Educating for the future: how can we do better?

Julian Webb, Lesley Rackley and John Betts


The tertiary-level students currently studying computing and information technology, or who are about to commence their studies, form the bedrock on which the future success or otherwise of information technology in society will, to a large extent, depend. It is therefore incumbent upon educational organisations to provide courses which give students the skills required to play their part in the responsible development of IT. The past twenty years have seen a radical change both in the tools provided for software developers and in the skills required by developers using those tools. However, there would appear to have been far less change in the typical structure of computing and IT tertiary courses during the same period. A major areas of statis appearing to need discussion is the prior experience of IT by students enrolling on higher education courses.

In this paper we argue that change is long overdue; that a major reassessment of the skills taught to computing and IT students is needed and that great care is needed to avoid gravely disadvantaging the very students the educational system should be assisting.

In the past a major component of a typical computing degree would be the acquisition of basic skills (e.g. the use of word processors, database packages etc.). Now, as a result of the widespread use of computers at home and in schools, students enrolling for higher education are already familiar with many of these skills. As a result, these students often find that their initial experience of tertiary study is the demotivating revisiting of topics with which they are already familiar. This leads to a number of questions. Should higher education institutions expect that new students are familiar with some set of ‘basic IT skills’, in the same way that they are expected to be able to read and write? If this were the case, considerable resources currently devoted by such organisations to elementary IT education might be redirected to more appropriate areas.

On the other hand, one possible problem with this approach is in the support of the mature student. Currently, the tertiary teaching of computing and IT starts from a very basic level and thus encourages mature students to further their education. What effect would making assumptions about prior IT experience have on these students, who are thought of by academics as being important factors in the success of a course? Might an underclass be created of those for whom such basic experience was unavailable? What sort of ‘top-up’ provision might be appropriate to these students and who should provide (and hence pay for) it?

This paper discusses each of these questions in some detail. Our conclusions are that: major changes in computing and IT teaching are required; further studies are needed to assess the core skills which today’s students are developing prior to entering tertiary education; the teaching of programming needs to be reviewed so as to provide more appropriate tools for the average student’s future career; the resources released from out-moded subject areas should specifically be channelled into other, more appropriate, staff and student development areas.