Developing guidelines for bridging the gap between IT theory and IT practice
Janse van Rensburg, Juanita Tertia
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The primary research objective of this study is to develop guidelines for bridging the gap between IT theory (standard IT teaching practices at university) and IT practice (the required industry-related skills). The skills gap between higher education and industry is an ongoing problem, experienced in all fields of study. There is a need to understand what causes employers to be displeased with a graduate’s ability to make an effective contribution to the workplace. During 2019, a study conducted by the South African professional bodies, Jo’burg Centre for Software Engineering and the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa, highlighted that the information and communications technology skills gap is growing in South Africa, suggesting that we may need as many as 50 000 ICT practitioners in the near future. This statistic is concerning, as it is not feasible for South African tertiary institutions to collectively deliver 50 000 skilled ICT practitioners any time soon. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that South African employers feel that IT graduates are not workready. This raises the concern that IT graduates lack certain skills expected by industry when they enter the workforce in South Africa. It is implied that the specific skills required by industry are not developed during the course of an IT degree. Suggestions towards bridging the skills gap include on-the-job-experience such as internships, intense training through apprenticeships, early exposure to IT careers, recognised certifications, and improved instructional approaches to assess the skill levels of IT students. Early career advice, and contact with industry through recent alumni, or presentations by industry, would also support IT students in making informed career choices. The use of authentic ‘real’ problems in the curriculum is recommended to encourage the development of relevant problem-solving skills.The instructional approach that is consistently used to bridge the theory-practice gap in computer science-related curricula is project-based learning (PBL). The use of PBL is popular in engineering, computer science, and information technology degrees due to the expected artefact creation that is typical of these project-based working environments. Project-based learning is a practical approach to skills development in any field and can be used to evaluate the skill levels of students in a collaborative environment that simulates the setup of industry. Project-based learning is suggested as a suitable pedagogy that can be used to address the South African IT skills gap, but the approach needs to be refined. Due to the various implementation methods used for PBL, as well as different approaches towards IT skills development and promoting IT career awareness, it is recommended to construct a single source of guidelines that can address the IT theory-practice gap within a South African context.Developing guidelines falls within the research paradigm of design science research (DSR), as artefact creation. The focus of this study is on the development of the guidelines, and not on the emancipation of the user group that the guidelines are intended for. Reflective practice is considered the theoretical framework that informs the research methodology in this study, and serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it is incorporated into project-based learning for IT skills development towards improving the professional practice of the student, as well as the facilitator. Secondly, reflective practice is also embedded in the methodology of this research. The central participants of the study include entry-level and exit-level IT students enrolled for a BSc undergraduate degree in Information Technology at a university in South Africa. Other role players of the study include members from the IT industry in South Africa. The problem experienced started with exit-level IT students, when a skills gap was noticed between IT theory and IT practice during 2017. Industry members were subsequently asked, in a pilot study, to provide feedback on the skills that IT graduates typically lack. The feedback was used to improve the curriculum at entry-level and exit-level of an IT degree. Students at both levels were asked to comment on the strategies that were implemented towards improving the curriculum, with the aim of bridging the gap between IT theory and IT practice. Qualitative methods were used to gather data from participants, including written interviews, reflective sheets, and interpretive questionnaires. Interpretive content analysis in the form of open coding was used to analyse the qualitative data. Themes identified in the data highlighted aspects such as South African IT graduate skills that were found lacking, teaching and learning approaches that improved skills development, and intervention strategies that promoted career awareness. Findings from literature and the identified themes were used to develop guidelines towards bridging the IT theory-practice gap. This thesis is submitted in article format, with five articles included in the research. The study concludes with a set of consolidated guidelines for bridging the IT theory-practice gap, which is a result of the research findings of the respective articles. The guidelines include themes for formulating an intervention strategy, identifying crucial IT skills, best practice for general IT pedagogy, effective project-based learning for IT higher education, and involving industry in higher education.