There has been a major change in the business community's attitude to IT.
Where IT used to be left to the IT professionals in the back room, today it is on every business person's agenda. IT has become a mainstream part of business and many more people need to have knowledge of IT issues.
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 professionals work with other business specialists to identify requirements, negotiate with suppliers, plan projects, facilitate meetings, manage teams and motivate staff. Their undergraduate courses prepare them for the technical parts of their jobs, but they need far broader business knowledge as well.
The ACS recognised the need for IT professionals to acquire the skills and knowledge to apply their technical expertise to improving business performance and introduced the Certification Program in 1993.
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. It appears as if the new e-Business subjects will 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 getting to on-campus activities on a regular basis.
Most students prefer to do work that is practical and can be applied in their workplace. Our concern is for content that motivates participants and encourages employer support for their participation by ensuring it is relevant to employers' needs. Therefore the Certification Program continues to be designed by Professionals for Professionals.
In the 12 months I have managed 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 enrolments.
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 demand outstrips supply. In most of the assessable assignments, students select a topic, get it approved, and then produce a report that serves three purposes - it gets them marks for the subject, it provides their employer with needed information, and it enables students to demonstrate their value to their employers.
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 work experience, while others have previously attempted on-campus graduate study, but found it too inflexible and impractical.
After completing four subjects for CMACS status, graduates can count these subjects towards a post-graduate degree.
It is perhaps surprising that the ACS offers distance education subjects that still arrive in the mail. Online delivery options are always under review, but the quality of content and convenience for students must be maintained. Depending on the subject, we use an increasing number of online references and have exercises that require Internet use.
Many CMACS students 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. 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 for our customers. 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 then 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 Manager of the ACS Certification Program and Chair of the Australian Cooperative Education Society. In his former role as manager of an employer-sponsored degree course at Swinburne University, he gained 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 the World Association's MacLaren prize for his contribution internationally to work-integrated learning.