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Roger Clarke's IS Curriculum

Comments on Information Systems Curriculum

Roger Clarke

Notes of 30 September 1999, prepared in support of a panel session at the Australian Council of Professors and Heads of Information Systems (ACPHIS) Conference, Macquarie University, 30 September 1999

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These comments were prepared from the perspective of a greybeard consultant, and long-term and active member of the Australian Computer Society, whose company is an active member of the Australian Information Industries Association. But I can't avoid the bias of also being a sometime information systems academic.

In preparing for the event, I checked with Michel Hedley, Education and Training Manager for the AIIA (who provided some valuable thoughts), and consulted relevant materials on the AIIA's site, especially AIIA's Agenda for education & training, and at the Information Technology and Telecommunications Task Force, and at the new IT&T Careers website launched on 29 September.

The Key Reference Points

Curriculum depends on two important factors:

(1) What IS is

The U.S. IS'97 Curriculum appears to be a driving force in IS curriculum design; but it's conception of IS is dismally inadequate. The reason is that it is committed to information technology above all else. Is there any reason to expect the revised IS'2000 to be any better? The definitions of IS that I have long used are:

Short Form: Information systems is the study of information production, flows and use within organisations.

Long Form: An information system is a set of interacting artefacts and human activities that performs one or more functions involving the handling of data and information, including data collection, creation, editing, processing and storage; and information selection, filtering, aggregration, presentation and use.

Message 1: Make sure that your focus is on 'information' and 'systems', and that IT is treated as means to that end.

(2) What IS Graduates Do

IS graduates include:

and they are employed in highly varied employment settings.

It is not clear that IS departments are reflecting the rich range of job-titles, job-descriptions and career-paths their graduates are confronted by, and employers seek to fill. If that's correct, then IS departments are not alone: the job-titles and descriptions offered on the brand-new IT&T Task Force Career Site are lamentably old-fashioned (e.g. they still include computer operator, and they treat the business analyst role as being beyond-scope!).

There's ongoing growth in the numbers of traditional jobs; but there's also change; and there's far greater growth in demand for IS graduates to fill jobs that are of very recent origin (e.g. LAN Manager, help-desk, webmaster - in half-a-dozen variants, e-commerce specialist - in even more variants).

Message 2: Recognise diversity of need, and structure your courses to service those needs.

Message 3: Ensure that IS students graduate with a modest core of knowledge about information and about systems (the ends), and about IT (a means to those ends).

Message 4: Ensure that IS students can avoid being vanilla-flavoured, and can establish a personal profile, by providing them with access to many extensions and specialisations, some professionally oriented and offered within the IS department, but many offered in conjunction with other departments, throughout the host institution.

Message 5: Use options within courses, and double-degrees, in preference to wasting energy fighting within and beyond the institution for a 4-year programme.

Education cf. Training

Employers expect universities to deliver students education, not training. Both the ACS and AIIA clearly state this. The VET sector (TAFE and some of the commercial providers) teach specific skills, and teach them better than universities do. Universities need to identify and work to their own areas of comparative advantage.

Message 6: Focus on:

Message 7: Achieve interlock by designing course materials and assignments such that principles are learnt and then applied, and that implications emerge during the course of application.

Generic Skills

In general, host institutions are continuing to fail in their responsibility to provide their graduates with the basket of generic skills that emplouers expect of every graduate. Hence many of these need to be not merely reinforced by, but quite directly addressed within, the IS curriculum.

Message 8: Focus on:

Message 9: Ensure that these generic skills are underpinned by formal studies of individual and organisational behaviour.


The customers want quality, but they also want flexibility, such that courses can fit to the needs of the individual. This implies that IS departments must provide 'student-centric' structures and processes (Michel Hedley's term).

Message 10: Multi-source units of study, from other universities (both on-campus and distance-education offerings), from VET institutions, from commercial training institutions (with appropriate care about accreditation), and from the workplace (with suitable controls).

Message 11: Establish pre-approved lists of external units, but also permit students to locate and propose units that fit their needs and are sufficiently complementary to the department's own offerings.

The balance between competition and collaboration is a legitimate research-topic for IS academics. But they need to practice it as well.


Marketplace needs are undergoing rapid change, and will continue to do so.

Message 12: Adapt course-offerings every year.

Message 13: Ensure that course specifications have intrinsic adaptive processes embedded within them.

Measures of Success

Concern was expressed at the event that IS graduates showed up in satisfaction surveys as being more dissatisfied than most with the courses that they studied.

There are two kinds of reasons for that. One set of reasons has to do with inadequate foundations, inadequate resourcing, and the challenges of rapid change. The other aspect is that 'satisfaction' is a rotten measure!

Graduates, in IS of all disciplines, need to be launched on the world ready, willing and downright eager to change it. 'Satisfaction' is not a personality or attitudinal trait that fits the need.

Message 14: Try to make your graduates dissatisfied for the right reasons.

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Created: 30 September 1999 - Last Amended: 1 October 1999 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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