Information Technology Postgraduate Education: Professional Partnerships versus Discipline Silos?, Tony Clear

Tony Clear

School of Information Technology Auckland University of Technology



1         Introduction

The computer science discipline faces challenges on many fronts, from rival disciplines and from practitioner communities.  Peter Denning has called for the computing education community to move beyond earlier curriculum models such as the CS’91 model of “computing as a discipline” [4] to broader curricula that meet the needs of the IT profession.  He sees this as a necessary stage in resolving “the severe mismatch between the demands of the market for IT professionals and the supply systems of education” [3].  The Auckland University of Technology  (AUT) Masters in Information Technology degree (M. Info Tech) represents one response to this challenge, and a strategy to provide postgraduate education for IT professionals in New Zealand at transitional stages in their careers.


2         Information Technology – Multiple Discipline Perspectives

Information Technology (IT) is sometimes seen as an umbrella term for the computing disciplines, and as a descriptor of the industry in which practitioners work.  Yet there is little agreement on what the term means. Orlikowski [7], distinguishes the “IT artifact” under four broad conceptual categories: the computational view, the tool view, the proxy view and the ensemble view of IT.

The computational view, of “technology as algorithm” underpins the computer science discipline.

The tool view of “technology as labor substitution tool” and “technology as productivity tool” – underpins the commercial perspective on IT, and the business rationale for IT industry research and development activities.

The proxy view with “technology as perception” or “technology as diffusion” is taken up by the information systems discipline. Explorations are conducted into motivations of users, new technology acceptance within organizations, and barriers to the spread of new technologies.

The ensemble view regards “technology as development project” – this model in combination with “technology as algorithm” could be said to underpin the software engineering discipline.

All the IT discipline perspectives in this study were considered subsumed within the information systems discipline.  The extent to which the other computing discipline communities would share this view is highly debatable.  The discipline boundaries are volatile, and now subject to additional pressures from practitioner conceptions, and the needs of the industry.


3         Discipline Perspectives and Context

Perhaps a key distinction important for this discussion is the role of context.  Of the above views, the computational and the tool view are grounded in a model of scientific knowledge developed in discipline contexts which hold abstraction and generalization as key values.  The disciplines of computer science and decision science, often aim to develop “context-free ‘chunks’ of knowledge” [5], for re-use in a variety of different contexts.  For instance theoretical computer science deliberately excludes applications of the technology from its purview as a discipline.  Decision Science has often sought generic decision making models for application across a variety of contexts, and the instrumentalism inherent in the computer as tool perspective implies that a computer solution is inherently transportable across distinct contexts.

The proxy and ensemble views, by contrast, are much more context dependent, and in fact explicitly acknowledge the significance of context (e.g. organization or project) in shaping effective action.

The practitioner view, while normally rooted in specific contexts, tends to be somewhat eclectic, informed by a mixture of perception, and fashion, pragmatic experience and insights from theories and research findings across the full range of computing disciplines.  In fact, from my own observations and experience as an IT professional, the practitioner community tends not to notice the rather arbitrary academic delineations set up by the computer science, software engineering and information science/ systems disciplines.

However it must also be noted that the IT practitioner world has a general enthusiasm for the novel, the career enhancing and the interesting in technologies and applications, and while firmly rooted in context is far from grounded in a rigorous theoretical base.


4         Institutional Philosophy and the M. Infotech. Degree

Auckland University of Technology (AUT) is a relatively new University, which has only recently moved into postgraduate degree provision.  The School of Information Technology has a unified group of computing specialists, comprising Computer Scientists, Information Scientists or Information Systems Academics, Information Technologists and Software Developers/Engineers. The school has a growing research capacity and offers a PHD programme.

There is a strong focus on professional education within the IT discipline, in which both conceptual and professional knowledge are valued.  The school shares the views of Etienne Wenger [10] who argues that “learning involves an interaction between experience and competence”, that a “well functioning community of practice is a good context to explore radically new insights” and that communities of practice are a privileged locus for the creation of knowledge”.  This is especially true of the IT community, and emphasises the vital link between theory and practice in this set of disciplines.

