ERCIM News No.43 - October 2000 [contents]

Education of ‘Information Technology Non-professionals’ for the Development and Use of Information Systems

by Peter Mihók, Vladimír Penjak and Jozef Bucko

Information creating and processing in modern information systems requires increasing engagement of all users in the analysis and development stages. The article attempts to investigate how deep a knowledge of object oriented methodologies for the development of information systems is necessary for students of applied mathematics, economics and young business managers. We describe, in the context of the concept of student education developed at the Faculty of Sciences of P.J. Safárik University and Economical Faculty of Technical University in Ko_ice, our experience in this and formulate certain questions and problems which we believe to be relevant in this area.

The ability to use modern information and communication technologies efficiently is one of the fundamental requirements for graduates of all types of university level educational institutions. Future economists, managers, businessmen are facing a reality which encompasses the necessity of working in an environment of global integrated information systems (IIS) which are becoming an integral part of the global information society. Courses which support the use of modern information and communication technologies are designed to provide the students with a certain amount of theoretical fundamental knowledge but their main purpose is to impart practical knowledge and skills. The students are motivated to search the worldwide web for the newest information and make their own survey of the services and products offered in connection with direct (electronic) banking and acquaint themselves with the forms and principles of electronic commerce.

Object Oriented Methodologies and the Training of Information System Users

The development, maintenance and use of efficient integrated information systems is becoming a serious competitive advantage in economic competition. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the efficiency and effectively of these systems is directly dependent on the ability of information system users to provide the best possible specification of their requirements. In spite of the fact that the development and implementation of information systems is the domain of professional information technologists. it is impossible to build an integrated information system without close cooperation with the prospective system users whose numbers are increasing in a dramatic way. This forces us to make a new evaluation of the way the ‘information technology non-professionals - IIS users’ are trained and the way they should be trained to prepare them for these tasks. Since the last years of our century are marked by a pronounced shift towards object oriented methodologies we decided to plan the education of future IIS users in accordance with the basic ideas of object oriented approaches. We are of the opinion that it is an advantage for an effective cooperation between information technology professionals and users if the users possess at least a basic understanding of the concepts and models used by object oriented methodologies.

The use of objects made possible the utilization of their synergy in that the object model united all the stages to yield one design which could be used without modification up to and including the implementation stage. This was because in all stages the designer used one language - the language of objects and classes. Thus it becomes necessary to explain these fundamental concepts. This poses a non-trivial didactical problem: how detailed an explanation of the fundamental concepts ‘object’ and ‘class’ should be provided?

Object oriented methodologies offer a wide range of graphical modeling tools, many kinds of diagrams. It is necessary to choose the most suitable modeling tools for their creation. After careful consideration of various alternative models which could be used in training future IS users we decided to start with a detailed presentation of the so-called Use Case Model. Again, what level of detail should be selected for training non-specialists in the development of Use Case models? Is it a good idea to teach certain parts of the UML language - and if so, how detailed a description is best?

Object oriented methods which we have briefly mentioned are used in many CASE tools of various types which are indispensable for IS development. Developing extensive information systems without these tools is unthinkable. The use of objects has become an essential approach in the development of modern distributed applications on the Internet. One of the most frequent magic words which emerged quite recently in information technology is CORBA - Common Object Request Broken Architectur, there are other technologies as eg DCOM - Distributed Component Object Model- backed by Microsoft. Is it necessary for future IIS users to have at least an idea of its architecture and infrastructure?

A detailed description of all known requirements which the new system should satisfy is the most important common activity of the future user and the developer at the start of a system development project. Experience gained in many projects shows that it is an advantage if the process of user requirement specification is controlled by experienced analysts. A well prepared document entitled Specification of User Requirements is of fundamental importance for system introduction as well as for resolving eventual misunderstandings between the supplier and contractor. User cooperation is a necessary condition for the preparation of such a document. How much information should the user receive concerning Requirements Engineering methods?

Giving a comprehensive reply to all these questions is undoubtedly a complicated task and their understanding will no doubt be affected in various ways by the evolution in the field of IIS development. However, it seems certain that some understanding of this problem domain is necessary for all future managers. Let us remark that this conclusion is borne out by our experience in developing IIS both for state administration and the university environment. A training method which we have found suitable is based on so-called ‘virtual projects’. A student becomes a virtual top manager of a company or institution. Based on a fictional ‘present state of the IS’ he formulates the goals and specifications for his company’s IIS. At a later stage he attempts, using the user requirement specification and Use Case model, to create specification for a selected subsystem of the IIS. In spite of the fact that most of our students have little knowledge of information technology some of the more than 300 virtual projects submitted so far are on a high level and are an encouragement for further and more detailed consideration of the questions raised in this note.

Please contact:

Peter Mihók - P. J. Safarik University/SRCIM
Tel: +421 95 622 1128