Academic journal article Issues in Informing Science & Information Technology

How Generic Is I(nformation) T(echnology)?

Academic journal article Issues in Informing Science & Information Technology

How Generic Is I(nformation) T(echnology)?

Article excerpt

Introduction

A curriculum revolution has started to transform the Australian higher education sector, as several leading universities embarked on radical course reforms involving a reduction of discipline-based undergraduate course offerings in favour of a much smaller number of broad undergraduate courses integrating the humanities and science; for instance, the University of Western Australia plans to cut its undergraduate courses from seventy to six by the beginning of the 2009 academic year. Upon completion of a broad undergraduate degree, students can pursue specialised graduate courses (Slattery, 2008). The reform process has strong international parallels, as individual universities such as Harvard, and entire systems such as the European universities covered by the Bologna Accord, have embraced the cause of curriculum renewal; this renewal goes to the heart of teaching, learning and graduate competencies

Victoria University has introduced a similar curriculum reform, albeit on a smaller scale. Beginning in semester 1/2009, it will offer a generic Science Degree, replacing a number of current specialist degrees. However, the generic Degree will be "generic" only up to a point that is, it will include a common first year and branch out into Degree specialisations in the second and third year; the specialisations will include Biotechnology, Chemistry, Food Science, Computing, Ecology, Community Science and others. The first year of the Degree will be rich in disciplinary breadth across the broad areas of the sciences, and in the second and third year intense disciplinary depth and/or professional expertise will be gained.

The composition of the first year was subject to much debate, as representatives of the various specialisations fought to convince the program committee that theirs was an area of general interest and importance and therefore should be studied by all students. The arguments put forward by the computing experts were particularly compelling. Given that IT, or indeed computer science, underpins many of the scientific disciplines, it was only fitting that the development of computing skills should apply to all science students and that it should start in the first year of the Degree. This decision was supported by Microsoft Research Cambridge's report "Towards 2020 Science" (Microsoft Research, 2005). This report was the result of a workshop that invited an international group of natural and computer scientists to put together a roadmap for science, and particularly computing, over the next sixteen years before 2020. The central tenet was that computer science would transform science in two ways: as a tool for doing "traditional" science, and as a technique for performing experiments and creating models. Thus, the study has strongly identified the importance of mathematical, quantitative and computational and indeed IT skills to all students in science. It concluded that 'Scientists will need to be completely computationally and mathematically literate, and by 2020, it will simply not be possible to do science without such literacy' (Microsoft Research, 2005, p. 8).

While information literacy skills have been recognised in most science course curricula, more advanced IT skills and digital literacy have been largely overlooked; yet, they are all-encompassing with applications that permeate various disciplines of science (Miliszewska, 2008). Thus IT should be regarded as a powerful facilitator to higher-level learning. How should this advanced IT literacy be developed? How can its relevance be maintained in a generic Degree? Is such literacy generic? The following sections discuss these issues and propose suggestions for introducing essential tools and technologies for tomorrow's scientists.

The Need for IT Skills in Science Students

Today's members of the skilled workforce are expected to display a broad range of generic skills including good communication and team working abilities, strong problem-solving and numeric proficiency and, most particularly, expertise in information technology. …

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