The school has a teaching community with a combined teaching and professional experience base of over 400 years in the discipline.  It aims to educate its students through a solid theoretical grounding combined with the best of current and emerging IT practice, and create new knowledge mainly through research that is grounded in a context.  For instance associated with the school is the AUT Technology Park in which innovative IT ideas are taken through the stages from concept through implementation to commercial realization in the form of a new IT related product or service.

The Master of Information Technology (M. Info Tech.) programme reviewed here is a new professional practice master’s degree offered by the school since mid 2002.  The philosophy of the M. Info Tech. aligns with that of the school, in seeking to educate IT professionals, who are both well grounded in the computing discipline and multifaceted, adaptable individuals.

As an indication of our expectations of students an excerpt from our M. Info Tech. graduate profile is given below:

“It is expected that an AUT M. Info Tech graduate will be able to operate at a senior organisational level as a technical leader or manager, with the capability, credibility and judgement to manage significant software development projects and teams of IT professionals engaged in information technology analysis, design, construction, implementation, technical support and service delivery roles.  Augmenting their advanced technical prowess, creativity, analytical and conceptual abilities, M. Info Tech graduates would be expected to develop strong interpersonal and communication skills.  They would be expected to provide inspired leadership, coupled with an assertive and principled approach to quality in their practice as an IT professional.


The M. Info Tech extends opportunities for Information Technology professionals, who see the need to lift their careers to a new level.  Generic titles for graduates from this degree could include “IT Manager or Chief Information Officer” for those with more of a managerial emphasis, or “Software Architect or Chief Technology Officer” for those with a more technical career orientation.”


5      Intended Student Body

The M Info Tech is primarily designed for two groups of practising IT professionals with complementary sets of needs:

  • Those information technology professionals wishing to update and extend their technical knowledge and capabilities, and
  • Those information technology professionals intending to develop their knowledge and capabilities in the management of information technology.

It is expected that these two groups will constitute the majority of students in the programme.


There are two other important groups of students who would benefit from such a Masters programme.

  • Those students wishing to develop their knowledge and capabilities in research and the practice of information technology (many of these would be expected to go onto a research degree such as the PhD), and
  • Those students who seek a postgraduate qualification as part of a strategy to change their careers or to gain a New Zealand based qualification in information technology.


Substantial flexibility has been designed into the program to allow these latter groups to participate.


6         Structure and Content of the M. Infotech. Degree

The degree, in common with all New Zealand University Masters Degree programmes involves two years of full time study, but we envisage the majority of the student body being part time students already in employment.

It begins with two core subjects representing a full time semester of study.

  • Contemporary Issues in Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
  • Research Methods

These have the purpose of grounding students in a common base of knowledge to inform their further study.  The Contemporary Issues subject is in many ways the cornerstone of the programme.  It is designed to cover (in some depth, as it would be easy to lapse into a broad superficial treatment) selected key issues in contemporary information technology.  It is planned that the topics covered will be regularly reviewed for relevance and practitioners and industry experts are playing an important role in their delivery.  The subject thus has the role of introducing students to the combined technical and professional emphasis of the programme, while giving students some insight into possible directions their subsequent studies might take.


From this point the degree fans out, with modules from two complementary tracks, one to develop technical capabilities in the computing discipline and the other to develop leadership capabilities in the profession.  Four of these modules would represent a full semester of study.  In the design of the curriculum it was decided to ground the computing discipline modules within a context domain, rather than select a particular technology for study.  Thus for instance under the “ubiquitous computing” topic the scope for coverage remains broad, and able to adapt as particular technology options evolve.  This is intended to address the “dilemma of IS [IT] curriculum design” in striking “a balance between the fundamentals of IS [IT] and the current “fad’ applications” [6].  The modules for each track are given below:

Computing & IT Discipline Track

  • Collaborative Computing
  • Integrating Information Technologies
  • Middleware
  • Net-centric Computing
  • Ubiquitous Computing
  • Usage Centred Design

IT Professional Track

  • ICT Issues in the Small to Medium Enterprise sector
  • Information Technology Strategy and Policy
  • Integrating Information Technology and the Enterprise
  • Service Relationship Management
  • Strategic Information Technology Contract Management

Either track

  • Special Topic

The degree is rounded off by completion of either a dissertation (three quarters of a semester course of study) or a thesis (a full year course of study).

