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Redesigning skill-based IT subjects for the 21st century

Lynda Thater
Neville Richter

School of Data Communications, Queensland University of Technology
For the past seven years we have been teaching two laboratory-based subjects in Information Technology (IT). During this time we have faced the challenge of change: change in our methods and attitudes, student abilities, industry direction, employer requirements and the university itself. For this project we reviewed our subjects, both for content and presentation style, and then conducted a set of interviews with students and staff to reflect on the content and process of these IT subjects and how we could make them more flexible to respond to these changing times. In response to this information, we have introduced improvements to our subjects to provide more flexibility. In this paper we present the five improvements we made and evaluate their usefulness after one semester in operation.


As part of the Bachelor of Information Technology at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), we teach second and third year core subjects in the area of Computer Network Administration and Management. These subjects are "hands-on" courses in Network Management that provide students with the opportunity to develop skills in administering computer networks.

Over the years, we have encountered a change in our methods and attitudes, student abilities, industry direction, employer requirements and the university itself. IT is a fast changing technology. New operating systems and patches are released at least every twelve months, and we have found that these new technologies impact our subjects as we are forced to change the curriculum at least as often.

The focus of this project was to reassess the requirements of our students, particularly in light of the growing number of international students from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds (NESB), students with disabilities, mature-age students, and part-time students. Currently, more than 80% of our students fall into these minority groupings. Also, our class sizes have grown. Where we used to have classes with under 100 students, now it is commonplace to see over 400 faces a week in the laboratories. There is a wide-range of people, no longer all full-time students coming to university from 9-5pm. Instead we see people with many time constraints: family, work, transportation, other studies and commitments.

We first performed a situational analysis in which we identified our stakeholders, both internal and external to our subjects. Subsequently, we conducted consultations with the key stakeholders, who helped us to categorize the strengths and weaknesses of the subjects, as well as to provide suggestions for improving them. Using the information gained from the consultations, we embarked on redesigning our subjects.

Structure of the subjects

A primary objective of the School of Data Communications is to prepare students for the workforce by providing them with an opportunity to practice network administration and management skills. The subjects we teach target the development of students' problem solving skills, so they will become self-sufficient and able to cope with the changing technologies.

For each subject there is one two-hour lecture per week. We have divided this time into two sessions: the first hour covers the more theoretical aspects of Network Administration, while the second hour covers the practical side. During the second hour we concentrate on 'how to do' something, while the first hour is dedicated to 'why', policies or procedures.

Students work on practical exercises in the laboratories each week. There is a one hour supervised practical session, plus at least two hours further laboratory work to be completed in the laboratories or at home. Students are encouraged to work in groups, however some students prefer to work independently at home. All assessment, however, is independent work.

Goals of the project

The main goals of the project were to:

Goal #1: Provide a more international curriculum:

We have an increasing number of students from a Non-English Speaking Background (NESB). Also, the job prospects of many Australian students are now overseas. It is important for graduates to learn 'globally portable' skills. We would like students to be aware of their part in internationalization and its relevance to Australia and the world.

Goal #2: Improve motivation and the success of students in these subjects:

Since the introduction of mass education in Australia, there are many more students who "need good teachers." (Cross, 1994) Where in the past a university class was comprised of all "excellent" students who would learn no matter what the environment, this can no longer be said of modern higher education. Motivating students can be achieved by outlining ways to succeed in the subject, showing students how to approach problem-solving, and improving assessment methods that will help students to succeed. Calling this 'spoon feeding' does an injustice to the students and the educational system itself.

Goal #3: Limit the impact of constraints as defined in the situational analysis:

One method of dealing with the constraints is to look at the long list and give in, designing a subject that is very traditional (such as the 'chalk and talk' method). Instead, we, like Robert Frost in his poem "The Road Not Taken", have chosen to go down the less traveled path, and embark on a journey that will both benefit us and the students. As Gibbs (Gibbs, 1995) and Cross (Cross, 1994) have reported, the "great majority of faculty members - 70% according to a Carnegie survey - say, that their primary satisfactions and interests lie more in teaching than in research". So the only road to take would be to offer the best education available and find ways to work within the system.

Goal #4: Setup a means for ongoing evaluation and reflection on the subjects.

"Good teaching involves continuous monitoring of one's work: observing the effects of instruction on students and responding appropriately." (Ramsden and Dodds, 1989, p.33) This is something we have observed time and time again, that there is no room for complacency. Speaking from experience, the only way to better ourselves is to undergo continuing evaluation.


