Walter James was, for many years, the Head of IT at Nizwa College of Technology. He is currently in the UK carrying out postgraduate studies at University of Central Lancashire.
Innovative teachers of IT can open doors to creative software tools with which students can build their own place in the future of Oman. IT in its many specialist facets is now the glue for joining existing ideas with new ones. However, not all students see it this way.
In the past, many students answering the question “Have you studied database?” would answer proudly “Oh, yeah. I've done that. That was last year and I got 90% in the exam.” What they have in mind when they say this could be: “I memorized all that the lecturer said about that for just long enough to get it all on the exam paper to get the marks I needed. You surely don't expect me to still know about it now, do you?”
Teachers of IT, because of the wealth and depth of material a computer can present, have been able to reduce this problem by letting students first do things intuitively themselves so that much of the later explanation becomes easy. Most colleges have realized the advantage of putting their students through compulsory foundation programmes in which touch-typing and the skills of controlling a mouse are prerequisites for continuing. A student with these basic skills can, for example, then use the movement of a mouse in a design package, along with what he sees happening on a screen, and the way the software is reacting to his actions, to gain understanding of ideas. Without the barrier of language, this enabled student can then, given the opportunity, learn so much just through his eyes, hands and fingers.
Of course, exams will still be with us for a very long time to come, but, in the light of recent changes suggested by the Ministry of Education in "Oman 2020, The Vision Conference for Oman's Economy", this time may be less than we imagine. Students in Oman are already beginning to see study as a passport to getting saleable personal qualities plus the skills and charisma they will need to get employment or which will put them in a position to work for themselves. In other words, far more than just a process leading to a piece of paper with their name and an “excellent” grade on it.
Traditions like the value of an exam diploma die hard. Students still see diplomas and degrees as a silver bullet, only to realize afterwards that it is the voice and the persona of the person holding the paper that gets them successfully through a job interview and then through working life. Students are now seeing that pride of ownership of a project portfolio which they can delve into, demonstrate and explain in depth, counts for far more than just the grade on the diploma ever did. Having a project portfolio in their hands often gives the student the confidence they need to project themselves and to come across as a team player with ideas needed to solve problems, and not just as someone who remembered the answers to questions in an end of term exam.
Emphasis on practical work and projects as a substitute for the objectivity of an exam paper brings with it its own problems. Meaningful practical work demands students work together and co-operate and this sometimes leads to the work being done mostly by one student and then being copied (with suitable cosmetic changes to confuse the lecturer) by the others in the group. Presentations and oral exams, though demanding and time-consuming, provide the solution to this. Students who know from the beginning that their work will be assessed as they go along (not just from the appearance of the elegant folder at the end) become far more careful to make sure that they do participate fully and take steps to make sure the lecturer knows what they are doing throughout the process not just at the end of it.
Giving a student credit for things he has clearly done himself and can use his own words to explain is a difficult thing for a teacher to do but the value of doing it successfully can build over time and bring about a seed change in the way students work and respond to the education process.
For those who may be interested in the experience of one successful college, the following are given as examples.
As a teacher of IT, in the time I've been in Oman, the thing most sought after by any student would always have been to get, at the end of their studies, “a Ministry job”. In the light of this, Nizwa College of Technology can boast two particular achievements: