ACS Certification Program adds value

There has been a major change in the business community's attitude to IT. Where IT used to be left to professional staff in the back room, today it is on every business person's agenda. IT knowledge is needed by many more people and has moved to be a mainstream part of business.

One of the great misunderstandings about IT specialists is that they spend lots of time at their keyboards. Not even programmers spend all day at keyboards.

Most IT specialists work with other business specialists, identifying requirements, negotiating with people like suppliers, planning projects, facilitating meetings, managing teams and motivating staff.

Their undergraduate courses prepare them for the technical parts of their jobs, but they need knowledge in many more areas particularly those which relate IT to the business.

Recognising the need for IT professionals to acquire the skills and knowledge to apply their technical expertise to improving business performance, the ACS introduced its Certification Program in 1993.

Today the ACS offers distance education specialisations in Project Management, e-Business, IT Strategy and Management, Marketing and Selling IT, and Software Engineering, as well as core subjects in IT Trends and Business, Legal and Ethical Issues. The new e-Business subjects look set to challenge the strong market popularity of Project Management.

Adult learning is most effective when it combines new knowledge with on-the-job application, and distance education is an excellent delivery mode for IT practitioners who have difficulty attending on-campus activities.

Most students prefer to undertake studies that are practical and can be reused in their workplace. Our concern is for content that motivates participants and encourages employer support for their participation.

To ensure we offer specialist subjects that are needed by employers of IT staff, the Certification Program continues to be designed by professionals for professionals.

In the 12 months since I became manager of the program, industry reference groups have overseen the development of the new e-Business specialisation, a rewrite of Business, Legal and Ethical Issues (BLE), and endorsed the move away from exams to assignments for IT Trends, BLE and e-Business 1.

The ability to integrate the learning program with work has resulted in a 70 per cent increase in students commencing the program in the last nine months, compared to the same period last year.

It is far more rewarding for students to base assessable course work on topics that are integrated with their work, especially in new areas such as e-Business where there are not enough specialists to meet demand.

In most of the assessable assignments, students select a topic, gain approval, and then produce a report that not only earns them marks for the subject, but provides their employer with needed information, and enables them to demonstrate their value to that employer.

Some of those in the program are returning to formal education after a break of 20 or more years. Others start the CMACS program after only a couple of years' experience. Some have previous attempted on-campus graduate study but found it too inflexible, and not sufficiently practical.

After completing four subjects for CMACS status, CMACS graduates are able to count these subjects towards a post-graduate degree. It is perhaps surprising that the Australian Computer Society offers distance education subjects that still arrive in the mail.

Online delivery options are always under review, but we need to provide the same quality content and convenience for participants as we do now. Depending on the subject, we use an increasing number of online references and have exercises that require Internet use.

Many of our participants throughout Australia and overseas have slow Internet access from home connections and often face slow downloads because they are using the Internet after hours when performance is often poor. Printed subject material can be read on the train on the way to work, or in a cafe in between client visits.

It might sound trendier to deliver online, but we only do it where it adds value.

Our students say it is still easier to receive a hard copy of an article with the study guide than to power up the home PC, connect to the ISP, locate the site, and download the paper.

The cost for each subject is complete, covering all required material, texts and assessment.

Employers benefit greatly from distance education, gaining more knowledgeable staff, who usually do most of the education in their own time, and costs are minor compared with industry classroom-based equivalent courses.

Gerald Murphy is Certification Program Manager of the ACS. In his role as Chair of the Australian Cooperative Education Society, and his former role as manager of an employer-sponsored degree course at Swinburne University, he has developed an excellent understanding of how to integrate subject content with work experience and how to encourage employer support for those undertaking such study.

In 1997, he was awarded of the World Association's MacLaren prize for his contribution internationally to work-integrated learning.

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