Paul Crowther and Felicity Lear

Department of Applied Computing and Mathematics

University of Tasmania


This paper will describe the evolution, modularization and on-line implementation of the practical component of a first year information systems unit, Business Computing. This is an introductory unit which is and has been studied by a large cross-section of students at the University of Tasmania on all three campuses (Launceston, Hobart and Burnie) as either a core or elective unit in a diverse number of courses including Humanities, Physical Sciences, Human Movement Studies, Nursing and Applied Computing.

Since its inception the course has undergone many changes in response to advances in instructional technology, diversification of the clients' (students') technological backgrounds and rapid advances and diversification of the subject matter. Likewise the assessment has consisted of various mixes of final examination, assignments and continuous assessment. It is the most dynamically evolving first year unit in the Department of Applied Computing and Mathematics.

The major milestones in the evolution of Business Computing from a teacher centered unit to a student centered unit combining competency attainment and theoretical understanding will be described. Statistics on the source courses of students are presented. It discusses the mix and effectiveness of the various assessment techniques and the rationale behind changes to the lecture/laboratory/tutorial ratio.


Business Computing was one of the first subjects offered by the Department of Applied Computing and Mathematics and is probably one of the longest surviving. It is also one of the most dynamically changing units both in terms of content, delivery and assessment. It has spawned at least two other subjects and is one of the largest units in terms of EFTSU's (Effective Full Time Student Unit) in the University. Its client group is extremely diverse with students from all Faculties on all campuses.

The unit in its present form is described as providing - understanding of the functions and relationships between the component parts of a computer and those applications which are suited to computerization; and develops an understanding of the importance of data communications to the business environment. The systems development process is considered and a study made of the main trends concerning the application of small computers to the workplace. The practical component imparts knowledge of an integrated Word Processing / Spreadsheet / Database package

(University of Tasmania Handbook, [4])

As with other courses there has been pressure to improve productivity in delivery of the content material. Coupled with this there has been increasing student numbers and a diversification of subject content. To deal with these challenges there has been a need to constantly modify the delivery and assessment techniques used, utilizing the latest innovations. As a result computer based management of the course has been introduced to allow students to operate at their own pace and level in their own area of interest. Traditional lectures have however been retained.


The subject has its origins in the mid-1980's as a service unit for the now defunct Bachelor of Business in the then Tasmanian State Institute of Technology. It was basically a hands-on practical course designed to introduce business students to word processing (Microsoft Word 2), spread sheets (Microsoft Multiplan) and database (dbase II) on micro computers (IBM PC's with twin floppy disk drives).

The objectives of the course were:

These objectives remained unchanged until 1993 despite variations in the content and assessment and a gradual diversification of the source courses of students.

At this stage the course was very vocationally based. The aim was to teach how to manage files on a microcomputer, basic operations of the three packages and demonstrate simple applications. Assessment reflected this with 60% of the final grade being assigned to practical work.

The course was structured as two hours of lectures and two hours of laboratory tutorial work with students completing four assignments on each of the packages mentioned above and one on DOS. The lecture material was basically directed towards teaching the packages with some basic hardware and software theory. All this was based on a very specific text 'A Practical Guide to Personal Computing' (Davies [2]). Final assessment was based around the assignments and an examination. The examination was heavily biased towards the software packages that had been studied.

Things began to change in 1989 with the introduction of the Bachelor of Applied Computing degree where a more solid grounding in information systems theory was required. As a result, and also because of the ACS accreditation requirements for the new degree, assessment was changed so that only 30% of the final grade was assigned to practical work.

1989 also saw a disastrous attempt to use proprietary teaching software for word processing, spreadsheets and data base. The objective was to introduce a self-paced practical course using exercises from a central bank. As well as allowing students to work at their own pace this was also seen as making laboratory classes more efficient.

The problem was the software ran on only a small percentage of the machines then in use at the institution. In a pilot implementation at the North West Study Centre (using original IBM PC's) there were no problems, but the software failed on the main campus where more powerful IBM clones were used. The moral is to test new software on ALL makes of PC's in use before making a commitment. A rapid reversion in the third week of the semester to the previous methods and software recovered the situation.


