Ireland has one of the highest concentrations of ICT activity and employment in the international OECD and despite this, there are above-average rates of non-completion in computer science undergraduate courses. Employers also express certain dissatisfaction with the coverage provided by traditional curricula and graduates’ understanding and/or willingness to pursue computer programming.
The importance of student success in higher education is incontestable and improving student retention and achievement has a particularly high priority for third level institutes of higher education. An examination of completion rates among students in computing courses in Irish higher education institutions (HEI’s) shows a large proportion of students who enrol do not finish within the ‘normal’ duration of their programme, and a significant number do not complete their course at all (‘normal’ being defined as the expected duration of the course, typically 3 years for a degree course and 4 years for a honours degree.)
There has always been a stubborn issue with regard to retention on computing programmes. The issue of retention of students on computing courses in Ireland became particularly acute when student intake, in terms of falling numbers of applicants and reduction in entry point standards, combined to significantly change the profile of the incoming student. However even in the ‘boom’ when students gaining higher Leaving Certificate points were applying for computing courses there was an issue. In those years the problem was smaller and could mainly be attributed to students who picked computing courses due to the popularity, modernity and perceived economic prospects of the industry, but who were not particularly motivated by perfection of the skill and did not have good knowledge about the nature of the work. The latter problem of good knowledge and understanding of programming is still a very significant problem and was compounded by the lack of adequate prior knowledge from which the student can draw.
There has been much research into best practices in teaching computer programming, and into new and innovative module design and curricula, and retention initiatives. In 2003 Institute of Technology Blanchardstown established a problem based learning approach to combat non-completion in computing (Pike and Barber 2003). Institute of Technology Tralee introduced an e-learning pack to assist students in the computer science faculty, the ELEVATE project. With the support of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), IT Investment Fund, several Irish higher-level educational institutes established Learning Support Units – Engineering Support Centre at IT Tallaght, IT Learning Centre at Dundalk IT, Programming Support Centre at Trinity College, and the Mathematics, Programming and Science Learning Centres at the University of Limerick. The activities of the centres are justified on the basis that many capable students, for a variety of reasons, may find it difficult to achieve the required standards in programming or mathematics to support their degree studies. The Learning Centres generally adopt a ‘drop-in’ approach providing dedicated, focused and expert learning support. The aim of the centres is to provide peer support, learning evaluation, at risk diagnosis and learning skills development.
For institutions, the consequences of high rates of student departure, though measured in different terms to that of the student, are of no less concern. Institutes of higher education have invested in large recruitment campaigns in order to increase the number of applicants, but these campaigns no longer produce notable gains. They no longer offer the hope of ensuring departmental/course survival in the coming years. From a computing course viewpoint poor programming ability has many potential knock-on effects i.e. contributing to wastage, failure rates or poor progress. The decline in student numbers during the course has a negative effect on the morale of the class cohort and impacts negatively on the spirit of the year group. The quality of the institutions’ qualifications may be devalued accordingly if graduates have a reputation for having poor programming competence.
It is most important to emphasise that improving student retention not only fulfils the institutionally self-serving function of promoting fiscal solvency, but that it also serves the student-centred purpose of promoting learning and development. Should a student leave their initial choice of educational institution, they not only leave the course they study but they also leave without the broad education that attending a third-level institute may give them. In a foreword to a report on non-completion in Ireland (Morgan et al. 2001), Don Thornhill, the former chairman of the HEA, reminds both teachers and policy-makers not to forget that “..for some students who do not complete their courses, the results can be very damaging not just in financial terms but also in terms of reduced self-esteem and self-confidence”.
High non-completion rates among computing students seems to be a global phenomenon compared to other disciplines. This suggests that along with the more generic reasons associated with underperformance and dropout, there may be factors associated with computing that differentiates these students in some important ways, from the general population or learners in higher education. In order to develop programs to alleviate the problems of computing students avoiding, fearing and failing with computer programming modules, institutions which seek to prepare students in the field of software development must become concerned with identifying those students who are computer anxious and evaluating the impact of the experience on their self-concept, their cognitive development, their adjustment and their success!