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Should universities offer Cobol classes?

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

April 8, 2013 06:06 AM ET

Computerworld - 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.

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