The myths and realities of studying computer science

Aman Sethi
Burhaan Kinu

On nights that Kshetrapal Singh, 17, worked his part-time job as a night watchman, he dreamed of computer science.

"Of everything taught in school, the only subject that can get me a proper job is computers," said Kshetrapal, a student in class 12 at Sangam Vihar's Government Boys Senior Secondary School, known locally as the pahadi school. "And that's the one thing they aren't teaching me."

Kshetrapal can do little more with computers than switch them on and type. Partly this is because he's a humanities student, and therefore effectively ineligible for computer classes. It doesn't help that the school in Sangam Vihar has four thousand boys and only 10 computer terminals.

Students in middle school must wait months for the chance to spend 20 minutes with a machine. Class 12 students like Kshetrapal have never had the opportunity to use a computer at school.

"By the time the computer lab was built, we were told to concentrate on our board exams," said Kshetrapal. "It is very frustrating."

Kshetrapal feels he is only a few computer monitors and class hours away from a secure, well-paying job. But the experiences of Kshetrapal's own teachers suggest that the subject no longer guarantees meaningful employment.

Kshetrapal, a class 12 student at the pahadi school, feels learning computers could be his ticket to a job.

Kshetrapal, a class 12 student at the pahadi school, feels learning computers could be his ticket to a job.

Learning the wrong lessons

In theory, any student in class 11 or 12 can choose to study computer science or 'information practices', a less technical subject. In practice, most public and private schools, including the pahadi school, offer the subject only for those studying physics, chemistry and mathematics.

Regardless of the form it takes, an education in computers in Delhi schools tends not to prepare students for a career.

State authorities have tried hard to make more computers available, but the pahadi school didn't get its first machine until last year. Students at the school are expected to spend two periods a week at the computer lab, but end up visiting monthly at most.

"If they miss that class, two months pass between lectures," said Manish Kumar, the information and communication technologies (ICT) teacher at pahadi school. "Children love the lab, but the gap between classes is so long, they often forget what they learned last time."

The pahadi school at least tries to give each child time in a lab. A number of ICT teachers at other schools confessed that they simply read the textbook out loud to their students in classrooms without computers.

"School principals don't take this class seriously," said one ICT teacher in Delhi. "They send us 100 kids together. What can I teach them in one 40-minute class?"

The pahadi school in Sangam Vihar has four thousand boys and only 10 computer terminals.

The pahadi school in Sangam Vihar has four thousand boys and only 10 computer terminals.

Even ICT programs that are taught correctly may not prepare students well for future study or work.

Every year, IIT Kanpur professor Dheeraj Sanghi begins his introductory computer science lecture with the same counter-intuitive message: "If you have studied computer science in Class 11 and 12, you are at a disadvantage."

The problem, said Sanghi, is the standard school syllabus. Most school students in India are taught C++, a powerful and useful computer language that has widespread industrial applications.

"But C++ is so hard that we scare off a good 20% of our students," Prof. Sanghi said. "That talent is lost forever." Those who persist, he added, end up spending more time grappling with C++'s abstruse syntax than on refining the logic that undergirds any good programme.

In 2013, the Central Board of Secondary Education decided to replace C++ with another language called Python, which also has widespread applications and is much easier to learn.

"In my experience, kids who start with Python and graduate to C++ become much better programmers," Prof Sanghi said.

But the Board soon reversed its decision.

"We faced resistance from the private textbook lobby, who didn't want to invest in fresh textbooks for Python," said a source in the CBSE who disapproved of the rollback. "Teachers also protested, as they would have to prepare new lesson plans and learn a new language."

Python was made optional, then removed from the syllabus altogether. A dalliance with progressive education ended.

Now computer science is taught the way most other subjects are — with an emphasis on rote memorisation of lessons, rather than on structured, logical thinking.

An exception that proves the rule

Students who succeed in computer science tend to be exceptional. Abdul Basit, for example, downloaded an algorithm-design manual on his dad's cheap smartphone to become a better programmer.

Abdul attends class 12 the Shaheed Amir Chand Government School in Ludlow Castle. It is a world apart from Kshetrapal's pahadi school. Where the pahadi school barely has a playground, Ludlow Castle has its own swimming pool, three computer labs, and a competent computer science programme.

Abdul first used a computer in class 1, while he was enrolled in a private school. But it's at Ludlow Castle where he's grown into a gifted coder, his teachers say, suggesting government schools can at least nurture talent if they are given the resources to do so.

