Delivering Real-World Education in Classrooms

4 min read

"Talent is everywhere; training opportunities are not." - Arvind Krishna, CEO of IBM

It was my sophomore year in college and my second year in the United States, having moved from India to further my education. My alarm clock jolted me awake at 5am. It was pitch dark outside my dorm room window, and a foot of snow lay on the ground as an icy reminder of the cold Allentown winter that awaited outside. I bundled up and trudged to the bus stop. It was the first of two buses I would take every Tuesday and Thursday for three months to go to Lehigh University for a 9:45am Artificial Intelligence class.

I was the youngest student in the class. Everyone else was either a senior or a graduate student. I was also the only girl in the class — a fact pointed out by one of my fellow students.

To call the class tough would be an understatement. A graduate-level class, it was like being asked to prepare a gourmet Aaron Sanchez-esque meal when I was still learning how to boil an egg.

As I poured over the reading materials borrowed from graduate student friends and the library (in the very early Google days), I wondered how I would make it through the semester. Learning to code in BASIC on an IBM PC in my early teens had not prepared me for the advanced concepts required for this class.

Yet, to this day, it is one of my favorite classes from college and graduate school.

Half our grade depended on us writing an algorithm that simulated a grocery store bagger. Input a list of grocery items purchased and the algorithm bagged them in one or more bags in the best order possible such that the bags would not be overloaded, and the groceries would not get damaged, bruised or broken.

There were three things that made the class especially memorable:

  1. All assignments and projects were focused on practical real-world use cases.
  2. We were working with emerging tech that pushed me outside my comfort zone.
  3. The teaching assistant worked at Bell Labs (of the Unix, C, C++ fame).

A good grade at the end of the semester was the cherry on top.

Real-world learning

In the past decade, we have seen technology develop at an overwhelming speed. Agility is crucial to success. With new technologies emerging rapidly, people need access to a wider range of educational opportunities that can have immediate practical applicability in the work environment.

Companies like IBM, Google and Apple are moving toward not mandating college degrees and, instead, hiring new recruits with non-traditional educations or a high-school diploma. Learning opportunities through to real-world use cases are empowering. Fostering a growth-mindset culture where everyone is encouraged to think innovatively about solving real business problems and continuously learn has become table stakes.

As such, universities are seeing an increased demand for — and competition in — emerging technology courses. With organizations like Udemy and Coursera offering comprehensive just-in-time learning opportunities, universities are being pressed to maintain their competitive advantage by offering timely courses on in-demand technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and quantum computing and creating a taskforce of graduates that are ready to hit the ground running as they enter the workforce.

For universities, tackling this entirely in-house is challenging. Upskilling staff to upgrade existing computer lab environments with new, fast-evolving and emerging technologies is expensive and time-consuming.

Designing new course work, patterns and assignments that teach students how to utilize emerging technologies to innovate and solve pressing business problems requires substantive research, effort and self-training.

Empowering students and faculty

Enter IBM Blockchain for Education and IBM Cloud for Education, IBM’s new global offerings that are helping universities expand their course offerings and enable students’ access to emerging technology education and trainings via a fully managed virtual computer lab. These, bundled with train-the-trainer offerings, provide access to professionals that are implementing these technologies for their customers and in-house.

IBM Blockchain for Education offers students and learners seamless access to blockchain technology courses via on-cloud computer labs. They can quickly setup a virtual lab for their students with pre-configured code patterns across a variety of use cases that students and faculty can access with their university credentials. Universities are able to easily and quickly offer a wider range of courses in newer technologies without investing in expensive overhauls of their existing lab infrastructure.

The benefits include the following:

  • New online/remote education programs: Offer best-in-class emerging technology courses to students.
  • Expand/refresh capacity without capital expenditure: As the number of students and number of programs grow, there is need for the university to expand/refresh their computing lab infrastructure.
  • Reduce operational complexity: Managing computer lab infrastructure, patching, monitoring and managing license servers brings in operational complexities that can be avoided via a managed IBM Cloud service.
  • Improving student experience: Self-service, 24/7 access to software and labs in a secure computing environment with single sign-on integration.

As universities and organizations are thinking about post-COVID recovery, Nadia Hewitt, Emerging Technology Strategist at the World Economic Forum shared her global perspective on this topic: “The potential benefits of digitalization for various industries are more and more evident. Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies like Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, blockchain technology and big data are fast-tracking the digital transformation in numerous sectors across the continent. But governments and educators must first teach people to be lifelong learners, and they will need to find new ways to incentivize, recognize and assess the skills that people acquire along the way.”

Dr Supratik Mukhopadhyay, a professor of computer science who wants to arm his students with the latest and greatest in hands-on technological experience shared, “Blockchain has wide applications in diverse areas ranging from medical records to supply chain… We designed an online course “Blockchain and Cryptocurrency” to introduce an interdisciplinary group of students from our university and beyond to this powerful technology… powered by IBM’s Blockchain platform.”

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