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Skill Requirements for IS Professionals in E-learning

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Published: 2nd Jun 2021

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Tagged: Information Systems

Skills requirements for information system professionals in the e-learning sector

This research project is an investigation into the skills required for Information Systems (IS) professionals working in the commercial e-learning sector. This involved determining the perceived skill requirements for IS professionals, the actual skills held by current employees in this sector, and identifying any skills gaps that existed.

The survey obtained information from a representative selection of the IS professional population. The questionnaire sample included IS professionals at all levels and grades of employment and reflected the composition of participating organizations. The table below summarises the objectives of this investigation: Identify the state of the UK IS workforce and the e-learning industry, Investigate the skills required to work as an IS professional in the e-learning industry in Berkshire, Investigate what skills gaps exist and Investigate the possible causes of these skills gaps.

The main outcome of the study was a matrix of the skills required that can be used by universities and training organisations to tailor their course content to suit the constantly evolving demands of this industry. To combat the skills gaps that emerged and prevent performance problems arising, a number of recommendations need to be adopted to address the problems discovered: (1) Improve training strategies for IS professionals within the sector, majority of organisations have no set training strategy or budget; this is something that needs to change, (2) Create an annual ‘e-learning skills report’ detailing gaps and shortages, allowing education and industry to understand emerging and established skills needs. It would allow changes in demand and type of skill to be monitored. This would allow organisations to structure their internal training strategies, to eliminate skills gaps and (3) Form direct links between industry and education partners to allow course content to be improved and improve employment prospects for graduates. The most important action is to integrate education with industry. If courses as specialist as-learning could be developed with an industry partner, the correct content would be guaranteed.

1. Introduction

Many organisations have come to realise that certain new technologies can optimise efficiency and make processes more effective. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can bring industry closer to their customers, partners and suppliers through more integrated business and communication systems, and can provide enhanced educational opportunities. “There is a well-established relationship between improvements in Information Systems (IS) skills and increased productivity.” (Dress, 2001) The opportunity to gain competitive advantage through technology has consequently contributed to demand for skilled IS professionals outstripping supply. The label used to describe this effect is a ‘skills shortage’.

The Computer Services and Software Association estimate that IS skills shortages will cost the UK over £30 billion over the next three years(e-skills NTO, 2001). There is a growing recognition that the gap in skills for IS professionals is widening. The gap in skills does not only affect the ICT (primary) sector but all other sectors (secondary)which apply information technologies in their production, processes, products or services.

The E-revolution of the information industries has created a new labour force, professional IS roles are becoming diversified and a generic IS curriculum will not meet all the needs for all IS jobs in the future. It seems that in any system that has an “E” placed in front of it; e-learning, e-business, e-commerce, are the development of new skills. Never before have new skills appeared at such a rate. Even if industrial structure is only changing slowly, employers of ‘IS ‘practitioners rarely found it easy to articulate their current and particularly future skill needs very precisely.

“Nearly one third of the IS skills in the market today have only emerged in the last year. Sixty seven of the one hundred and thirty three internet related skills are totally new.” Chris Bennett, MD SAP Australia (Hawking, 2002) New curricula need to be developed which consist-’of separate distinctive concentrations, which target specific roles in the job market. A new stronger relationship needs to be formed between educational institutions and companies; to allow the required skills to be taught and help alleviate the current IS skills shortages. In the rapidly changing field of IS, educational programs must be continually re-evaluated and revised. “There is presently a gap between what industry wants characteristically in it IS personnel and what academia provides to them.” Gupta and Watcher( 1998)

The first step in the curriculum revision process is to conduct a study to determine the expected skills and knowledge required for IS professionals in industry. This will allow academic institutions to create programs that more accurately reflect the demands of the marketplace. At present, there is no identifiable data about the requirements of IS professionals specific to the e-learning sector. This is the gap in knowledge that needs to be investigated.

This dissertation has been commissioned to do precisely that; to investigate the skills required for IS professionals working in thee-learning industry. The results can then be used as a foundation for developing a suitable postgraduate course at the University level. The main outcome of the study will be a matrix of the skills required that can be used by universities and training organisations to tailor their course content to suit the constantly evolving demands of this industry.

The research carried out in this project can be used by other universities to clarify the skills required for employment in this sector, allowing course content to be tailored to suit the changing demands of industry, and improve the opportunities for students seeking employment upon graduation.

