Academic journal article Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline

Informing South African Students about Information Systems

Academic journal article Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline

Informing South African Students about Information Systems

Article excerpt


At the University of Cape Town (UCT), the Department of Information Systems has had strong growth over the last few years. Situated in the Faculty of Commerce, it has over 200 third year Information Systems (I.S.) majors and 90 fourth year (honors) students. Until the third quarter of 2001 local demand for I.S. positions has far exceeded the supply, and a large number of graduates have also taken up good job offers internationally. Research (and basic course demographics) showed that although there were similar numbers of male and female students commencing a Commerce or Business Science degree, a much lower percentage of females than males chose to major in I.S. A similar pattern existed with students whose first language was not English, and who had been disadvantaged by the previous apartheid educational system. Given the prevailing shortage of I.S. graduates it made sense to investigate why these differences existed, and to attempt to improve this situation.

This research commenced in 1998 with a study (Hart et al., 1999) carried out on students at the University of Cape Town. Some 360 students in four courses from 1st to 3rd year were questioned about the difficulty and familiarity of I.S. topics and areas, and their attitudes towards various career characteristics. It followed prior work of von Hellens et al. (1998) in Australia. As in a number of previous studies in different countries, gender, cultural aspects and prior computer experience were found to play a significant role in responses. From 2000 onwards, further data was collected on first year students at various points of their introductory I.S. course, and in 2001 further studies were undertaken of 1st to 4th year university students and senior school students.

This paper focuses on an aspect of that research. It investigates the knowledge and perceptions that senior school students have of Information Systems, and how this can influence their selection of I.S. as a major at university. It shows how certain groups are more affected than others. An intervention to inform school students about I.S. is described, and the resulting differences in perceptions and in study and employment intentions are examined. The current level of switching from other majors to I.S. at university is noted, and the main influencers of decisions on enrolment in university majors are discussed. Conclusions are drawn on obtaining a better solution to the development of I.S. skills from all sectors of the South African population.

Prior Research

Much research has been carried out internationally on attitudes to computers and their use in different situations. These attitudes and the choices of whether to study in a computer-related area have often been shown to be affected by a common set of factors. Although some studies have shown no differences, gender has often been an important discriminator at school and university level (Shashaani, 1994; Taylor & Mounfield, 1994; Corston & Colman, 1996; Von Hellens et al., 1998, Trauth et al., 2000; Staehr et al., 2001). Females usually have a lower computer self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986; Compeau & Higgins, 1995; Divine & Wilson, 1997) than males, resulting in relatively fewer wishing to study Computer Science or I.S. Culture, race and first language are also often responsible for different attitudes to computing (Martin et al., 1992; Sacks, 1993; Busch, 1995; Sensales & Greenfield, 1995; Nielsen et al., 1997; Chrisholm et al., 1998; Gupta & Houtz, 2000). Prior experience of some sort with computers is usually a positive influence (Knezeck et al., 1993; Gos, 1996), and the maturity of students (Nielsen et al., 1997) can play a role. The influence of teachers, family and friends (Gupta & Houtz, 2000) is also important. These factors are captured as demographic variables in the two studies to be discussed below.

The Schools Survey

It was apparent that many students arrived at UCT not knowing what I. …

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