Issue 75 Contents
Learning as a Practitioner Does
Dr Jocelyn Armarego is a Senior Lecturer in the School of IT, Murdoch University. She worked for 10 years in industry as a Requirements Engineer before becoming an academic. Teaching in schools of Computing and Engineering has led her to develop an interest in women in non-traditional areas and to actively pursue strategies for supporting females studying in these areas.
There is a gap between what students learn in their formal education, and the
skills sought by industry. This gap has been identified in many disciplines and,
in software development, is confirmed by studies of practitioners and academic
research. These show that while discipline knowledge is covered well,
nontechnical skills are usually addressed at a more abstract level and often in
association with ethics, management or social concern. Yet practitioner studies
indicate they place great importance on these skills – they require personable
professionals who integrate into the organisational structure. Industry also
looks for graduates who, rather than cope specifically with today’s perceived
problems, have models, skills and analytical techniques that allow them to
learn, evaluate and apply appropriate emerging technologies in a collaborative
environment (see, for example Lee (2004); Macauley & Mylopoulos (1995)).
I wanted to identify what generic and soft skills IT practitioners considered
important, and explore how learning models could address them within a tertiary
curriculum. Rather than encompassing the broader IT domain (where Software
Engineering (SE), Computer Science (CS) and Information Systems (IS) are
identified as the more visible disciplines), I decided to focus on Requirements
Engineering (RE) (sometimes called system/software analysis), acknowledged as
one of the most problematic of the activities undertaken in developing and
implementing IT systems. Studies show that the root cause of many of the
problems with systems in general can be traced back to RE issues. Examining
perceptions of competence in RE could go some way towards addressing these
issues more generically.
A preliminary investigation isolated characteristics of the RE discipline on the one hand (identified as complex, cognitive, opportunistic, creative, emergent) and of learning on the other. This suggested that the elements highlighted as either:
practitioner needs (eg generic intellectual abilities and skills such as initiative, ability) to deal with complexity and illstructure and organisational (self, task and information) skills or
domain needs of formal education (eg a focus on flexibility, productive thinking and creativity enhancing activities, and effort spent on higher (metacognitive) learning skills, including abstraction and reflection)
could be best addressed through less traditional approaches to learning.
From 1995 to 2005 Murdoch University Engineering (MUE) provided a suite of
programmes in Software Engineering. From 2002 students enrolled in the first of
the core SE units (addressing RE) participated in an Action Research study that
looked at how learning models addressed specific elements drawn from the
practitioner studies, and also how they aligned with the students’ models of
learning and approaches to study. Later work looked at developing an alignment
between the practitioners’ needs, the curriculum and the students’ learning
The three cycles of the study (2002, 2003 and 2005) investigated the Cognitive
Apprenticeship model (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989), a CreativePBL model (Armarego,
2005) and finally Studio Learning, which focusses on Schön’s (1987)
reflecting-in-action. He argued that reflection is central to the ability to act
effectively in the unique, ambiguous, or divergent situations that become
central to professional practice.
Analysis of student perception of these learning environments showed that success was, to some extent, determined by its alignment to the students’ learning approaches:
students participating in the Cognitive Apprenticeship implementation (2002) were comfortable with the model – as Assimilators and Convergers (typical of engineering) in the main, they expected the teacher to function as a coach. However, they were less comfortable in the fading phase of the model;
the CreativePBL model implemented in 2003 tried to address this and focused on strategies to enhance deep learning. However analysis of the data collected showed that as a cohort they perceived that they had learnt neither more nor less from this approach – it depended on their individual approach to study. So that Meaning-oriented students were more likely to see their learning environment in positive terms.
The School name has changed several times over the period of the study while
Reproduction orientation was associated with the view that the learning
environment was difficult.
However, the major issue identified was the fact that PBL is process-oriented, implying process is of greater importance then the product. This raised issues of several types: IT students are very product oriented – they see the artefact (generally the software they develop) as the primary goal of the activities they undertake. Being made to focus on process to (in their perception) the detriment of the product was very frustrating; the dependence on process also had some detrimental effect on the creativity-enhancing environment that had been developed -in theory students were required to follow process stages in sequence, even if the aha! factor suggested otherwise. Ultimately PBL was in conflict with the ultimate aim of the intervention – to model professionals in practice.
By 2005 the decision had been made in MUE to migrate all discipline teaching to years 3 and 4 of the BE, and that learning would be based on an adaptation of the environment developed in the SE programme. The benefit to this research was all students were required to undertake an orientation Design Week to facilitate a common understanding of Design Studios and the PBL process. Within the Studio Learning model applied in the SE programme, it was therefore possible to de-emphasise the process and focus to a greater extent on reflection as a strategy to enhance deeper learning. Most students perceived this learning environment favourably (though, as a caveat, they exhibited learning approaches that aligned most closely with the learning model). As one student noted
I have noticed that the design studios require a lot more work from me than if I was working alone. For example I have to spend more time working on problems because of the extra overhead of working in a team (meetings and social interaction). There is also the need to do extra research to gain information that is normally just handed out in a lecture. However I don’t mind putting in the extra effort because I feel the extra effort is worth it because I feel more confident that I do know the material (not an impostor) and can apply it to future situations.
An indication of employer satisfaction is provided by graduate career prospects.
While empirical evidence was not feasible – there were too few SE graduates to
provide statistically significant results, the anecdotal evidence is
encouraging. Where one (20%) 2004 graduate Software Engineer was employed by a
global software development organisation, of the 2005 cohort 50% (six graduates)
are now employed there, as are both 2006 graduates (100%).
The progression to Studio Learning has been a journey both the students and I
undertook to empower graduates to be industry-ready IT professionals. For the
student, the collaborative nature of the learning environment that has evolved
transcends the classroom, fostering self-directed learning and reflective
practice that integrates class and work experience. Future research will examine
the validity of this perception.
Armarego, J. (2005). Educating agents of change. Paper presented at the CSEE&T2005 18th Conference on Software Engineering Education and Training, Ottawa.
Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship:
teaching the crafts of reading writing and mathematics. In L. Resnick (Ed.),
Knowing, Learning and Instruction: essays in honour of Robert Glaser (pp.
Hillsdale (NJ): Erlbaum. Lee, D. M. S. (2004). Organizational entry and
transition from academic study: examining a critical step in the professional
development of young IS workers. In M. Igbaria & C. Shayo (Eds.), Strategies
for Managing IS/ IT Personnel (pp. 113-141). Hershey (PA): Idea Group.
Macauley, L., & Mylopoulos, J. (1995). Requirements Engineering: an educational
dilemma. Automated Software Engineering, 4(2), 343-351.
Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Towards a New Design for Teaching in the Professions. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.
Issue 75 Contents