Glaring gaps in computer science classes hitting hard on job skills

President Uhuru Kenyatta among students in a computer lab during the official opening of the Zetech University Complex in Ruiru, Kiambu County.

As digital technologies transform the world, Kenyan universities lack some of the latest skills in their computer science degree curricula, a pilot study by the World Bank on the local ICT labour market has revealed. 

Researchers analysed bachelor of science and master of science degrees offered at the School of Computing and Informatics at the University of Nairobi, along with similar degrees at Moi University.

Dr Harri Ketamo, a data scientist and the principal researcher in the study, said while the two universities have good academic curricula in computer science, significant gaps were observed in big data analytics, machine learning, cloud computing and Internet of Things.

“Additional gaps also exist in cutting edge software development, coding, advanced programming languages such as Python and edge computing,” said Ketamo. 

It means studies in artificial intelligence (AI) are still in their infancy in Kenyan higher education system, just as it is in most universities across Sub-Saharan Africa. The study released on January 6 also noted that most computer science degree curriculums and course descriptions have no information on skills students can gain or present to potential employers. 

In their quest to understand what type of digital skills, knowledge, competencies and abilities employers in Kenya need, the researchers used Digital Twin, a highly sensitive AI-enabled data science tool, to analyse job advertisements from selected online job portals and computer science curricula from the two universities. 

“From the data, we were able to identify historical trends as well as predict what skills or jobs are trending or down-trending in Kenya and those most likely not to be sought in future,” said Anu Passi-Rauste, the co-author of the pilot study, Labor Market Analysis and Curriculum Gap Assessment Using Big Data in Kenya.

According to Saori Imaizumi, an education specialist who coordinated the study at the World Bank, the web-crawling AI tool read and identified more than 60,000 online job advertisements from 2015 to June 2019. 

“Using the same methodology, the tool read and analysed curricula from the universities’ websites and identified the gap against the skills demand,” says Imaizumi. 

Subsequently, Kenya is experiencing an acute shortage of professional software developers that comprise computer research scientists, hardware engineers, network architects, programmers and database administrators. 

Skill gaps

Outside the universities, the study observed critical skill gaps within the ICT industry itself, especially in telecommunications. Such gaps are in industry whereby platforms operate without ISO 9001 which is the basic international standard for a quality management system. Gaps are also inherently common in enterprise package software whereby companies operate without licence or certification from software developers such as IBM, Oracle, JAVA or Android. 

The World Bank suggested need for university-industry partnerships, where special short courses could be provided by the industry which offers those professional certificates. What this means is in addition to graduating with an information and technology degree, a student would also exit the university with a professional certificate that would enhance chances of employment. 

But whereas major knowledge gaps were in advanced computing, researchers noted gaps in basic ICT skills in editing, Microsoft Office, Photoshop and Illustration and other creative skills. The research concluded that in terms of ICT basic skills, the curricula of the two universities were not far from the skills required at the industry level.

Nonetheless, granted that the two universities and probably many others in the country are providing digital education that mostly matches the general ICT labour market demand, there is urgent need for the universities to update their curricula in order to equip their students with latest computing fields including the Internet of Things, edge computing, cloud computing, and big data.  

If necessary, World Bank suggests universities could close this gap through curricula review from time to time, short courses and workshops. 

In addition, the World Bank has urged universities to explore the need to establish partnerships with high profile computing companies such as IBM, Amazon, Microsoft, Google to offer students internships and attachments to supplement the curriculum.

The researchers noted that a system can be built in every university to offer individual learning and career path options for each student.

Future careers

According to Imaizumi, who is an expert on educational technology, students need to be provided with information in regard to selection of computing course units in relation to job opportunities and future career progress.   

Besides, there is need for students to be exposed to use of online short courses to supplement the curriculum gap. The issue is that unlike so many other skills taught at the university, computing knowledge is growing too fast. Even in circumstances where the curriculum would be updated regularly, it might not necessarily meet with the skills demanded in the labour market.  

The World Bank says there is need for universities to analyse the skills and competencies of the lecturers regularly. In this case, whereas the course offering at Moi and Nairobi currently covers a big chunk of skills demand in Kenya, continuous changes in industries, new computing trends and emerging technologies make an up-skilling of faculty members a critical component for universities. 

The current call to upgrade computer degrees should be extended to cover other technological fields, whereby students might be getting equipped with yesterday skills that nobody wants.