2. Aims & Objectives

The research will be cantered on the key area of skills gap analysis. This will involve determining the perceived skill requirements for IS professionals and the actual skills held by current employees, then determining the differences. This study aims to obtain information from a representative selection of the IS professional population, and from that sample the researcher will then be able to present the findings as being representative of the population as awhile. The characteristics of the total population will be represented justly in the sample to enable the researcher to say with fair confidence that the sample is reasonably representative.

The sample will include IS professionals at all levels and grades of employment and will reflect the composition of participating organisations. The study will allow users to simultaneously score both their own self-assessment of their ability and their perceptions of the levels of skill actually required by their job. The sample population will include organizations in the e-learning sector with a history of close association with Business Link Berkshire and Wiltshire.

Summary of Research Objectives

• Identify the current state of the UK IS workforce and the e-learning industry
• Identify the most important/prevalent issues from the literature
• Investigate the skills required to work as an IS professional in the e-learning industry in the Berkshire region
• Identify the skill gaps from the perceived and actual skill levels
• Discuss the finding and compare against those of relevant previous studies

3. Literature Review

The foundation for revision of curriculum process is the review of literature and investigation into the expected industry skills and knowledge for IS professionals. In the introduction chapter an outline of this study was given. This section will focus upon academic literature related to the subject area, which will go onto further support the data already mentioned.

As well as academic literature, reports are of particular importance to this dissertation, due to the dynamic nature of the industry, reports are able to offer the very latest up to date information, which may take months to be peer reviewed and published in journals. There are a number of reports, which have been consulted in the preparation of this report that have provided valuable insight into the subject area. In addition the background chapter that follows this contains greater detail into the region and industry trends, separated to avoid over-powering the critical issues highlighted here.

3.1 Background

The literature in general Skills Requirements Analysis (SRA) is extensive. Related areas include Training Needs Assessment (TNA) and the broader area of Learning Needs Assessment (LNA). Recent work in the area, such as that by Sine (1998) and earlier, by Kidd (1984) in knowledge acquisition adds to more traditional texts from skills training practitioners including Peterson (1998) and Major (1988).

These papers all identify skills training as one of a number of initiatives to solve performance problems in an organisation. Using the performance problems identified, how far the skills identified are present, and how big is the gap between the performance objectives and the performance resulting from actual skills in place. This process is referred to as a skills audit. The skills audit links directly to the research questions in chapter one. A skills assessment or audit has three main objectives:

1. To determine what skills are required by each employee;
2. To determine which of the required skills each employee has;
3. To analyse the results and establish the specific training needs.

Authors such as Hamel (1994) openly express the increasing value of employee’s skills, leading to knowledge within an organisation. More recent articles, such as Birch all and Tovstiga (1999) describe how this knowledge manifests itself primarily as organisational competencies and capabilities, leading to that all-important competitive advantage. Onaway to increase a company’s organisational competencies and capabilities in order to gain competitive advantage is through carefully implemented training and development, Schuler (1984).Education and training provision are important strategic practices in the development of organisational competence, but without understanding the precise skills needs first, how can the appropriate training be applied?

3.2 Information System Curriculum

There is extensive literature surrounding the area of IS curriculum design. Although this study will not involve any design of curriculum, it is none the less useful to have an understanding of some of the issues that arise in designing IS curriculum; if the findings of this study will be used as a foundation to develop IS curricula.

A common theme in the literature is the difficulty in creating curriculum that can fulfil all requirements in an industry that evolves so rapidly. Martinson and Cheung (2001) suggest that recent developments of IS industry jobs and career paths have made understanding the knowledge/skills requirement of an IS professional even more difficult. This is supported by Latham (2000) who explains that the complexity and multi-disciplinarily nature of Information Systems makes identifying a common curriculum both difficult and contentious.

Skills requirements will inevitably change over time and it is important to take a strategic view of the needs of industry. There are a number of papers that highlight the differences between industry and academia strategies, and strong suggestions that these need to be merged and greater links formed between the two.

Kim, Shim, and Yoon (1999) found that, “IS organisations perceive managerial and organisational issues as more important than educators”. They also found that educators consider emerging issues more important than industry organisations. Curriculum should be developed working with corporate partners. Similar work of Srinivasan, Duane, and Wright(1999) supports the importance of this idea of improving links between education and industry. In Lightfoot’s (1999) research on IS curriculum design, it was suggested that curriculum needs to be developed to satisfy both the current and future needs of the industry at the sometime. This is impossible without the links mentioned above.

