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COMPUTERWORLD | Articles | Government Policies
13 Oct

Bulgarian Universities Can Become the New Magnets for Direct Foreign Investment

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Roumen Nikolov is the Vice-Dean of the Department of Information Technologies (DIT) of the Faculty of mathematics and informatics (FMI) of the Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridsky”. He is one of the most active representatives of the Bulgarian academic society in the field of e-learning and modernization of the IT education in the country. We contacted him to hear his comments on the state and perspectives of the IT education in Bulgaria

Prof. Nikolov, FMI participates in projects on distance learning for a decade now. What has changed during these years and has the Bulgarian IT business started to show interest in participating?
As of 1995 the FMI's Center of information society technology systematically develops a capacity and expertise in the e-learning area, also known lately as „technologically enriched learning". We base our experience on the numerous international and local projects in the field. Right now we take part in two of the biggest projects in the field from FP6 -Kaleidoscope and TEN Competence. Until now we have participated in over 40 projects in the area and have the confidence and acknowledgement of the most powerful centers in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Following the rule "practice what we preach", we introduced such a master program in the 1995/96 academic year. Today about 60% of the master courses in FMI use the methods and technologies of the e-learning - in the programs of e-education, software technologies, mobile technologies, etc.
We emphasize on the so called „blended learning", based on flexible and effective forms, methods and resources for education. This is the case with the Master program in the field of IT management we deliver together with the Stevens Institute of Technology, NJ, USA. The implementation of the e-learning is, like any other innovation, connected with...learning. That is why last year we introduced the master program in E-learning. Nevertheless, until recently the implementation of e-learning was not regulated in Bulgaria but lately it gains an official status, along with the creation of rules and technological environment for its delivery. Several initiatives and projects came up - the projects i-University, i-Class and i-Net of the previous government, as well as the projects for national educational portal and e-content development of the current government. At the same time several major IT companies like Cisco, Microsoft, HP, IBM, Oracle, SAP, Intel are among the main engines for the development and implementation of the e-learning initiative in Bulgaria. A number of Bulgarian IT companies develop software and e-content for e-learning mainly for export purposes and lately, for Bulgaria too. More and more Bulgarian companies acknowledge e-learning is a fast-growing global business and its successful implementation in Bulgaria will contribute for the heightening of the competitiveness of the country in all its economy sectors.
In this context, you are constantly stating that e-learning is mainly a business. Is this the case in Bulgaria?
Е-learning is mainly a business in US and Canada - North America holds over 65% of the market but Western Europe is considered one of the fastest growing markets. Today e-learning is an entire industry and the main players in it are the universities, major companies, the innovative SMEs, entrepreneurs, investors, government bodies, NGOs, etc. The number of partnerships between producers and distributors of e-learning and academic institutions grows for the sake of the creation of virtual universities. The aim is to offer courses for university education, corporate education and certification programs. For Europe these processes are still forthcoming and we must be prepared. We already have the European industrial group for e-learning - eLIG, and we try to attract a number of prominent experts in the field and to organize international meetings and conferences in Bulgaria. A good example is the forthcoming conference „Learning networks for Lifelong Competence Development" to take place on 30-31 March in Sofia.
The development of the Bulgarian industry of e-learning can be considered one of the strategic concepts for our country. It may be even called a "meta-industry" because it influences positively all the other economy sectors and could be export-oriented as well. It can become Bulgaria's most valuable competitive advantage on our way towards the information society and knowledge-based economy. This industry, as well as all the others, needs investment and the universities can become an instrument for its attraction for the entire economy if they quickly adapt to the requirements of the global market for specialists.
You have direct observations on the IT education in Bulgaria and abroad. How do you assess its quality?
It is not a secret that in the quality of the Bulgarian education has suffered a lag in the last 10-15 years. The reason lies mainly in the lack of clear vision, a national politics and program to mirror the need for improvement and investments' attraction in this sector. There is still a concept that the education is a "black hole" where money of the Bulgarian taxpayers disappears, and not а competitive sector of the Bulgarian economy. Still, a very limited number of people take into account that the education of IT specialists is a specific "production", which needs special measures and investment - for example, in infrastructure such as classes, scientific labs, hi-tech business incubators and scientific parks, high-speed networks and computer equipment. The lack of sufficient and well-prepared IT specialists is becoming a major obstacle not only for the IT sector's development but for the entire economy. This is the biggest problem for the attraction of investments in the economy. The first question every potential investor poses is „Do you have prepared specialists?". The answer usually is „We do have good ones but they are not enough". I think this is the time when Bulgaria's fate is decided - to join the EU family, or to swallow its last-but-one place in every chart.
