Friday, February 27, 2015

Academe, Industry, and Inferiority Complex

This week Davao is playing host to the 15th National Conference of the Philippine Society of IT Educators (PSITE). As part of the local chapter, I'm privileged to take part in the events. The occasion has been a good opportunity to meet new people. While the discussions may sometimes be infuriatingly circuitous and oftentimes loud, I like observing the dynamics of different groups.

The last session of today, the second day of the conference, was a panel that tackled the perennial question of industry-academe linkage. It got me thinking yet again of how we approach this particular dynamic. This relationship actually goes by many names. Some groups call it "industry immersion" and some call it "on-the-job training", depending on the nuance intended.

The discussants talked about the challenges of integrating industry with academe. For students, the exposure is a matter of course (hence, "on-the-job training") and already built into the program of studies they are part of. For teachers, it's a bit trickier. Teachers are paid to teach, but there is also the expectation that they also be exposed to "industry best practices." How then do you immerse them in the latter without sacrificing time for the former?

Whatever the angle, the end question that it seems everyone wants to address is, "How can academe meet the needs of industry?" The intention behind it is, I will grant, noble, because as teachers, we want to make sure that our students find work. At the same time, there is something fundamentally wrong with how it is framed.

The question itself -- "How can academe meet the needs of industry?" -- already presupposes that academe is subordinate to industry, that the aim of education is merely so that the students are ready to work when they graduate. And not only the students, but even the teachers themselves need to be retooled and retrained so that they are teaching the right things.

Why is this the state of affairs? Why can't it be the other way around, with academe leading the way for industry?

In the years that I have been teaching, I've come across some truly innovative student projects that industry is only starting to pick up on now. I had students work on Android encrypted communications and automated classroom management *four years ago*, and these things are only starting to show up in products now (including some being demonstrated by vendors in this week's conference.) So why do we always have to follow industry's narrow notion of what is relevant?

Three things come to mind.

First, it may really be the case that what we in academe teach our students is not up to par with current best practices in industry. We in academe can fall into a pattern of complacency, because it is more comfortable to teach what we already know than to seek out new topics that sometimes requires we throw out our lesson plans. Be that as it may, there shoule be no need to wait for cues from industry to effect these changes. This is the age of the Internet and many of those techniques and resources are already available online and may in fact be subject of research that is the forte of academe.

Second, we continue to suffer from a poor intellectual capital and commercialization infrastructure. Research from academe is not funnelling out to industry because the mechanisms are not in place. In the end, we have to wait for the developments to come by way of some vendor from outside the country for the ideas to gain any traction. This is a problem that afflicts not just academe but local industry.

Finally, there is the prevailing inferiority complex of academe to industry. On the surface, the reason is financial. In today's society, we equate worth with earning capacity and it's a truism that teachers earn a pittance compared to if they work in industry. However, I think the underlying problem has to do with the stultifying hierarchy that pervades academe which, when compared to the loose and nimble structure of industry, stifles creative approaches.

What do I mean by the last? It's only in Philippine academia that I've seen people addressed "Sir So-and-so" and "Ma'am So-and-so." In industry, people are on a first-name basis, even between the lowest employee and the general manager of the company. These are merely symptomatic indicators of the underlying cultural differences between academe and industry? How does each culture play in developing the sentiment of self-worth of its members?