzovs. A Review of Higher Education in the Field of ICT in Latvia in the 21st Century. Baltic IT&T Review, No. 4, 2007. (ISSN 1691-4694, electronic journal, http://www.ebaltics.com/00705343 )
[6] J.Borzovs. An Outstanding Example of University-Industry Partnership: The Latvian Case. In: G.Occhini, P.Nedkov (Eds.) Universities and the ICT Industry. Proceedings of the 2nd IT STAR Workshop on Universities and the ICT Industry (UNICTRY 07), 2007, pp. 35-44.
[7] Acredited undergraduate study programmes (available only in Latvian). See http://www.aiknc.lv/lv/prog_view.php?id=5361.  Last viewed 20 March 2008.
[8]  European Certification of Informatics Professionals. See http://www.eucip.com/. Last viewed 22 March 2008.


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19.08.2017


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