3.3 Information System Skills

Although the growing demand for IS professionals is evident, the exact combination of skills required is not. This could be attributed to the scope and divergence of IS roles that are now available. Hedge (now known as Dress) highlighted that “The fast-moving technological change in 1CT and rapid innovation, mean that it is much more difficult than in the past to determine the type and combination of skills that are needed” (Dee, 1999).

While the reported growth of demand for IS workers is very evident, the identification of specific skills required for the variety of positions in Information Systems is not as clear” (Noll and Wilkins 2002).Research by Young and Lee (1997) and Lee, Trough, and Farwell (1995)confirm the increasing importance of these “soft skills”, which include writing, teamwork, presenting, project management, and interpersonal relationships.

E-skills NTO, the industry representative body for IT skills, recently published a comprehensive report detailing the current situation regarding the supply and demand of IT and telecommunication professionals in the United Kingdom. This survey, called e-skills 21(2002) was the most comprehensive study of IT and Telecom Professionalism the UK in history, it included over 4000 interviews with professionals at all levels and across all sectors during 2001. The results of the comprehensive e-skills 21 survey mentioned earlier are characterised into technical and generic skills. More detail into what each compromises of will be given later. Aspects of the e-skills study have been used to develop the research instrument used in this study, to allow the skills gap findings to be directly compared.

This E-Skills survey revealed a consensus among the companies that there was no major skill gap among the IS workers. However the one’s that did mention about a gap, pointed out the skills gap related to operating system, application usage and networking skills. It was common opinion among most of the respondents that technology was evolving at a much faster rate than they could grasp. These issues will be looked at during the study.

Several studies indicate that verbal skills, work in cross-functional groups and written communications skills were the three most highly rated qualities to seek in staff Gupta and Watcher (1998) This view is supported in a recent report (lackey et al., 2000) quotes one respondent who said that: ‘There is a real lack of people who can combine ICT and business acumen.’ The biggest challenge for technical CT staff is in understanding the dynamics of business; including sales and marketing processes, supply chain processes, and internal processes. They also need to continue to develop and evolve customer facing business systems to enhance and improve the end user experience. CT staff were also identified as a central resource in teaching skills to other areas of the business; consequently communication skills and an understanding of the organisation are essential (E-skills 21, 2001).

Another requirements paper by Lewinski (2003) suggests that IS skills can be more effectively developed through on-the-job training. The classification of requirements was not as specific as the other literature mentioned, but similarities can be seen in the results. With regard to technical skills; troubleshooting was required by 97 preceptor respondents, 91 services and facilitation, 82 installation of hardware/software and configuration, and 67 expressed a need for systems operation, monitoring and maintenance. Equal importance was placed upon non-technical skills, including; good communication, analytical/problem solving, flexibility and the ability to learn quickly. The only other study to include both a perceived and actual approach to skills assessment (as this study does) is by Hay (2003).

The report by Hay (2003) concludes that there are four skills that are consistently higher than perceived needs of the job; basic computer use, word processing, spread sheet and database use. The areas repeatedly below the required level were presentation and graphics software, and use of a browser. There was also a reported “clear gap in the market” in the areas of knowledge of operating systems and networking. These skills gaps are readily identifiable by the employees themselves, with over 50% of participants lacking the required skills in at least one area.

There are so many papers, with so many different classifications that comparing them directly was extremely difficult in writing this literature review. The common themes that came out were the technical and generic split of skills. There is a need for combination of both sets of skills. The skills gaps appear to be entered on OS and Networking skills on the technical side, and all skills related to the generic side. The only way to breakdown the mixture of skills from various papers to be able to understand and compare in a scientific way is by using an industry standard framework. The chosen framework and a number of other frameworks are described inspection 3.5.

3.4 E-Learning Skills

Any employee, in any role, requires some overall, understanding of the business within which they work. Therefore, as this study is of IS professional skills in the e-learning industry each individual employed is required to have some understanding of the basics of teaching, tallow them to function as part of an educational organisation. The skills mentioned in this section will be required, though the depth of pedagogical skills will by dependant on the individual’s role. For example, the pedagogical skills of a training professional should be considerably stronger than that of a programmer.

