Should universities offer Cobol classes?

Differing views view from four schools about the need to teach the distinguished IT programming language

At universities today, Cobol is often taught as an elective, and even then it's likely offered at less than one in four schools.

For most students, this means the odds are high that they will attend a school that does not offer Cobol. There are strong opinions about whether that is the right direction.

There are billions of lines of Cobol code still in use at large businesses and in government agencies. Many experts say that will be the case for years to come.

The Social Security Administration, for example, has 60 million lines of Cobol, according to a government report last year.

"Students need to be able to do something," said David Dischiave, an associate professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. He wants students to emerge from college as critical thinkers who also have some practical skills, and that means learning Cobol.

"I professionally think that Cobol is alive and well and has been," said Dischiave. "I think there are a lot of people who want to put a stake in its heart and kill it and I don't know why."

Schools that offer Cobol tend to put it in classes that focus on business systems to give it context. At Syracuse, for instance, the first Cobol course is named "Enterprise Technologies."

"Employers are knocking on our door trying to hire as many [Cobol-trained students] as they can," said Dischiave. Syracuse also requires information studies students to take Java courses. Other programming languages are offered as elective courses.

A survey of 119 universities by Micro Focus, a maker of software for developing and modernizing enterprise applications -- and a pioneer Cobol vendor -- makes clear there are problems for organizations that need Cobol expertise.

The survey included schools around the world, though most of the respondents were in North America.

Micro Focus said that 73% of the universities polled do not have Cobol programming as part of their curriculum, 18% do have Cobol as a core part of their curriculum, and 9% offer Cobol courses as an elective.

The survey also found that 71% of respondents believe businesses will continue to rely on Cobol-based applications for the next 10-plus years, while 24% said they believe that it will be for around for more than 20 years.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham is among the schools that do not offer classes on Cobol.

"The demand just wouldn't justify us even offering a class," said Paul Crigler, an instructor in the Management, Information Systems and Quantitative Methods Department at the UAB School of Business.

Crigler is a self-taught Cobol programmer who learned the language on the job. He later taught it in the 1980s.

Today, Cobol "never comes up," said Crigler, noting that he rarely sees a internship job description that mentions Cobol.

It's an entirely different situation at Durham College, near Toronto. Students there are required to take two full years of Cobol along with a range of more modern languages.

Bill Marlow, a professor of IT at Durham, said students are usually skeptical about Cobol and express concerns about whether knowing Cobol will help them in their careers.

Marlow says businesses understand why students have such career concerns.

"It's not like companies are looking for vast numbers of people who are only interested in doing Cobol," he said. But, he added, Cobol is being brought into new environments because it's getting wrapped around all sorts of packages and incorporated in modern language wrappers.

A university's decision to teach Cobol is influenced by its advisory board, which is made up of large and small businesses. The advisory board at Durham College continues to stress the importance of Cobol, said Marlow.

At Carnegie Mellon University, Ray Scott has been instructing students in Cobol for about 30 years. It's just one course, and when he started teaching it he was also CMU's IS director. In those days, "the IS department was all Cobol," said Scott, who is now director of systems and operations at the Pittsburgh Supercomputer Center.

Scott said he started teaching with an ulterior motive -- "to get more students to know Cobol so I could hire them to work in the department." The course is now an elective.

But in bowing to the reality that times have changed, Scott moved a little away from a hard-core Cobol course and renamed it Introduction to Business Systems Programming. The course includes topics related to enterprise IT systems to give students "a feel for what big business systems are like."

Since he only teaches one course that covers Cobol, Scott acknowledged that he is not training students for jobs as Cobol programmers. But he advises them to list the Cobol training on their resumes. "If nothing else, it's a great talking point," he said.

Scott believes it helps the students to understand, for instance, how a legacy back-end system puts out a payroll. "They really don't see that," he said. "So much of what they do is Web interface."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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