The main constraints in teaching these subjects are:


Our first task was to rewrite the mission statements for our subjects, with the aim of motivating students as well as making them aware of their part in internationalization and its relevance to Australia and the world. Following on, we created mind maps and performed a SWOT analysis for each of the subjects we teach. We interviewed stakeholders on the requirements of international students from NESB and students with disabilities. We also reviewed each subject's readings, and read widely on other academic's experiences and responses. Often we were able to personally identify with the problems experienced in others' reports.

As an outcome to our project, there were five main improvements:

Duty Tutor System

One theme that emerged from the interviews with students was their desire for more contact with lecturers and tutors. Since we are very short on academic staff who can teach in this area, to address this need and allow students more access to tutors, our school now has a "Duty Tutor System".

There are different levels of duty tutors:

  1. Each semester one post-graduate student, acts as a "doctor is in". This person has an office where he/she tutors students via email and in-person. This has provided more flexibility for students studying outside of the normal working day. This "dcduty" person answers all email posted to

  2. In addition, we employ students to tutor in the laboratories. These are students who have already completed the subject they are tutoring for, so it is a method of peer mentoring. The student tutors work in blocks of three hours, at regularly scheduled times, spread out over the whole week. There are usually six 'lab tutors' working six hours each, every week during the semester.
Two different methods have been implemented, since there are two distinct needs for tutoring. Firstly, students have questions while they are working through the practical exercises. These types of questions are better answered 'on the spot' and not by email. The practical sessions are officially only one hour long, but often the work takes longer. Thus we found it necessary to have tutoring staff available across the week.

Lab tutors have been very successful and well accepted by the students. But for out-of-hours assistance, the dcduty tutor has provided more appropriate assistance. The 'doctor is in' holds office hours to answer student questions, but it is the email support that is most beneficial. As was found by others (Sheard, 1999) a help desk without email support does not work very well. The dcduty tutor aims to provide an email reply within 24-hours to student emails on weekdays. Since the introduction of dcduty, the emails between students and lecturers is greatly reduced.

Last semester we kept statistics on the usage of the dcduty system. At the beginning of the semester, most of the questions were about administrative matters. But as the semester progressed, dcduty helped more students on the content of their studies.

At the end of each semester, we post a request for interest in becoming a "DC duty tutor" or Lab tutor. Past students who have achieved a high grade in the subject and also have an outgoing personality are selected. Currently, we have more applicants than positions. However, we have tried to accommodate as many tutors as possible.

Currently, we are developing a "Duty Tutor Website". This will have web-based forms for students to fill-in when sending an email to Dcduty. Also, there will be links to the study material, bulletin boards and FAQs for each subject.

International theme

Since nearly 50% of our students are from a NESB, it is important to ensure that our curriculum is inclusive and international. As a consequence, the software, methodologies, and standards we teach are used both within and outside of Australia. This has enabled all of the students to gain skills that are globally portable. Other strategies to maintain an international curriculum is to include examples and case studies from overseas, and publish online glossaries, to help students keep track of the vast number of acronyms used in the IT industry.

Other methods we have implemented are:

Motivational tools

Students requested help to motivate them during the semester. In response we have introduced "info-commercials" during the lectures. During these times we discuss current topics in the IT industry which relate directly to the students' exercises in the laboratories. For example, during the lectures and laboratory sessions, most of the time is spent either explaining how something works or getting a network solution implemented and working properly.

During the "info-commercials" students are encouraged to think about:

Reflective practice and feedback

One weak point for many students is their ability to critically assess their performance and progress. We have tried different methods of surveying students on their progress in these subjects: formal paper-based surveys, web-based surveys, and weekly face-to-face progress reports initiated by the tutors. We have found the face-to-face progress reports the most satisfactory and accurate.

This is how it works: At the beginning of each session, a tutor, usually a full-time academic staff member of the School (there are at least two tutors always present during a laboratory session), will approach every student in the class. The tutor talks to each student about his/her progress, difficulty level with the exercises, problems they have encountered, and how many hours they have been working on the exercises. This has provided an efficient means to track students that are falling behind, and target them for extra tutorial assistance. Additionally, we monitor the appropriateness and length of the practical exercises we set.

As a result we require students to maintain a logbook, in which they not only record the answers to the laboratory exercises, but also provide an entry for reflection. Students answer a few questions about their progress each week, with room to elaborate if necessary. We have been emphasizing to students the importance for them to critique their work and investigate their own understanding of concepts. The feedback from students is that this has improved their problem solving skills.