This structure means that all students would complete some technical and some professional papers, they might gain credit for academic reflection upon professional experience, and they would complete a piece of academic research of a moderate to substantial size.


7         Delivery Strategies for the Degree

In a course of this nature credibility is important. While academics can bring important perspectives in defining and exploring the theoretical bases of the subject matter and in methodologies, it must be balanced by the realities of professional practice.  As something of a hybrid degree, with the requirement to jointly address the technical and professional elements for a discerning and skeptical body of practising IT professionals, credible delivery of the programme is a challenging task.


A further challenge with such a target student body is delivering the programme in such a way that it will accommodate the requirements of a demanding professional life.  The flexible delivery mode in operation involves a combination of 2 hour class sessions from 8:00 am – 10:00 am every second week, complemented with a three or six hour intensive block each third Saturday of the semester.  This delivery is augmented by support through an electronic learning environment. [8], [9].  This includes provision for submission of work, working in virtual communities to conduct online reviews and group critiques of assignments or readings, communicating with peers and lecturers to support the work of project groups, and download/upload of electronic resources, to supplement face to face sessions, or obviate the need to visit the campus to pick up materials.


8         Curriculum Development and Delivery Partnerships

In response to the need for a credibly delivered and professionally focused programme, we have embarked upon a model of partnership – partnership both in terms of development of the curriculum and teaching material and in the delivery.  That partnership is between the faculty of the School and senior industry practitioners. Faculty lead the development and delivery teams, and there is extensive use of cross-disciplinary teaching teams sharing expertise, curriculum design, research and curriculum management skills.  Experienced practitioners with specialist knowledge and skills, and senior industry professionals appointed as adjunct fellows bring to the courses the credibility that only a twenty-year collection of practitioner war stories can bring.

The delivery partnerships currently used range from:

  • Internal teaching teams combining to cover specialty areas, and share insights from their own research with students
  • a limited involvement of one or two guest lectures by external experts
  • a more significant involvement whereby responsibility for a full topic over several sessions is assumed by the external party

The specific levels of contribution from delivery partners include one or a combination of the following:

  • Delivery of a guest lecture or interactive seminar on a selected topic
  • Preparation of lecture materials and student guides or handouts on a selected topic
  • Preparation of examples, exercises, software, applications, environments to enable in depth exploration of concepts.  This would augment more theoretical materials by giving students meaningful exposure to a particular environment or technology.
  • Design of assessment activities related to the course, in conjunction with a designated member of AUT’s academic staff.
  • Marking of assessments related to the course, in conjunction with a designated member of AUT’s academic staff.
  • Contribution to course design for a selected topic or course, in conjunction with members of the AUT academic staff.
  • Contribution to online discussions or seminars for a selected topic or course, in conjunction with students and member(s)of the AUT academic staff.
  • Contribution to course quality reviews for a selected assessment item, topic or course, in conjunction with members of the AUT academic staff.


Some successful models of partnership from the contemporary issues course in semester one 2002, have included:

  • Conduct of a data warehousing business simulation as a half day workshop facilitated by the external partner
  • Online discussions lead by an industry expert
  • Guest lectures, interactive sessions and seminars led by acknowledged industry leaders and innovators in their fields


The personal profiles of selected industry partners typically include current expertise in leading edge IT developments (such as mobile computing and interactive TV), informed by significant managerial and technical careers in the industry.  Twenty and thirty year’s industry experience is a typical profile, as is experience as a developer, manager, and consultant in global contexts with large consulting firms or multinational companies.  One contributor is a former managing director of a television company and a leader in developing Internet businesses and Australasian interactive TV.  Such expertise and experience is priceless, and brings a strength and breadth of perspective that surpasses a discipline specific course and purely academic delivery model.

AUT is also open to different models of partnership and is exploring such options as full delivery of a course sponsored by a partnering external organisation.  One such course under consideration is “Strategic Information Technology Contract Management”, where discussions are being held with a local law firm, a member of which has expressed interest in assuming full responsibility for development and delivery of the course.




