Monday, April 18, 2005

The "Neither Here Nor There" Degree Courses

I've just completed yesterday, a job interview with a candidate with a degree in Multimedia from a local private university. From a fairly candid discussion with regards to the degree course content and the candidates job prospects, it has encouraged me to write about an issue that has been on my mind for a while - the "neither here nor there" degree courses.

I will use the above candidate, Sherry (not her real name) as an example. To give a bit of background, in the internet and multimedia industry today, there are typically 2 types of candidates employers are looking for - (1) the computer programmer (obviously) and (2) the graphic/multimedia designer (to design the various interactive screens, animated sequences etc.).

Sherry did very well for her SPM examinations - scoring some 6As and 2Bs. She wanted to join the IT industry which seems to provide a bright future career, and at the same time was "excited" by the "multimedia" concept. Hence her first choice of a Bachelor's Degree in IT, majoring in Multimedia in a local private university. Unfortunately, as such courses are in our education system (offered by many public and private colleges and universities), they are often "muddled" in their course content - consisting of a mixture of basic IT courses as well as teaching the students how to use certain multimedia tools. The resulting problem for her today:

  1. She will not be good enough to be hired as a Programmer, as her foundation in programming is still too weak (although she could have been good, given the right degree course with the potential she has shown in her SPM)

  2. She is skilled in multimedia tools such as Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Flash, Macromedia Director etc. However, being a pure science student in secondary school and university, she has no foundation in art and graphic design - making her a weak candidate for Web Designer. After all, one of the key criteria for the works of a web designer is to ensure aesthetic qualities in a web interface. The multimedia course is hence analogous to teaching a student how to use a paint brush, without showing the student how to paint pretty.

  3. It is unsurprising then to find that a large pool of the so-called IT graduates are finding it difficult to seek employment because what they have undergone in university puts them in "no-man's land", particularly in the IT industry. Our candid discussion led to the next step in which Sherry should take. The questions raised were like whether she should pursue a career in IT through further studies to improve her foundations in programming or whether she should pursue alternative careers, say enrolling in a management trainee programme.

Anyway, my key contentions as highlighted by Sherry's predicament are as follows:

  1. Unversities should stop offering "trendy" courses which are poorly thought-out on the mistaken notion that they will be "attractive" to prospective students. It is important that these courses are tailored to the right set of students for the right objectives. Degree courses should have sufficient academic rigour in exercising the analytical and thought process instead of merely teaching skills in using a software application.

  2. Teaching software product knowledge in tools such as Photoshop, Flash and Director are more applicable as "Certificate"-based courses (which students may take separately at the University or at other commercial colleges) as these are definitely not "degree" based courses. As an analogy, Microsoft Word is to writing as Photoshop is to drawing. One should not be awarding degrees for "studying" Microsoft Word!

  3. Universities and colleges are contributing to our pool of unemployed graduates by offering courses which are not providing the right foundations for the relevant job positions in the respective sectors.

  4. By packaging these product skills as a degree course, it also leads to serious mismatch with regards to the graduates employment and remuneration expectations. Graduates of the above "Multimedia" and other similar degrees are expecting to be paid the same as graduates from other more rigourous courses like "Software Engineering", as well as similar rosy career paths. These expectations are unfortunately far from reality. Graduates in "Multimedia" in this case are competing against graduates from Art & Design Schools who are possibly weaker from an IT perspective, but are stronger from a design and aesthetic perspective - and they come at a much cheaper price! The Art school students are usually weaker in IT skills, but that can be easily compensated by a few short months of training on the various design software applications like Photoshop, Flash and Director (not very difficult applications to learn - hence not suitable for degree courses). Students from Art schools generally have lower salary and career prospects expectations, and hence are easier to be satisfied and retained by employers. Hence, from the above perspective, why should employers fork out more money for these multimedia graduates, incur more effort in growing and retaining them while at the same time, they are likely to be less artisitically inclined than the Art school graduates? Employers will not pay the same salary, and offer the same growth path to "multimedia designers" than software engineers, as the latter clearly have more challenging and sophisticated skills required and their growth space is wider and more technically in-depth.
The Bachelors degree in Multimedia is not the only such course around which is weak and often do not meet the demands of the IT employers. There are now plenty of fanciful IT courses with trendy names hoping to attract students into these faculties - a commercial ploy by many of these colleges. Some of the courses which I find are particularly weak and are "neither here nor there" would be degrees in "e-commerce", "internet technology", "multimedia application management" etc. What makes the situation worse is many students specifically choose some of the above subjects because they are known to be less academically rigourous, and hence providing them with an easier path to a degree in IT or computer science.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of objective information evaluated by independent parties on the usefulness of these courses in the job market. Students are therefore advised to consider very carefully the courses to choose to subscribe to in university as a supposedly minor difference between "multimedia" and "computer science" will actually result in vastly different outcomes subsequent job placement and future career options.

3 comments:

aznijar said...

Interesting and quite in-depth observation.

we're cousins then, yeah, me being the product of the poorer uni at Oxford, the polytechnic, in Mech. Eng.

You know what? I'll do something in the same line on Mech Eng, we compare notes, then maybe we publish a joint-paper? What say you?

On another note, dzof have some valid arguments about the differences of local and twinned programs. Maybe we could check one program and compare as well, to include in the joint paper?

Lastly, I normally refers to Times Uni guide, since Brookes has alwasys been getting good reviews there.

Tiara said...

I'm a freelance web designer. I started web designing as a hobby when I was about 10 and I had my first professional job (Asha Gill's official site) when I was around 18, before I entered college. I am now doing a BA in Mass Communications and I'll be 20 soon. The websites I design and maintain have received compliments and rave reviews. It's simple, but easy to understand and navigate and accessible to all.

I was mediocre in Art/Design classes. However, I excelled in understanding my clients and giving them what they want. I have strengths in public relations and communications (oddly enough I am NOT majoring in PR) and I create websites that reflect the person's personality.

Web design is NOT akin to "using a paintbrush". There are websites which are specifically made as art, yes, but for the most part web design and web development is more on the side of industrial design - the design has to be compatible and consistent with the CONTENT, and is accessible by the user. I've seen many websites that are really pretty, but they load slowly and/or are not user-friendly at all. They defeat the purpose of websites; to inform and communicate via the Internet.

You can have someone who's a master at Photoshop or Flash but ends up making a broken, inaccessible website. You can have someone who may not be good at drawing, but their websites get accolades because it offers what the visitors need and want in a way that is easy, simple, and intuitive. It's not about looks; it's about function, it's about content, it's about communication. It's about a LOT of things.

Sherry, if you want to have a career in web design, START WEB DESIGNING ALREADY. Find some people who are willing to hire you and make some websites for them. You might have to work pro-bono (or really cheaply if you're lucky) for a while; live with it. Build up a portfolio. Then use that portfolio to get higher-paying, more fulfilling projects.

That portfolio is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING you can do to advance your career. You can have a degree in Ultimate Web Design or Underwater Basketweaving or whatever, it doesn't actually matter all that much. But MAKE THAT PORTFOLIO.

Tony, please pass this message on to your friend Sherry if you can :)

Anonymous said...

Good on you tiara, well done. Talk about enterprising. Now this is a Malaysian worthy mentioning.

Highschool Students & Graduates...if you are reading this, look up to tiara , a crowning example of hardwork, enthusiasm & determination..really gives "yakin boleh" meaning. It goes to show if you seek, you will find. Also researching your niche job would be a good idea. Just be patient in reaping those rewards. An 'i want it now' society is not exactly healthy.