Thursday, April 4, 2013

Listen, Learn, Understand – My Passage Through India

I recently returned from an eight day trip to India that was unlike any other business trip I’ve ever taken.  That’s quite a statement since in the past 25 years, I’ve taken quite a few and to all parts of the world. This trip was intriguing for two reasons.  First, I have a personal connection to India. My father was raised there. As a result, I felt quite at home in a country that most Westerners find overwhelming or exotic. In fact, many of the people I met on this trip reminded me of my family members.

Second, this is a unique and pivotal moment for India.  Home to 1.1 billion people, this diverse and huge nation is on the verge of taking a front row position on the world stage. Virtually every area of this complex society is modernizing at a rapid pace, and no part so rapidly or comprehensively as its educational system.
For the past decade at least, India has been investing heavily in education.  It is building schools, investing in equipment, expanding and developing faculty.  This investment is being spearheaded not only at the government level, but by expatriate Indians who are returning to India to invest and modernize.

This intense focus on education seems to be reaching a tipping point, as two of the country’s biggest goals are to provide education for everyone at a young age, and to vastly improve the availability of a quality, high level technical education.  We believe Quanser can play an important role in achieving the latter goal.

Paul Gilbert of Quanser (right)  and members of the City of Markham, Ontario, Trade Mission meet with IIT-Madras  faculty members to develop a better understanding of the challenges facing engineering educators in India. 
An Immense Need for Quality Engineering Graduates
As in other countries, India’s engineering education occurs on many levels. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) specialize in high level engineering education, much like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) does in the United States.  Eight IITs exist at the moment, with another eight scheduled to come on stream by 2015.  Over 100 Tier 1 universities have engineering departments, while approximately another 3,500 Tier 2 schools (public and private) also teach engineering or engineering technology. Ten years ago this system was graduating well under 100,000 engineers annually; today, they are graduating 700,000 engineers a year. (This compares to 7,000 annually in Canada and 65,000 in the United States.)  Anecdotally, only 25 per cent of that number is immediately employable, while the remaining graduates need some degree of retraining after they get jobs in industry. 

Clearly it’s not hard to identify India’s major technical educational issue – Quality; in that I include quality teaching and research materials, courseware, faculty development and overall best practices for motivating the new generation of engineering students.

The need to enhance Quality in engineering education is why Quanser is paying such attention to India.  We’re recognized around the world as a provider of high quality engineering educational materials for teaching and research in controls and robotics. 

Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities
My role on this trip was to gain a deeper, detailed understanding of the challenges faced by India’s different engineering institutions. To that end, I met with senior level educators and government officials in seven cities: Gandhinagar, Chennai, Mumbai, Madras, Delhi, Jodhpur, and Coimbatore.

During that process, we started identifying ways Quanser solutions and services could help meet the diverse schools’ needs. I also took part in conversations with key educational, government and industry decision makers, to learn how they saw their institutions growing in the coming years, and how they could efficiently and effectively make their schools into models of 21st century engineering education.

Certainly such a conversation extends far beyond selling equipment. It involves a strategic discussion of so many things, including ways to raise the level of teaching, how to set up a modern controls and robotics labs, ways to encourage collaborative projects between Canadian and Indian universities, the potential of various virtual lab programs, how and when to conduct training, workshops and much more.

These conversations often centered on ways to excite and motivate the new generation of engineering students. Like their North American counterparts, these young Indian women and men respond to new methods, materials and learning environments. Theirs is the first generation of engineering students entering university familiar with cell phones, video games and tablets; a generation that is characterized by short attention spans, a remarkable ability to multi-task, and a strong interest in hands-on, practical learning.  Understanding them is the key to our helping Indian educational institutions achieve success.

Sunny Ray (left), Quanser's Channel Manager for South Asia and India, is working closely with Quanser CEO Paul Gilbert  (right)  to inform Indian engineering professors and deans of the ways engineering education can be enhanced through a strategic relationship with Quanser. 

This trip was not a one-man enterprise – far from it. Working closely with me was Sunny Ray, Quanser’s Channel Manager for South Asia and India. Sunny was tireless, meeting with engineering professors and deans to discuss the state of their curriculum, and joining the City of Markham, Ontario, Canada’s Trade Mission, which was meeting with Indian business and government officials.  He gave numerous presentations about Quanser, which is itself based in Markham. Thank you, Sunny, for your stalwart efforts.

Modernizing a Nation Through Education
To sum up, this trip represents to me a significant milestone in our efforts to understand the diverse, worldwide marketplace, as we strive to provide the cost effective and pedagogical effectively solutions our clients require.  For our colleagues and clients in India, we’re attempting nothing less than helping them build their nation through education. That’s a source of immense satisfaction for us.

This trip was a milestone on a very personal level as well.  Given my family’s connection to India, I take great pride in the fact that Quanser is committed to helping one of the oldest cultures in the world transform itself into one of the most vibrant modern communities in the future.

-       -  Paul Gilbert
Paul Gilbert is Chief Executive Officer of Quanser, Inc.

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