Barriers to IT Education in Australian Universities Must Go

The Scenario

A first year Arts student turns up for enrolment.  She wants to enrol in three units offered by the Arts faculty but she also wants to exercise her option under the rules of her degree to enrol in a unit offered by another faculty.  She wants to learn website design in a unit offered by the computer science department in the Faculty of Engineering.

The person handling her enrolment says he can’t process her enrolment in the Information Technology (IT) unit.  The student has to fill in a form, get someone else to sign it and then hand it in – but she is not told where to hand the form in, she has to work this out herself.  New to the university she feels frustrated and a little weird because she is clearly doing something that few Arts students do.

There is an added complication.  Two of the IT lectures clash with two other lectures she is supposed to attend.  Never mind, the university’s website says that the lectures of both these units are recorded.  Knowing that it is important to listen to all lectures, she plans to attend one set of lectures and listen to the recordings of the lectures she misses each week.

There have already been two obstacles set in her path deterring her from enrolling in the IT unit but she has worked out how to overcome them and persists.  However, a third obstacle crosses her path.  Even though the university has said on their website that the lectures of the two units that clash are recorded, she is told they are not.  Recognising the importance of lectures and the fact that she will be at a disadvantage if she cannot attend, she finally gives up on her ambition of including some IT in her degree.

One more young person has been denied the opportunity to improve their IT skills.  One more woman is prevented from gaining the technical skills necessary to fully participate in the world of technology.

The Underlying Issues

The ability to engage with information technology and use it to create is a fundamental skill in this era – for everyone.  It is a tool that is useful for every discipline.  It is a vital medium of communication, of information dissemination and acquisition, a means of discovery and creativity.

Interested students from all faculties should be able to learn HTML, CSS and JavaScript.  With these basic tools they can start to effectively present information on the web from scratch and without limits. The student gains the lingua franca for communication between systems by learning XML and JSON. Add to this a good understanding of how APIs enable programs to interact with each other and students will not be limited in what they think is possible to achieve. Concepts such as Big Data and developments in the Semantic Web are exciting and opens students’ eyes to a world of possibilities.

Learning web technologies is useful for every discipline, as is the ability to design and construct databases.  Many students are coming to universities without a good grasp of spreadsheeting.  They would benefit from learning how to construct and manipulate spreadsheets in the early weeks of a first year IT unit.

Spreadsheeting, databases and technologies of the web – every discipline can benefit from having a group of students equipped with these skills.

So why is it locked away from many students because it sits in a different faculty to the one in which they are enrolled?  Every student on a university campus should be encouraged to enrol in an information technology or computer science unit.  The current barriers deterring enrolment in these courses need to be removed.

Some Arts Faculties are recognising the importance of the use of technology for their disciplines and are establishing Centres for Digital Humanities to encourage postgraduate students to study this.  Why not allow undergraduate Arts students to acquire the necessary skills to explore this emerging field too?  Why should they have to wait until they are postgraduates?

Too many universities are moving too slowly into the 21st century.  The ‘Review of the National Innovation System (commonly known as the Cutler Review) said,”[t]here is an increasing need for multi-disciplinary practice and collaboration in virtually all areas…” (p. 48). Yet universities are maintaining the disciplinary silos that have developed over centuries albeit with some new rules added to degrees allowing minimal study in other faculties.

“In considering how best to teach the skills that underpin innovation”, the Cutler Review continues, “we should be open to innovative new strategies, including new learning programs…” (p. 50).

This is one mild statement in one of the multitude of reports into Australian tertiary education but it needs to be a mantra intoned by university staff throughout the continent.

Universities are on the cusp of a revolution as disruptive as that endured by the music industry.  I don’t believe that Massive Online Open Courses, commonly known as MOOCs will replace current forms of tertiary education, but they, and other forms of education not yet thought of, will severely disrupt tertiary education throughout the western world.  Some tertiary institutions will adapt and survive albeit in a very different form to the traditional universities today.  What will happen to the rest?

Yes it is difficult for large organisations steeped in centuries of tradition to be nimble, but universities need to adapt quickly in today’s environment.

A Solution?

Australian universities have to innovate like they have never innovated before.  They have always endeavoured to be innovative in research.  This innovation now needs to extend to the mode of delivery of courses and the organisational structures of universities themselves.

Computer science departments need to come out from under the umbrella of other disciplines.  They should regard themselves as a hub of learning for all students at their university.  In many universities they are currently ‘owned’ by one particular faculty, often engineering.  This is immediately a deterrent to some students.  It does not occur to most Arts students that they should check the course offerings of the Faculty of Engineering for potential subjects to enrol in.

Universities need to ensure that their administration does not erect hurdles making if difficult for potential students to enrol in computer science units.  Why should students need to get special permission to enrol in computer science courses when the rules of their degree already allow it?

If universities become more flexible and encourage students from every faculty to enrol in IT subjects it is inevitable that there will be timetable clashes.  The only way to deal with this is to allow students to listen/watch lectures remotely at a time of their choosing after the lecture has been held.  The multitude of students who hold part-time jobs while studying would also appreciate this.

Recording of lectures requires lecture theatres to be equipped with recording technology and lecturers being given the means to upload the lectures to a place where students can access them.  Universities need to provide the funds to equip the lecture theatres and train lecturers to do the recordings.  It needs to be done.

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

The scenario I gave at the beginning of this post actually occurred.  What did the student learn from this?  She had a look on the internet and saw TAFE courses, MOOCs and other online courses.  She knows of the myriad ‘how to’ books which teach the diligent reader IT skills.

She saw that she didn’t need her university to learn information technology and computer science.

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

One Year Later…

This year she managed to enrol in the IT unit and enjoyed the course but the university does not offer more advanced courses in website design or online communication or knowledge management. She wants to do more so is hoping to find a part-time job in IT and find a course at another university. The Group of Eight university she attends does not cater for her needs.

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One thought on “Barriers to IT Education in Australian Universities Must Go

  1. Pingback: The History Manifesto and Big Data | Stumbling Through the Past

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