Is professionalism academic?

Martina Doolan, principal lecturer School of Computer Science at the University of Hertfordshire looks at bridging the gap between academia and IT professional practice.

The need for competencies

In academia we acknowledge the need to provide industry with graduates who are competent for the IT profession. These competencies include the acquisition of a developed skill set with a range of skills covering both technical and business skills.

In addition, when undertaking IT professional practice we appreciate the needs of the industry for graduates who can effectively communicate whilst working collaboratively in a team environment. These non-technical skills such as effective communication, people management, IT and business have now become more essential alongside technical know-how and form an integral component of the curricula.

On computer science programmes of study we are constantly adapting curricula on courses and defining specific learning goals for student achievement to meet the needs of industry. We recognise the immediate need and future job market demands in a developing and evolving industry. We recognise the changes in the industry such as geosourcing where software development practices are being provided in Asia resulting in academia placing even further emphasis on the acquisition of these competencies, recognising the demand for skills in IT management and the vocational needs of graduates to move into the IT industry.

Developing competencies

What follows is an overview of an adaptation of the curricula on an information systems development course where I am the tutor responsible for the management and delivery of this course in the School of Computer Science at the University of Hertfordshire. As part of my role as a practitioner-researcher whilst working with the Blended Learning Unit I adapted the teaching and learning practices on this course by designing, developing and exploring the use of a number of technologies such as discussion fora, blogs and wikis as tools to support students in their learning and in the acquistion of competencies.

This course is compulsory for second year students studying Computing as part of an interdiscipliinary degree programme of study at the university.

Given that these students do not have an industrial placement they are provided with a learning environment as realistic to industry as is currently possible by using what is known in academia as a problem based learning approach in which the students are challenged to 'learn to learn' working collaboratively in teams to seek solutions to real world problems.

The course is built around information systems case studies and students are required to solve set problems relating to the cases. The problems set engage students curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter whilst in a team environment using the wiki platform.

The overall aim of this course is for students to develop their skill in all stages of developing computer-based, user-friendly information systems. The students are expected to take on the roles of IT professionals as well as end users and gain an understanding of people, processes and the technology given the aim of the course and the increasing market force being progressively business and management orientated.

The students were thoroughly engaged with the process of software development using wiki technology evidenced by over 60,000 hits to the wiki by 96 students working collaboratively in teams of six over a four week period.

Adapting and changing practice and using the technology has really motivated the students to take on the roles of IT professionals developing an information system in a team, from problem definition, capturing the requirements, process and data modelling through to implementation.

The wiki provided the tutor with an insight into the collaborative process and progressive knowledge building. The students demonstrated an ability to communicate effectively, manage their team whilst managing the process.

The students successfully produced the products demonstrating the technical know how and an awareness that successful IT projects depend largely on people, using the appropriate methods, the right team, having an appreciation of the customer/user, getting the requirements right, appropriate leadership and project management.

What I found particularly interesting when analysing the data content in the wiki was that the students were predominately people-oriented rather than task-oriented. This contradicts popular belief that graduates on computer science programmes of study are lacking in people skills or what is more commonly known as the soft skills and competencies which IT professionals tell us are needed for industry.

These students demonstrated communication and team working skills by sharing ideas whilst working collaboratively to complete the set problems and sufficient technical knowledge to develop the required products. These competencies will enable students to make the transition and operate effectively in IT professional practice.

Conclusion

This article is an attempt by one computer science educational practitioner to inform IT professional practice of the measures we in the academic world are taking to progress further in producing graduates with the right skill set, which IT professionals tell us are much needed for industry.

It is also an attempt to bridge the gap between academia and industry and add to the debate between IT professionals and educational practitioners in the discipline. I would like to live and practice in a world where academia and industry develop even stronger links than is currently in operation and to learn more from one another. The Univeristy of Hertfordshire is a forward looking innovative establishment who is committed to excellence and determined to enrich our society.

In short, together both industry and academia are responsible for enabling students and society to move forward, helping graduates develop the competencies and skill base essential for the successful transformation to and sustainability in IT professional practice and together we should celebrate more with industry these successes.

This article first appeared in ITNOWextra in September 2006