With Business Computing a core subject in the new computing degree, new challenges were introduced:

Despite there being no prerequisites, another challenge that began to emerge was the increasing number of students who had undertaken significant amount of pre tertiary computer studies, specifically the TCE (Tasmanian Certificate of Education) Information Systems course. For these students a lot of material, particularly the practical laboratory work, was already familiar.

To overcome these problems a series of innovations were introduced. The first was a criteria based approach to the practical component with students being able to complete a set of tasks by a set time. The second was the introduction of tutorials to cover the increased theory content. That meant introducing a two hour lecture, one hour laboratory and one hour tutorial teaching combination.

The third innovation was the introduction of a mandatory examination to test understanding of basic essential knowledge on a pass/fail basis and an optional challenge examination to gain grades in excess of a pass (Godfrey, [3]).

Two of these innovations were discontinued after two years. The tutorials were dropped but the number of hours of lectures was increased to three. The third hour effectively took the place of the tutorial and the assessment that was assigned to them removed. This was essentially a productivity motivated change. A potential problem of a lack of individual assistance to students was resolved by the introduction of consultation times. This provided individual assistance to students who required it.

The mandatory exam was also discontinued because it was discovered that both examinations were mandatory for the majority of students (those studying Applied Computing and Business). The structure was continued in the unit Computing Practice which was effectively an offshoot from Business Computing and is a specialist introductory unit for Nursing students.


By 1993 the demand had expanded to become one of efficient delivery of a course to a large group of students from a very wide background with highly variable computer skills. The course had now grown to a point where major streamlining and customization was needed. Also in 1993 all students were given access to electronic mail and there was a corresponding increase in the amount of communications theory introduced to the course from one week of lectures to three. In 1995 this was extended to Internet access.

The objectives of the course in 1995 were now:

A major change in these objectives (apart from the increase in number) was the de-emphasis of hardware and the increased emphasis on communications and applications.

To improve delivery of the course the criteria based assessment of the practical component has been modularized to a greater extent. Students are given all practical work at the commencement of the semester along with a series of completion criteria. Once a student has completed a module, or think they already have the skills involved, they can sit the assessment test.

Students have to complete a minimum number of core skill tasks and then choose optional advanced modules to attain a higher grade.

Flexibility is added because students from different source courses can be given different modules in their core. Those who already have the appropriate skills can complete the practical assessment very rapidly. Initially these modules were issued in a paper form, but are now available over the Departments local area network.


This section provides an overview of the statistical effects of various changes imposed on the subject since it was first offered. Some these changes were beyond the control of the Department of Applied Computing while others were a direct result of Departmental modifications for educational and productivity goals. The data has been extracted from the University of Tasmania's student record system.


The number of students enrolled in the course has shown a steady increase since the formation of the Department of Applied Computing in 1987 until 1993 (figure 1). Variations in the data were caused by the introduction of the unit into other courses as a core subject and the development of specialist versions of the course.

It should also be noted that there is a jump in enrollments every second year (1989, 1991, 1993) which is due to the unit being offered by distance education. This was the result of the Bachelor of Business being offered externally on a part time basis with all units being offered every second year.

The first major event in the enrollment data occurred in 1991 and 1992 when the nursing students were required to do an introductory computing unit. Initially this was Business Computing and it resulted in a significant increase in enrollments in 1991. The subject was not found to be entirely satisfactory in terms of content and there was an academic loading problem so a version of Business Computing renamed Computing Practice introduced. This resulted in the a decrease in enrollments for 1992. The new unit was basically the same as Business Computing with some

Figure 1 Enrollments in Business Computing by year in both semesters

of the theory removed and a greater emphasis on the three primary packages. This subject has retained the mandatory / challenge examination structure with a majority of students not opting for the challenge examination.

Changes in the Commerce degree had an effect in 1994 when that degree was no longer offered via the off campus study centres.

