Computing education for the real world

When it comes to theory-intensive computer science degree and diploma programs, Bob Fabian believes they need to get real – in the real world that is.

“The preferred way of learning something is to start with the theory, get a solid grasp of the theory, and then test that theory by practical applications – the problem is only around five percent of people can learn that way,” the Toronto-based management and system consultant said.

Fabian noted that in a changing workplace, IT professionals need not only specialized computer knowledge, but also a flexible business understanding of the end-users’ needs and wants.

It’s all about context, Fabian said.

“The path to understanding learning is to from practical examples and then generalize from them – practical to the theory. In some sense that’s the distinction between the generalist education a university and the practice application a college tends to offer.”

Both Canada’s universities and applied colleges have been slow to respond but there are emerging computing education programs that value the contextual understanding approach, Fabian said.

One such real-world computing education curriculum is offered at Toronto’s York University through its Information Technology (ITEC) program. Though officially a liberal arts degree, York boasts ITEC graduates will be able to design and implement technologies to solve “real-world problems.”

“We’re definitely trying for a balance, in the sense we’re a technical program trying to balance between computer and MIS systems,” said Stephen Chen, assistant professor at the school of analytical studies and information technology at York.

“We might be somewhere halfway between a computer science (CS) degree and a CS diploma in the sense that there is an emphasis on theory…I think a certain amount of theory improves your ability to be an developer or a programmer. There is an understanding and perception of larger scale interactions,” Chen said.

Chen noted the program aims to create trained technicians with a non-technical balance. “It’s the social awareness of the end user that we are focusing on…some of the applied degree programs are starting to create themselves and it will be interesting to see what happens in this space.”

Shirley Holloway, vice-president of academic services at Edmonton-based Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) agreed, saying that while theory is important, IT professionals need a strong contextual understanding of how to apply the specialized knowledge.

“We’ve gone away from the concept of ‘show them how to do it,’ they do it, and then they graduate with that skill – that simply isn’t the way the world is,” Holloway said.

“What we do in blend the theory with the practice and the theory is sufficient to give them the springboard to do the problem solving that will take them to the next generation.” Holloway noted NAIT, much like a growing number of Canadian schools, is developing modular curricula and also has advisory boards that continually look at program content to ensure they’re meeting student needs.

Computing education needs to shift more to the practice side but not to the exclusion of theory, said Charles van Duren, an assistant professor and graduate program co-ordinator at Athabasca University, which bills itself as a distance-education university.

“If your look at our degree and compared it with the more traditional CS degree, where you would notice the difference is essentially at the fourth-year level,” van Duren said, adding the program focuses more on systems analysis and design.

“We recognized that there was a specific need out there which overlaps with the traditional computing science orientation,” van Duren said.

“The value of theory in computing and information systems is that it does give the graduate a bit more flexibility in that there is a more general capability for problem solving…on the other hand, for employers, they generally find that students coming from more applied programs fit in more quickly,” van Duren said.

“It usually takes graduates from traditional CS degrees a little bit longer to adapt to the specific requirements of the job – but in the end they may be more flexible in term of adapting more easily to changes in the work environment.”

The key is to implement a program balance in both theory and practice, said Tony Tanner, vice-president of education at British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), a career-training school in Burnaby, B.C.

“You need both – you don’t want to go to extremes in either direction. If you’re totally ‘applied,’ then you can be useful in the short term but there may be some gaps down the road. If you’re too theoretical when it takes you a while become useful,” Tanner said. “You certainly need to be able to approach a given situation and recognize there are alternative solutions.”

Canada’s education system needs to be responsive to real world needs, Fabian said.

“Computing is not an isolated activity – the challenge today is to understand how an organization works, (and) how to inject technology in what the change process is going to be,” Fabian noted.

“The context turns out to be fairly important.”