9         Changing Roles of Academics


To support this model of course delivery, the school has developed a partnership guide to clearly outline the roles and expectations of the contributors to the programme.  The guide covers key topics including: an introduction to the School and key contact people, the nature of the M. Info Tech Programme and expectations of students, the nature of academic partnerships and levels of contribution; course management and format of courses; typical Delivery Methods And Teaching/Learning Philosophy; Assessment; Administrative Support for Partners and Support Services for Guest Speakers; Commercial Terms And Considerations, including ownership of resulting intellectual property.  This provides a general basis for the relationships, but at an individual course level the role of the lead academic changes to become more that of a course manager, who coordinates the people and resources involved in the course, negotiates aspects of the curriculum and degree of joint engagement and may act in the role of a discipline partner, rather than necessarily a domain expert.


Normally an internal academic will perform the role of module coordinator for each course and be responsible for:

  • the direction and focus of the course,
  • the delivery schedule for the course,
  • the content for each session,
  • the assessment programme,
  • managing the module team to ensure fairness and consistency in delivery of the course,
  • quality assurance and moderation processes for all assessments and instruments

Delivery partners who undertake responsibility for significant parts of a course are expected to participate actively in these processes.

This course manager role will necessarily involve an induction process and a degree of mentoring for industry contributors whose educational background may be limited.  For instance the emphasis in teaching at AUT, in addition to addressing a range of conceptual materials, incorporates a conscious emphasis upon capability development (e.g. The ability to critically evaluate the literature in their specialist field, and to rigorously analyse and argue a position; Independence in learning and an understanding of the need to continue learning as a professional through research and scholarship).  Teaching therefore concentrates not on the mere transfer and acquisition of content, but on a mode of learning in which students are engaged and active, and in which the learning experience is one of personal transformation.  This has implications for delivery partners in that materials and activities need to be prepared with this approach in mind.  A classic trap to avoid, is the heavily lecture-based, didactic and information transfer mode of teaching, which is inconsistent with the need to develop the above capabilities.

10     Conclusion

It is the educators’ challenge to imaginatively and critically interpret the “chasm that separates computing, the discipline, from IT the profession” [2] and design effective educational programmes that provide the interdisciplinary base that underpins IT professional practice and will lead to better informed action and leadership. The Master of Information Technology offered at AUT has been developed with this specific aim of meeting the need of IT professionals to be life-long learners in this rapidly changing profession. Development and delivery of the programme by a team of industry partners and staff with extensive professional and academic experience ensures that the planned learning and research students experience are grounded in both embodied professional knowledge and conceptual IT knowledge. It is our hope that this will result in graduates who are “theoretically informed pragmatists” with the ability to bridge the “chasm”.


11     Acknowledgements


This paper represents a substantially revised version of an earlier work [1], and the original contributions of the co-authors Jim Buchan and John Hughes are acknowledged.



[1]     Buchan J., Clear T., Hughes J., (2002), “Computing the profession” crossing the chasm with a new Master’s degree in Information Technology, Proceedings of the 14th Annual Conference of the NACCQ,(Jul 2002), NACCQ Hamilton, New Zealand 13 –19

[2]     Denning P.J., The Profession Of IT – Crossing the Chasm, Communications of the ACM, 44:4 (2001), 21 – 25

[3]     Denning, P. J. Computing the Profession.  Keynote Speech in Proceedings of the 30th SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (March 1999), ACM Press, 1-2

[4]     Denning, P.J. et al., Computing as a Discipline, Communications of the ACM, 32:1 (1989), 9 – 23

[5]     Leidlmair K., (2002), Knowledge and Noise: The Role of Disturbance in Communication, The Pantanteto Forum, Jul, Issue 7, Accessed 28 July 2002:

[6]     Noll C., Wilkins M., (2002) Critical Skills of IS Professionals: A Model for Curriculum Development, Journal of Information Technology, 1;3 pp. 143 – 154

[7]     Orlikowski, W., & Iacono C., Research Commentary: Desperately seeking the “IT” in IT Research – a Call to Theorizing the IT Artifact.  Information Systems Research, 12:2 (2001), 121-134.

[8]     Petrova K., A Course Design for Flexible Learning, Proceedings of the 14th Annual Conference of the NACCQ,(Jul 2001), NACCQ Hamilton, New Zealand 109 – 112

[9]     Salmon G., E-Moderating: The key to Teaching and Learning Online, (2000), Kogan Page, London

[10]  Wenger E., (1998), “Communities of Practice”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.