Government schools can nurture talent if they have resources. Abdul Basit learnt to be a gifted coder at his government school in Ludlow Castle.

Government schools can nurture talent if they have resources. Abdul Basit learnt to be a gifted coder at his government school in Ludlow Castle.

But Abdul wouldn't have his skills without a great deal of independent study. "It is fun to write big programmes with many lines of code," said Basit. One ambitious project was a custom version of "Snake", a game popularised by the early Nokia cellphones.

Abdul hasn't been able to test the game on the school's ageing machines, as they crash each time he tries to run complex programmes.

"I've written it out in my notebook," he said. "Ma'am has checked it, and it seems to be fine."

Despite these difficulties, the opportunity to learn code has given Abdul reason to value his education, unlike Kshetrapal, who feels his education has hobbled him before he's even graduated from school.

"I'll have to become a businessman. I'll never get a job with an education like this," said Kshetrapal glumly one afternoon. "I will become self-employed. It is the only way."

Techies envy janitors

One morning in August, a gaggle of nerdy young computer teachers protested outside the office of Telecommunications Consultants India Limited (TCIL), the state-owned company tasked with implementing ICT@School. This is the central government project that financed the construction of computer labs in schools like Kshetrapal's.

TCIL had subcontracted the project to a consortium of Ricoh, the Japanese electronics giant; Ricoh's India partner, Fourth Dimension Solutions Private Limited (FDS); and Airtel.

"We are the lowest-paid employees in school," said a young teacher from a government school in south Delhi. "Even the janitors get paid more than us."

"And the janitors get paid on time," said a young man who taught in West Delhi. "We haven't been paid in three months."

The ultimate ignominy, a third teacher concluded, was that they weren't even paid minimum wage. "FDS directs us to Ricoh; Ricoh sends us to TCIL. We've just been going round and round."

When the contract for these teachers was signed in 2015, a TCIL official said, the Department of Education (DoE) committed to paying each of them only Rs 9000 per month.

Since then, the Delhi government has raised the minimum wage twice. But because the contract lacked any provisions for raises, ICT teachers have not benefitted.

So who should pay the higher wages?

In an email, Ricoh India said the DoE was the principal employer of these instructors.

Ricoh's partner, FDS, said the Ricoh-FDS consortium would pay each teacher the new minimum wage of Rs 16,148 per month. Yet some teachers still have not been paid the new wage because schools have not signed off on their attendance.

"Salaries in respect of Instructors whose attendance is received in time are disbursed by 10th of the month," wrote the FDS in an email.

Is there any hope for computer graduates? Computer teachers complain that they are not even paid the minimum wage.

Is there any hope for computer graduates? Computer teachers complain that they are not even paid the minimum wage.

The teachers at the demonstration, however, said schools had signed off on their attendance without them getting their salaries.

"The company is coming up with excuses like attendance as a pretext to not pay us," one ICT teacher said. "I haven't been paid in three months, so I don't know if my salary has been revised."

TCIL and the Delhi government did not respond to multiple requests for comment over a fortnight.

Most of the young men and women gathered outside TCIL boasted an impressive array of degrees: almost everyone had a Masters of Computer Applications, and some had engineering degrees like Masters of Technology.

Each one was the brightest, most promising child from families who had sacrificed a great deal to educate their children. Their parents had worked as a night watchman in Haryana, a pump operator in the irrigation department in Bihar, a headmaster in a Delhi government school, and a clerk in a provincial office in Uttar Pradesh.

Each one was a graduate of a private college, or a distance learning programme, or a government polytechnics institute, or a vocational course.

Each one had bought into the promise of a technical education in the supposedly growing IT sector, and had taken this job in desperation when all other avenues of employment failed.

Recent studies indicate their experiences are representative. In February this year, the India bureau of the global consultancy firm McKinsey said that nearly half of the country's IT workforce would be "irrelevant" in the next three to four years. The executive recruitment firm Head Hunters India estimated that the IT industry could lose 600,000 jobs during this period.

So here the teachers were, fighting for three months worth of arrears of a salary that may or may not qualify as minimum wage.

"I don't know what else to do," one of them remarked. "Sometimes I think I should open a private institute to teach computer courses."

What would graduates of the institute do?

"Stand on the road and beg for their salaries," he said.