Designing an IT course for humanities students

Pat Byrne and Sharon Flynn
IT Centre, National University of Ireland
Galway, Ireland.

This presentation reports on the introduction of Information Technology (IT) as a full subject within the Arts Faculty in the National University of Ireland, Galway. The faculty had recognised the need for this technological subject to be tailored to suit humanities students so that they might have the skills needed in the modern Irish workplace.

A recent report by the Irish Department of Employment and Energy on the information society in Ireland has highlighted the fact that while Ireland has developed a significant computer industry to date, the social, economic and academic spin-off ranks in the lower end of the European scale.

The Irish government has developed a strategic plan to address this shortcoming. One of its objectives is to: "Develop the capability of third -level institutions to stimulate research on the Information Society, open up the debate, drive curriculum development and develop more linkages with enterprises and communities and focus on open and distance learning"

The government has also highlighted areas such as the "content sector" as an area of opportunity for growth. The content sector ".... involves the creation of products and services that aggregate music, audio-visual, and information/data services, drawing on Ireland's culture and heritage using digital delivery, technology and skills." This is an area better suited to humanities graduates than to those with a purely scientific or engineering approach to computing science. Combining I.T. with the traditional Arts subject areas therefore has a clear career potential.

The Information Technology Centre was established in NUI, Galway in 1989. Its role was to produce graduates with a multi-disciplinary approach to integrating technology in the workplace. The centre already offers degrees at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

In response to the growing demand for IT subjects from all academic disciplines, in 1997 the decision was taken to offer Information Technology as a full degree subject through the Faculty of Arts.  This is a new, innovative programme, unlike any other in Ireland.  It is designed to meet the needs and technical limitations of humanities students and to integrate the subject with other disciplines.

Students in the Arts Faculty in NUI, Galway, study four subjects in their first year. They then continue with two of these subjects for the following two years, and graduate with a joint-honours degree. Thus first year students may take IT in order to gain valuable computer skills for one year only, or with the intention of graduating in IT and some other humanities subject.

Our first objective was to distinguish the new programme from the existing B.Sc. in Information Technology, which is closer to a traditional Computing Science degree.  Two main differences exist.  These concern the student needs and backgrounds, and the ethos of the degree in the humanities within which we must operate.

Students taking the BA have chosen not to take a scientific or technical route through university, which means that they may not have a strong grounding in mathematics or other scientific subjects from second level school.  Throughout their degree the students will require a different approach to IT studies as compared to other humanities subjects.  In contrast to students on our BSc programme, humanities students do not aim to become computer programmers or software engineers, but rather plan to apply technical skills in a broader context.

Bringing IT into the Arts Faculty means entering a different teaching environment than the one to which we are accustomed.  In the Science or Engineering model, imparting factual information and skills puts an emphasis on contact lecture hours, and students are expected to practice the application of the subject matter. Traditionally, in the Arts Faculty, there are fewer teaching hours, and students are expected to read around their subject in order to gain a broad perspective.  A further difference is our need for a hands-on approach through supervised computer laboratory hours, in order to integrate the theoretical with the practical needs of the subject matter.

The challenge is to find a suitable form for a new BA programme, which maintains the traditional values associated with the Humanities while at the same time developing a new dimension in the form of a suitable curriculum for computing.

We designed the curriculum in collaboration with colleagues and peers, and we see it as an evolving course, meeting the changing needs of the students, the Arts Faculty, and the Information Society in Ireland.

In first year, IT students study two subjects.  Since many students have had practically no exposure to computing, this gives a solid grounding in the subject. Programming and Logical Foundations equips the student for computer programming development with a high-level language. It covers basic programming concepts including: a logical approach to problem solving; structured programming; variables; selection; iteration; functions; arrays and other data structures. Computer Systems and PC Applications covers introductory hardware and software. The course also provides a thorough understanding of packaged applications including Word Processing, Spreadsheets, Databases, Statistical and other modelling tools, and Graphical applications.

At the end of year one a general understanding of computer technology will be gained and a set of immediately applicable skills will be acquired by all students.

Students who continue with their studies in order to graduate in IT will receive a solid core of technical subjects covering hardware, communications and software development throughout their degree programme. Other second and third year courses proposed include: further problem solving and programming; information systems and databases; multimedia development; human-computer interaction; artificial intelligence. In particular, we hope to emphasise the links with other Humanities subjects. This is achieved through exploring the essential building blocks for the information age, and looking at the ways in which computers are used in various application areas, e.g. databases and information systems (for literary studies); parsing and natural language processing; textual analysis (of historical documents); using computers as aids to teaching; computer-mediated music. Students are also expected through an individual project to research and develop a selected area within the IT/Humanities field.

The first group of 110 students have now taken their first year examinations. We were slightly disappointed in their technical knowledge when compared with students who took IT as a subject through the science faculty. We felt this was due to their limited exposure to structured reasoning, and their uninformed expectations of IT as an academic discipline. We are limiting the number of places on the second year of the course based on the performance in first year examinations, and have offered 42 places to those who demonstrated adequate technical ability.

We hope to grow and develop our curriculum in response to the needs of our students and our experiences to date. We are open to suggestions and comments as to how we can successfully adapt IT to the humanities.