Are you confident that "Bulgarian IT specialists are among the most promising" statement is still well-deserved?
The quality of the Bulgarian IT specialists' education has experienced a certain decline but less than that in other areas. Apart form the subjective explanations, there are a number of objective circumstances that contribute to this. Here we can mention the accelerating global competition in the university education and its growing accessibility in USA an EU. I cannot leave behind the European programs for student mobility, which actually transform into programs for "one-way mobility". The thirst for IT specialists is immense in a global perspective and countries such as Bulgaria tend to become major exporters of "knowledge and e-skills" for EU and US. But this natural process can be brought to reasonable dimensions only with the help of all the institutions concerned - government, business, universities, NGOs, schools.
The Bulgarian universities thrive to improve the quality of the education as a whole, including that of IT specialists. I will cite the FMI's example - 3 years ago we prepared an analysis of the IT industry's needs for specialists and FMI's potential to teach them. We undertook a systematic restructuring and implementation of new curricula and programs in the IT sphere. Besides new Bachelor and Master programs, we created a new strategy for cooperation with the IT industry. We constantly discover new opportunities for collaboration with universities with notable reputation in areas where we still do not have enough experience and resources. A good example for this is the joint Master program of the Stevens Institute of Technology. If all these efforts meet the necessary praise and support form the government and the business, we will soon be experience the Renaissance of the Bulgarian IT education and this will not be a case of fragmentary successes of one or two "talents".
Which, in you opinion, are the Bulgarian IT specialists' "incubators", apart from FMI?
Naturally, the biggest incubator for IT specialists outside FMI is the Technical University in Sofia. It is of great importance for all the universities, educational centers in Bulgaria and the firms, as well to join their efforts to strengthen Bulgaria's position as a regional and European center for education and career development of IT specialists. In order for this to become a reality, though, we need a grand program for e-education development in Bulgaria and our transformation into a major exporter of educational services, e-content and related software products.
A number of IT companies - Bulgarian and foreign - do take part in the educational process in the technical universities in Bulgaria. What is the beneficial scheme for cooperation with them?
This is a very useful and important initiative for the country. Similar schemes are normal for the United States, Canada, Australia, EU and Asia. FMI takes active part in these processes on international and local level. Our partners in several projects in areas such as software engineering, е-business, е-learning, е-government, е-work, etc. form FP4, 5 and 6 were leading European universities as wells as major companies. We already have partnership agreements with Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and we are preparing such with Intel and HP.
This cooperation is of utmost importance not only to the education itself but also to the R&D development, innovations, the technology transfer and entrepreneurship. This is how the ideas for creation of knowledge-based economy become a reality. The universities gradually turn into a natural environment and infrastructure for this economy's development.
What are the other methods for the IT education quality improvement?
The close connection between R&D and education is of great importance for the improvement of the quality of IT education. Here are a few examples. After our first e-learning projects we developed a course in this area. Now we have a master program on e-learning and a lot of our post-graduate students and alumni participate in local and international projects. There is the case with the е-business - after our first project in FP4 we developed the course „Business with internet" and now we have a master's and pos-graduate program as well as a plethora of international partners. Right now we take part in one of the biggest FP6 projects in the area of e-government - the project GUIDE, coordinated by British Telecom. Of course, after the first courses we will develop a master program for e-management on which we are working with the Basel Technical University, for example.
You are involved in the preparation of the IT Master programs. Which are the most sought now and what do they offer?
Undoubtedly, the most attractive Master programs are those in software technologies, information systems and distribution systems and mobile technologies. Every year we take about 50 students in each of these programs. There is a significant interest in the programs for artificial intellect development, e-learning, bio-medical informatics, mathematical economics, probabilities and statistics, etc. Today our would-be masters are over 500 and our ambition is for them to become even more. These programs offer a 1-year "production" process for specialists and the third semester usually passes with an internship in an IT company and a preparation of a diploma thesis. Thus we pertain the "live" and effective connection between the faculty and the IT industry.
The next edition of the CeBIT fair is at the threshold. If the Bulgarian IT education was a hi-tech product, how would you promote it?
I will repeat my appeal - invest in the Bulgarian IT education to help us create a sustainable global competition and opportunities for participation in the development of the industrial sector.

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