Academic journal article Journal of Information Technology Education

Barriers for Students' Learning of Holistic Systems Development

Academic journal article Journal of Information Technology Education

Barriers for Students' Learning of Holistic Systems Development

Article excerpt


In the 1980s it was put forward that integration of the application and problem domain, i.e. the users' area and IT system's tasks respectively, requires that the systems developer possesses particular competences. Until that point in time, systems development had been firmly positioned within the functionalist paradigm, but now a number of new schools and methods, advocated by among others Winston W. Royce, Pelle Ehn, Enid Mumford, Peter Checkland, David Avison, and A.T. Wood-Harper, proposed that the systems developer should have interdisciplinary skills and be able to move between different paradigms. In other words, the system developer should be able to use, in addition to the functionalist paradigm, the social relativist, the radical structuralist, and the neohumanist paradigms (Hirschheim & Klein, 1989). Thus, with regard to understanding, communicating, and designing, the 'good' and 'reflective' systems developer is someone who can facilitate between users and programmers and navigate easily within and between the application and the problem domain (Curtis, Krasner, & Iscoe, 1988; Mathiassen & Purao, 2002).

Already in the mid 1980s the Copenhagen Business School designed a bachelor programme in computer science and economy, called HA/DOK. The purpose of HA/DOK was, and continuous to be, to educate students with competences in holistic systems development, i.e. with competences in facilitating between and integrating the application and problem domain. In Denmark, similar education programmes were later developed at Roskilde University, Arhus School of Business, Arhus University, and the IT University.

This paper investigates the Information Processing (IP) course, which is located in the fifth semester of HA/DOK. More specifically, the point of departure is the summative evaluation that concluded the course in January 2007 and that puzzled the authors, as well as the students. During a period of four days we held oral exams with 47 students, and therefore 12 groups. While preparing and having the exams we noticed that:

* All students experienced the same problems and barriers irrespective of how they performed at the exam.

* The students' different level of competence influenced if and how they dealt with the problems and barriers.

* The students had a strong tendency to act in accordance with the functionalist paradigm (Hirschheim & Klein, 1989) when other approaches would have been the natural choice.

We asked ourselves if the observed pattern was a result of: the exam, the IP course in isolation, or of the bachelor programme as a whole. Recently greater attention has been paid to formulation and assessment of learning objectives and outcomes in higher education, i.e. to outcome based academic programmes (Abraham, 2006), but a literature search in relevant databases revealed that so far little research has addressed the relationship between ISD educations' intention, course objectives, and the actual learning outcome. (However, see Cope (2003) and Abraham (2006) for interesting, related studies of learning outcomes in undergraduate ISD programmes). To understand the local problem at the IP course and to contribute to the ISD literature in general, we decided to start an action research collaboration that investigates which barriers students experience when learning holistic systems development and why. We consider the observation of a gap between programme intention, course objectives, and learning outcome as well as our analysis here of to be relevant for ISD education planers, teachers, and organizations that employ students with integrative and facilitator competences.

The paper is structured as follows. First HA/DOK and the IP course are described. Then the research approach is presented. In the next three sections we investigate at what level the gap between intention and learning arises, i.e. at exam, course, and/or study programme level, what the problem is, and what causes it. …

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