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Should universities offer Cobol classes?

Patrick Thibodeau | April 9, 2013
Differing views view from four schools about the need to teach the distinguished IT programming language

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 its career path.

Marlow says businesses understand such career concerns among students.

"It's not like these companies are looking for vast numbers of people who are only interested in doing Cobol," he said. But Cobol is getting wrapped around all sorts of packages and more modern language wrappers to bring the code into new environments, he added.

The decision by a university to teach Cobol is influenced 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 IS director at CMU. In those days, he said, "the IS department was all Cobol."

Scott today works at the Pittsburg Supercomputer Center as director of systems and operations.

Scott said he started teaching with an ulterior motive -- "to actually 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 about business systems to give students "a feel for what big business systems are like."

With one course, Scott said he is not training students for students for jobs as Cobol programmers. But he advises them to put the training on their resume. "If nothing else, it's a great talking point.

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


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