There was surprisingly little literature in the area of IS professionals working in-learning. The most useful research found was by Massy (2000 and2001). Both these studies were critically analysed by the Scottish enterprise research report published on their website. Both the papers suggested that the skills and competencies required by on-line training professionals can be broadly categorised as technical, pedagogical and managerial.

Massy (2001) pointed out that there has been a consistent shift from the importance laid on Information Communication Technologies skills requirements with increased efforts now being placed on the acquisition of the above mentioned categories. The SFIA framework appears to cover every aspect of IS skills, the area of education and training was looked at closely being of particular importance to this study, and was found to give enough detail for IS professionals in general. Although more detail was required in the design of the instrument used in this study. “In line with developments in technology generally, the impact of technology-supported learning (TSL), and in particular e-learning(EL), has given rise to new combinations of skills, featuring how people learn with a sound understanding of the available technology in the design of learning experiences.” (Massy, 2000a cited in SERR, 2005)

The first survey by Massy (2000) showed some interesting differences from the follow-up survey (2001). There was a marked change in focus of skills from technical (ICT) to pedagogical skills. The key concern in2000, was that technology had become the central focus for e-learning development, appeared to have been address in the 12 months that passed before the second survey. Greater emphasis was now being placed on the managerial and pedagogical attributes required for producing and presenting e-learning. In the same 12 month period, over 60% of respondents had taken part in some informal training, and a further 30% formal classroom-based learning.

The step down in attaining ICT skills was reportedly due to the basic fluency being established and the focus being directed to attaining new skills in e-learning content design. This requires a greater understanding of management and pedagogy. The study by Martin and Jennings (2002) followed the same approach as Massy. In this survey a distinction was made between users and suppliers of e-learning. Unfortunately it is not possible to make that distinction, as more often than not they are the same person. This problem of identifying groups was also expressed in the report, “Unreality, most user organisations are also providers of e-learning, such as universities.”

Suppliers identified an increased interest in gaining in-depth Information Communication skills; others suggesting this were a major problem. Stronger leadership and ‘championing’ of projects is also required. The most important ICT skills identified, with regard to-learning were: To effectively utilise web-page design, including text, audio and video conferencing materials, E-mail, Bulletin boards, Discussion forums for communication with and between learners (SERR,2005).

These are relatively common and well-developed skills for IS professionals. Another important issue, which has continued to braised throughout this literature review, is the need for better collaboration between industry (supplier) and academia. To aid this it is also suggested that e-learning needs to be integrated further in to university and college education.

3.5 Information System Frameworks

IS management and occupational analysts in different-organisations and countries have tried to distil the structure of the industry, from the constantly evolving picture, so it is understandable that a number of different occupational frameworks have therefore emerged. The most important frameworks to this study are those that have been used for surveys. While there are broad similarities, different surveys, using different frameworks, produce different results, and although they may enrich the overall picture of the industry, they cannot generally be usefully compared.

A number of academics have developed their own skills frameworks. Allot these follow the same format of grouping technical and business skills, against various levels of competency. Examples of academic frameworks developed include early research by Ashen Hurst (1972) that identified 37 skills and abilities that a student in a graduate IS program should expect to acquire into six categories: people, models, systems, computers, organizations, and society.

Similarly the work of Todd et al. (1995) classified IS knowledge into seven categories: hardware, software, business, management, social, and problem solving, and development methodology. It was also reasoned that interpersonal and managerial skills are more important than any technical skills for IS managers. Nelson (1991) classified 30 skills into six groups: organizational knowledge, organizational skills, organizational unit, general IS knowledge, technical skills, and IS product. This paper found that IS personnel were deficient in general IS knowledge followed by organizational knowledge, technical skills, organizational skills, IS product, and organizational units (in that order).

Lee and Gosling (1999) classified three key abilities of IS professionals: ability to learn new technologies, ability to focus on technology as a means (not an end), and ability to understand technological trends into technology management knowledge and other technology-related knowledge into technical specialized knowledge. There port classified non-technology-related knowledge into business functional knowledge, interpersonal and management skills, letting interpersonal and management skills contain some personal traits. Also included was the ability to teach others interpersonal and management skills. It was found that non-technological knowledge is now more important than technical skills.

A skills framework gives organisations: A clear, well-structured view of their staffs skills; A tool for more accurate planning and management of resources; A tool for accurate development of careers, so improving retention; A better way of targeting training; A method of risk assessment for the loss of key skills; A tool for accurate and efficient recruitment (Taken From Skills Framework ).

