A Conversation with IBM’s Naguib Attia: Revolutionizing Education

DUBAI – Naguib Attia has a rich history in academe.

He has taught in the computer science departments of Johnson C. Smith University, in North Carolina, where he served as chair, the American University in Cairo, in Egypt, and the University of Essex in England, where he received his Ph.D.

Now, as chief technology officer and vice president of technical leadership and the Africa skills initiative at IBM Middle East and Africa, he is using that background to help grow skills in the region. He works through a program called IBM Middle East and Africa University. The program has helped more than 1,600 students so far. They get courses that will help them to succeed at IBM, access to an e-learning portal and opportunities to meet with industry leaders. They also receive hands-on experience with the latest technologies, obtaining skills that will assist them in getting employment.

At a recent conference in Dubai that sought to link industries and academe, Attia spoke with Al-Fanar Media about the qualities he seeks in university graduates and how he thinks education should change.

When looking at students, what are some skills or qualities that you would like to see in them?

What I look for—and what the industry looks for—is someone who has what I call job category training, not degree training.  I’ll give you an example. Someone will give me the word “computer science.” What does that mean to me? Are you a software developer, a circuit designer, a system manager? What do you mean by “computer science?” That’s what we are creating now. We are creating that program to give job field requirement skills that can be taught as electives on top of your 4-year certificate so [graduates] can come out and answer those questions [and say], “I know software. I know software engineering. I know how to do circuit design.”

The second one is also what we call soft skills. I need someone who can run a conversation, who can understand that now they are going to deal with colleagues or businesses or partners, and understand what they are really telling them. And the soft skills are key—so, the personal capability of interacting, collaborating, teamwork. They’re not taught that.

I also say, “Where are your leadership skills?”

I always tell graduates when I give a speech at colleges, I say, “How many of you are graduating today?” They say, “Two, three hundred.” I say, “OK, how many of you will be a leader in 20 years? Not 200, maybe five. Why are these five leaders? Discover that now.”

When I am hiring someone, I am hiring someone who I can see down the road will take responsibility. So, you look at the three areas, and now we have someone who can survive an interview.

Is it hard to find those qualities in students and graduates in the region?

The word “find”—yes, maybe. But, did we plant it in their training? Did we plant it in their high school, middle school, college? I gave a speech in Rwanda two weeks ago. It was at the innovation conference, and I said, “When you wait until high school, it’s too late.” Kids who are two years old now use technology. So, when they are six years old, they are already better than their teacher.

We are the ones who are not giving them the right training. It’s not their fault. We actually receive them when they’re ready for acceleration and then we hold them back and say, “But oh, this is the curriculum.”

I don’t believe that one region has more talent than the other. It’s how we prepare them. It’s how you plant the tree.

 What do you think needs to be done to properly prepare students?

Elementary schools. Start in kindergarten. That’s a factor: Start as early as possible.

Secondly: Go revisit—which I said to many university presidents—I said, “Go and revisit your teachers’ college education. It needs to be completely revolutionized. You cannot go with the classical teachers you have today. They are out.” And I said, “We have a generation where a kid of six years old is better than his 45-, 50-year-old teacher, so if you don’t go back to the colleges of education and teachers, and prepare them years ahead of their kids, you are going to have this problem.”

I give them an example: A child two, three years old is using an iPad—in any country, it doesn’t matter. At two years old they know shapes, colors, figures, animals. I have seen a two-year-old say “hexagon.” I laughed. I said, “This term, I knew it in high school in my time.”  [That kid enters school] at six years [old], and a teacher doesn’t even know what a hexagon is. What do you do?

What about on the higher-education level?

Take all preparation of every teacher from kindergarten to top professors. They need to catch the revolution of technology. The way education [should be] done is not the old way. It is not coming to the board and using a pencil, and calculus.

It is about solving the problem from the bigger picture. How do you do it? Take it all—prepare a good teacher for high school, prepare professors who know how to teach, not know how to do research. There is a difference between a Ph.D. who researches, and a Ph.D. who knows how to teach what he learned. And those are teachers we need at college.

Are you telling this to universities in the region?

With this program I meet many of the ministries of education. I meet many of the university presidents and I tell them all these stories, and they say, “Yeah, you’re right.” I say, “OK, let’s do something.” But it has to come from the ministries of education.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

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