A major fall in enrollments occurred in 1995 when the Bachelor of Business was withdrawn and Bachelor of Commerce students studied an equivalent unit offered by the Faculty of Business and Law but still taught by the Department of Applied Computing for the first year. Effectively Business Computing generated this new course. The usual increase in enrollments in odd years also failed to materialize because the unit is no longer offered by distance education.


Figures 2 to 4 show the changes in the source of students from 1988 to 1995. The gradual change in the relative proportion of Commerce students can be clearly seen decreasing as a percentage of the overall student numbers. The diversification of students undertaking the unit can be seen to be increasing.

Figure 2. Source of students by Faculty in 1988. It should be noted that this data is for the former Tasmanian state Institute of Technology and numbers have been assigned to what were to become faculties in the amalgamated University of Tasmania. Nursing and Computing enrollments are superimposed on each other and are 0%.

In 1988, the first year for which data was available, (figure 2) there were no computing or nursing students studying Business Computing hence the greatest percentage (65%) of students came from Commerce (Bachelor of Business) while the remainder were Education and Science respectively who were taking the subject as an elective. This reflects the origins of the unit and the formation of the Department (then called a School) of Applied Computing. Academics were drawn from individual Departments offering computing units including Business, Humanities and Engineering to form the new Department. They brought with them the units and courses they were teaching which included Business Computing from Business. At this time the new department was in the same academic grouping as Business.

By 1991 (figure 3) the Bachelor of Applied Computing and the Graduate Diploma of Applied Computing had been offered for three years and the number of enrollments of those students had become a significant proportion of the total. Bachelor of Business students still made up the majority. 1991 was a year where the unit was being offered by distance education adding extra Business students to the total (see figure 1). Nursing enrollments also had a major effect for the first (and last) time.

Figure 3. Source of students by Faculty in 1991. Computing has been shown separately to the Faculty of Science of which it is a member. This was the year of amalgamation and data is now cross campus.

Figure 4. Source of students by Faculty in 1995. Computing has been shown separately to the Faculty of Science of which it is a member.

Commerce had introduced its own course based on a similar structure to the practical parts of Business Computing in 1995 (figure 4). The residual Commerce students were studying at the North West Study Centre where it was not possible to take the Commerce unit.


Figure 5 shows the effects of various forms of assessment on the overall results of the course. It is in the form of a 100% stacked bar chart to show meaningful comparisons of the percentage of students attaining particular awards.

The first three years of data show similar distributions of grades, especially passes. The change in mix of assessment from 60% assignments and 40% examination to 30% and 70% respectively had no major effect.

Figure 5. Comparative results show the percentage of students in a particular year attaining a particular grade in the form of a 100% stacked bar chart. Withdrawn students are not included. Students who did not take the examination are included in fails (NN). Other grades are pass (PP), credit (CR), distinction (DN) and high distinction (HD)

The major effect of the change in assessment techniques in 1991 was the number of students being awarded a pass grade and opting not to sit the challenge examination. The initial year of introduction also saw a drop in the number of students failing the course. 1992 saw a continuation of this trend although the number of failures increased and those getting higher results decreased.

The final four years of data saw a stabilizing in the data with pass and better rates being above 75% of enrollments. It should be noted that failures included students who did not sit the final examination and failed to withdraw from the unit.

Despite an apparent return to assessment techniques of the first three years of data, the last four years are different. This is because of changes from recalling facts to interpreting and applying knowledge in the examination.


The above statistics show a number of major trends and reflect the effectiveness of the delivery techniques used in Business Computing during the years they were used. The first three years of the unit saw it effectively as a training course. At that stage the institution (then the Tasmanian State Institute of Technology) as a whole had a mission of vocational education filling a niche between University and TAFE.

As a result the practical skills component was extremely important. The formal examination component had questions both on specifics of the software packages studied and on applications of those packages. For example in 1988 75% of the marks were allocated to questions on word processing, spreadsheets and database. The remaining 25% (made up of true/false choices) covered the rest of the course. The subject was heavily teacher based with little flexibility for students of differing technical and source course backgrounds.

