Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Building a degree: Vertical integration across units within a curriculum of study

Paula Goulding
School of Information Technology
Murdoch University
In all academic disciplines, but especially those with a rapidly changing subject matter such as Information Technology (IT), unit material needs to be updated on a frequent basis. In such a situation it is only too easy for the logical flow of subject materials to become disjointed. The primary focus of this research is to improve integration across units, thus ensuring that topics are presented across the entire programme in a way that builds on previous study and avoids duplication or omission of important material, providing a coherent learning path for the student. In addition, the level of inclusion of generic skill development can be identified and developed. Finally the curriculum can be evaluated against international guidelines and professional accreditation criteria.

To achieve these goals, several staff in the School of Information Technology department worked cooperatively to identify relevant topics and skills needed for an Information Technology graduate. A database was created in which all staff entered details of the material covered and skills developed in each unit. This database will be analysed for each "strand", ie topic or skill, for consistency, duplication and omissions by a focus group of staff, and suggestions made for changes and improvements.


"I can't believe I need to teach third year students how to construct a bibliography...don't they write any essays in first and second year?"

"These test plans are appalling... aren't they taught how to write them up in their introductory programming unit?"

"You teach them how to construct a "Request for Proposal" in the Systems Analysis unit... but I have a whole lecture on that in my Systems Design Unit!"

These and similar comments arising from informal discussion with colleagues teaching in the School of Information Technology were the impetus to explore mechanisms for ensuring a coherent integration of material between units across the entire degree programmes offered in the School.

In all academic disciplines, unit material needs to be updated on a frequent basis. This is particularly so in those disciplines with rapidly changing subject matter such as Information Technology (IT). Most unInformation Technologys will need minor adjustments to content each year, with major rewrites necessary at least every two to three years. In such a situation it is only too easy for the logical flow of subject materials between units to become disjointed. The traditional academic freedom to control the content and delivery mechanisms of the units we teach also has the potential for units to change their "flavour" considerably with a change of unit coordinator, often without the knowledge of other colleagues who subsequently make erroneous assumptions about students' previous studies based upon outdated knowledge of unit content. A common knowledge base encapsulating information about all units in the programmes could usefully address the problems of rapid change and lack of alignment between units allowing for the design of a curriculum as a plan of sequential and cumulative learning, not merely a collection of courses.

Threads within the curriculum

The focus of this research is therefore improving integration across units. We want to ensure that individual topics are presented across the entire programme in a way that builds on discipline specific knowledge and skills and avoids either duplication or omission of important material. A second closely related area of concern was to ensure that students graduated with an adequate level of generic skills. Generic skills were identified as an important element to integrate throughout the degree. There has been a recent emphasis on the importance of generic skills for university graduates, and feedback from local employers of graduates in our discipline has confirmed a perceived need for developing such generic skills as communication and problem solving in our graduates. Research indicates that graduates in the IT area need to develop skills not just in the use of technology, but in the area of change management, such as those related to interpersonal skills and communications (Trauth, Farwell et al. 1993)

A list of topics and subtopics, skills and generic skills which we see as needed for our students was identified by a group of interested staff. This was based upon the current content of units, supplemented by material from core curriculum models for Information Systems (IS) such as the IS '97 Model Curriculum of the IATP(DPMA)/ACM/AIS task force and the IRMA/DAMA Information Resources Management Curriculum Model: An International Curriculum Model. Accreditation guidelines from the Australian Computer Society (ACS) were also consulted. Both the national guidelines in the Kemp report and the attributes of a Murdoch University graduate identified by a Murdoch University working party were considered for identification of desirable generic skills.

Once the lists were agreed a Microsoft Access database was developed to hold the information. All staff within the department then entered details for each unit they co-ordinated in 1998. The process was somewhat delayed for several reasons, primarily

It was felt that the analysis would be better based on the future offering, so full analysis will be delayed until the new first semester offerings are sufficiently developed to enter meaningful data, which should coincide with the completion of the study guides in early January. Information entered includes the hours spent on a topic/subtopic/skill in tutorials and lectures, details of assessments that evaluate generic skills, resources (books, articles, case studies, web addresses) used in the treatment of a particular topic, and URL addresses to related unit materials.

The database can then be used to list all units that treat a particular topic/sub topic/ skill. The resulting report will include full details of how the topic is treated in each unit. Once the data entry is completed and the reports produced for each topic/subtopic/skill strand, the intention is for focus groups of two or three staff most interested in each strand to study the current situation and identify needed changes. Each strand will be evaluated for consistency, duplication, omissions etc by the focus group, and suggestions will be made for changes. One member of staff will coordinate the suggestions from all of these groups. An example report is given in the appendix.


ACM, AIS et al (1997). IS '97 Model Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs in Information Systems. Association for Information Technology Professionals, Murdoch University.

ACS (1997). The ACS Core Body of Knowledge for Information Technology Professionals. Sydney, Australian Computer Society.

Farmer, Donald (1993). A Teaching Strategy to Improve Student Learning. http://wwwadmin.murdoch.edu.au/admin/cttees/epc/1998/980505/980505mn2a.html

IRMA and DAMA (1997). IRM Curriculum Model (Draft). Hershey, PA: Information Resources Management Association.

Second Report of the Working Group on Attributes of a Murdoch University Graduate. http://wwwadmin.murdoch.edu.au/admin/cttees/epc/1998/980505/980505mn2.html

Trauth, E. M., Farwell D. W. et al. (1993). Information Systems Skills: Achieving Alignment Between the Curriculum and the Needs of IS Professionals in the Future. Data Base Advances, 26(4), 47-61.

Appendix: List of generic or meta-skills

Communication - verbal
Communication - written
Communication - electronic
Global perspective
Problem Solving
Professional in - depth knowledge
Social interaction (team work)
Social Justice and Ethics

Example topic with subtopics

Topic - Analysis
Subtopics Alternative Design selection
Data modelling
Logic Modelling
Process Modelling
Structured design
Object orientated design
Requirements determination
Information gathering techniques

Example Report showing treatment of a generic skill

Metaskill Social Justice and Ethics

UnitLecture TutorialResourcesComments
B1xx2 hrs
Beekman, G., Brent, G.R. and Rathswohl, E.J. (1997). Computer Confluence: Exploring Tomorrow's Technology. Business Edition. Addison-Wesley Longman Inc. ISBN 0-8053-2467-4.Covers privacy, intellectual copyright, effect of IT on education and employment
B1yy3 hrs
Lecture notes.
Guest lecture from philosophy covering classical ethical theories, current guidelines
2 hrs http://www.aice.swin.edu.au/links/index.htmlComparing professional codes of ethics
B2xx2 hrs

Participative design
3 hrs Kallman & Grill, Ethical decision making and ITEthical dilemmas

Please cite as: Goulding, P. (1999). Building a degree: Vertical integration across units within a curriculum of study. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 149-152. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/goulding.html

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