Academic journal article Journal of Information Technology Education

Teaching Delivery Issues-Lessons from Computer Science

Academic journal article Journal of Information Technology Education

Teaching Delivery Issues-Lessons from Computer Science

Article excerpt


'IT', in its broadest sense, is of overwhelming importance to modern societies and their educational systems. The collapse of traditional industries has been mirrored by the growth of technology based systems, and the ability for people to be able to function fluently within them will determine the success or otherwise of the parent society.

People need not only to know how to 'use' IT (in the sense of getting money from an ATM at their bank) but also increasingly will need to 'understand' it. Anecdotally, numerous employees can use version N of a word-processor, but are floored by the appearance of version N+1, since they have only a superficial, button-pressing comprehension. Such people are suffering from inadequate conceptual understanding--a shortfall in IT education.

There is thus a significant problem in education, which stretches from pre-school through adulthood. There is an argument to be held over the 'depth' of IT education necessary for the broader population, but it is clear that there is a need to go beyond the rote learning of which button makes what happen. The need for specialists--that is, advanced education--grows at the same time. The demand for graduates and Ph.D.s in 'Computer Science' has grown year on year for the last decade or more, and is unlikely to stop.

Within many educational systems, there is a blurring of the distinction between Information Technology (IT) and Computer Science (CS) since it is not clear where one stops and the other starts. Many highschool teachers are not even aware that the subjects are different. The awareness and distinction do, however, become apparent once University level is reached. This is despite CS and IT both usually being taught by the same members of faculty, and IT often being taught under the guise of 'Applied Computing'. In academic circles, the distinction is important. There is a stated Government desire (in the UK, the Dearing report, (NCIHE, 1997), in the US, the Snyder report (Snyder, 1999)) for all graduates to be 'IT fluent', and it is common for CS departments to take on some or all of this responsibility. Meanwhile, the number of specialist degree Programs is enormous (in the UK, over 2000 different Programs exist). The curricula of these Programs are reasonably well specified (ACM, 2001; QAA, 2001), and it is possible to summarize the obvious differences and overlaps (figure 1).

There is much overlap between the 'softer' end of CS and the 'harder' end of IT, and this suggests that many of the issues that have recently been raised within CS are also relevant to IT. CS education is widely documented to be 'difficult' for a number of reasons and much work has gone into solving the problems it raises. Many of these issues are equally applicable to IT education as well. We present here some work on the teaching of CS that is of relevance to the wider IT education problem.

The Problem

There is a widespread recognition that traditional University teaching delivery is flawed. It is fair to assume that this was always the case, but this truth is made more apparent in a context of broadening intake that comes with new forms of expectation and motivational problems. Solving this problem is particularly difficult unless faculty appreciates its existence, but even then, most University Programs deploy a range of techniques in syllabi that contain a wide range of material. Even when faculty do appreciate the need for change, it is unlikely that all staff will all have the skills required to present ideal delivery. We can thus identify a problem of matching solutions to problems given a range of constraints in the standard department


Here, we present this problem within the context of CS, which we argue is an extreme case of the issue; we identify some options and possible solutions, and note that the conclusions we draw are applicable to a range of disciplines. …

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