This changed with the introduction of the mandatory/challenge examination format in 1991. Here the knowledge exam was a computer based question bank where students were presented with a series of questions from a bank. This covered the basic theory of the course. The challenge examination covered applications of the knowledge. This introduced some flexibility with those students who wanted the practical skills choosing to concentrate on the basic theory while those who wished to continue were encouraged to develop deeper analytical skills. It did not allow for students to apply these analytical skills to their specific source course areas however.

The return to a single examination in 1993 saw these two techniques combined (although all students had the same questions). It could be regarded as a regressive move, however the result statistics show increases in all categories of award except pass. This suggests students who in the past would avoid the challenge examination were now gaining results better than a bare pass grade. The increases in failures reflects students who having failed on the criteria based assessment opting not to sit the examination as they could not pass the unit.

The practical assessment has changed little between 1991 and 1995 with students being set a number of criteria to complete. These involved students working at their own pace on exercises available on the network and using practical sessions for individual help and completing the criteria tests. Consultation times with lecturers and tutors were used for further help and direction.

This year (1996) all practical modules were available at the beginning of the unit. The sequence which the students complete these is up to the student. A beginning student would normally undertake the introduction to the system module first, where an experienced student would move straight to the testing part of this module. The same is true for the other modules.

Once the common basic skills have been mastered, the advanced modules allow students to develop skills specific to their own needs. As new client groups are added new modules can be added. The material to be studied and the depth to which it is taken is now student centered.

The departure of the Commerce students has allowed a broadening of the subject matter taught. Despite their departure there has been a diversification of the origins of students. It has meant that the range of cases studies used has had to be increased. Despite this, the overall emphasis of business has been retained although management aspects are now emphasized. The philosophy is that most students will be involved in management tasks in the future and the tools and techniques studied in this unit will be applicable to those tasks

1997 will see the introduction of a modular approach to some of the material currently presented in lectures. Formal lectures will be retained as it has been found that there is a student demand for this style of teaching (Akerlind and Trevitt, [1]). Material specific to major client groups will however be presented in a form similar to that already used for practical work. Students will be able to choose areas of interest in information technology and pursue these in greater depth than was possible in the past. This will also mean changing the method of assessment for this part of the course

Just as students can have prior experience with some of the subject material in the practical part of the course, so could they have the knowledge of the theory part currently presented in lectures. Evolution from that point will be the development of a series of specific modules for the various subject area. That is customization for various student groups needs. Hence Business Computing will move more and more towards being a purely student centered unit with only a common core being presented in a traditional way and only then to students who have little or no prior knowledge.


Business computing has evolved significantly since its creation in the mid 1980's. The effect of the changes is quite dramatic in hindsight but difficult to predict. Some conclusions about the various delivery and assessment methods which have been used are as follows:


[1] Akerlind, G. and Trevitt, C. (1995): ' Enhancing Learning Through Technology: When Students Resist the Change' Proceedings of the 12th Annual Conference of the Australian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, Pearce, J. M. and Ellis, A. (eds.), Melbourne, Victoria, pp. 1-7

[2] Davies, N., (1986): A Practical Guide to Personal Computing, Professional Education

[3] Godfrey, R. (1991): 'An Approach to improving Productivity in Assessment', Proceedings of the 8th Annual Conference of the Australian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, Godfrey, R.(ed.), Launceston, Tasmania

[4] University of Tasmania (1996): University of Tasmania Undergraduate Handbook 1996


The authors wish to thank those lecturers and tutors who have been involved with Business Computing since 1986. We would particularly like to thank Bill Morgan and Bob Godfrey for their insight into the unit during their period as lecturer in charge and Cheryl Drinkald of the Department of Applied Computing and Mathematics administrative staff and Jason Rawlings of student administration for their help in collating the data. The authors also acknowledge the financial assistance of the University of Tasmania who provided funding through a University Teaching Development Grant for development and implementation of the modularization of the subject.


Paul Crowther and Felicity Lear © 1996. The authors assign to ASCILITE and educational non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the ASCILITE96 conference papers, and for the documents to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.