Furthermore, we produce online mini-quizzes to prepare students for assessment. These quizzes provide instant feedback to ensure students have grasped the main topics for the week. Since we do not have a lot of supervision, we have put web-based mini-quizzes online. We can then use these quizzes as the basis for the final exam. Also, the feedback these quizzes provide, gives students guidance as to what is assessable in the subject. Students have commented that it is very important to them, to have structure and know what is important to study. We also provide sample final and practical exams online with sample answers and marking guides, to be used as study tools.

Change management

Due to the rapid changes in industry direction and employer requirements, the content and delivery of material does change every semester. Students need to learn to expect this in their careers after graduation. A number of people typically resist change, and so we discuss managing change from many perspectives: e.g. managing change while a student, as a future technologist, as a people-manager, and as a member of society. To help students confront the problems they will face in the industry, we discuss ways to: As a result of this project, we have introduced an entire lecture which discusses approaches to problem solving, change management and motivational tools.

Online Administrator's Resource Kit

Finally, to increase the flexibility of presentation materials, we have created an online Administrator's Resource Kit (Thater & Richter, 1995-2000) on our Intranet and publish it on CD-ROM for distribution to students. This contains useful information for students when completing their laboratory exercises. The CD-ROM can be used at home as Internet access is not required.

The website allows us to deliver books, papers, tools, and help files to students and to the industry. Search engines help users find information within documents and manuals. Sample configuration scripts are available to help students learn by example. Structured access to further information, both locally and at remote sites, is also available.

However, we are teaching in the rapidly changing IT field, where what we teach one year is out of date the following year. In fact, the technology can and does change during semesters. This poses a problem for us, if we want to publish our CD-ROM each semester. The solution we have chosen is to keep our information static during a semester, only upgrading the operating systems and associated documentation between semesters.

We do add information to our website during the semester, but the learning environment is clearly defined. We ask students to actively find new sites we can link to on our Administrator's Resource Kit. Then at the end of semester, we update the website and CD. Many past students still use the site and send us feedback and further links to add.

Review of project goals

After consultation with the primary stakeholders, namely students and staff, we introduced these improvements into our subjects. Just by making minor changes to the way we presented material (in lectures and practical sessions) we have met our goals. The improvements are not confined to accomplishing just one goal, but extend over several of the goals. To summarize:

Goal #1: Provide a more international curriculum:

Goal #2: Improve motivation and the success of students in these subjects:

Goal #3: Limit the impact of constraints as defined in the situational analysis:

Goal #4: Setup a means for ongoing evaluation and reflection on the subjects.


The Information Technology discipline is global and with the use of networks, students can travel anywhere in the world. So, globally portable skills are necessary to function in the global IT community. Most of the recommendations in this paper involve reorganization and/or different presentation of information already included in the subjects. These strategies should limit the impact of constraints as defined in the situational analysis. Also, by setting up a means for ongoing evaluation and reflection on the subjects, we will establish a basis for creating innovative means of dealing with limitations as well as opportunities.

Thus, by starting now and implementing small changes, we should achieve all the goals we set forth. Just like the behavioral changes we make in our personal lives (such as those promised in New Year's Resolutions), those goals that are written down and quantified will be the most easily implemented and retained.


Cross, P., (1994). An American perspective on transition: Issues of quality and access. Learning Matters, Curtin University, Vol. 2, No. 3.

Gibbs, G. (1995). How can promoting excellent teachers promote excellent teaching? Innovations in Education and Training International, 32(1), 74-84.

Ramsden, P. & Dodds, A. (1989). Improving teaching and courses: A guide to evaluation. Melbourne, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne.

Sheard, J. &. Hagan, D (1999). A Special Learning Environment for Repeat Students. ITiCSE '99, Cracow, Poland, ACM.

Taylor, L. (1994). Reflecting on teaching: the benefits of self-evaluation. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 19(2), 109-122.

Thater, L. & Richter, N. (1995-2000). Administrator's Resource Kit. [verified 22 Oct 2001]

Authors: Lynda Thater, Queensland University of Technology, School of Data Communications
Phone (07) 3864.1923 Fax (07) 3221.2384 Email

Neville Richter, Queensland University of Technology, School of Data Communications
Phone (07) 3864.1928 Fax (07) 3221.2384 Email

Please cite as: Thater, L. and Richter, N. (2001). Redesigning skill-based IT subjects for the 21st century. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 682-688. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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Created 26 Oct 2001. Last revised: 4 Apr 2003. HTML: Roger Atkinson
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