In the UK, in June 2001 e-skills NTO published a Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA). It provides a common reference model for the identification of the skills needed to develop effective Information Systems making use of Information Communications Technologies. It appeared to be a simple and coherent two-dimensional framework consisting of areas of work on one axis and levels of responsibility on the other (SFIA ). Previously there was no industry benchmark for organisation to measure the skill levels of their organisation. The methodology for this study will be developed to allow the results to be mapped directly onto the framework. Therefore, the findings can be compared to those of previous research carried out by-skills NTO.

3.6 Summary

The literature presented has highlighted some important issues, provided grounding for this study and has helped eliminate some of the preconceptions of what was expected. The purpose of identifying skills gaps is to allow the appropriate training to be adopted, therefore eliminating the performance problems that exist. The career paths of the IS industry are no longer straight forward and the complexity and diversity of the sector makes understanding it in a scientific way very difficult.

The literature suggests that as the industry is so dynamic, relationships must be improved between education and industry. The problems that exist relate to academic and training practitioners not providing the correct skills in their graduates. Research focused academia tends to provide graduates with the latest emerging technologies, these skills quickly become out-of-date, while the more fundamental technologies appear to be neglected.

This is expressed in the views of many industry speakers, it is assumed that an IS professional will be capable of learning new programming languages, once the method of logical thinking has been established. It is more important to develop the established fundamental technologies, and allow the professional to develop the niche skills required as they move into a specialist area, for example e-learning.

The technical skills gaps that exist are focused around Microsoft Programs; including Windows/NT, MS Application skills (especially MS Access), and Networking technologies. The generic skills gaps that exist include both written and oral communication, user IT skills, industry awareness, and problem solving. The combinations of these two types of skills gaps are from literature that investigated the whole IS industry. It will be interesting to see how they compare with thee-learning sector, which you would presume at this stage to have stronger focus on generic skills.

The literature that was focused one-learning highlighted all forms of communication (e.g. oral, written, and electronic) as the most important generic skills. The most important technical skills required included web related technologies and presentation or audio visual skills. The final area to look into was to see if the focus change from technical to pedagogical was visible in this study. This could not be done in the same way as the literature by repeating the study again after a 12 month period. As different approach the structure of the instrument could be written in way to allow comparisons to be made between importance levels of the three categories of skill.

The main reasons cited for skills gaps in the ICT sector are a lack of skills/experience of new technologies and organisations failing to train/develop staff sufficiently to meet their needs. This in turn causes difficulty in introducing technological change. The other effects highlighted include delays in the development of new products/services and difficulties meeting business objectives. Much of the literature suggests the most obvious actions to address the problem of skills gaps would be to provide further training and increase recruitment of direct staff. These can be included in the changing of working practices.

The chapter on research methods will explain exactly what instruments are used and the approach taken. The literature was used extensively to create the instruments and followed previous research to allow comparisons of the results to be made. They follow the form set out in this review; combining technical, generic and pedagogical skills. Instruments used in the literature were modified and extended for the purposes of this study. The results chapter also uses some of the literature as a source of ideas for the descriptions and highlighting the most significant findings. This is to allow direct comparison with previous studies.

The main gap identified in the literature is with regard to quantifying the pedagogical skills mentioned. In Masons work the skills are mentioned but not in enough detail. In the e-learning industry the pedagogical skills will not match that of a “normal” teacher or lecturer, as there is not only a significant difference between the methods of teaching and learning, but also in content provision. The student in an e-learning environment is a researcher, which is quite different from classroom based taught learning.

There are also further technical skills that are only required in this sector that need to be assessed.
This study should provide the reader with an understanding of the requirements of an IS professional working in e-learning and highlight the gaps that currently exist in this sector in Berkshire. It will be of particular benefit to persons working within the industry or closely linked to it. This study can be used as a basis to start an investigation into the requirements of an IS e-learning undergraduate or postgraduate course.

3.7 Research Hypothesis

Null Hypothesis is defined as ‘The state opposite to that suggested in a hypothesis, postulated in the hope of rejecting its form and therefore proving the hypothesis.’ Hence the null hypothesis for this research may be stated as
H0: “There is no skills gap among Information system professionals in the e-learning sector.”
The following research hypothesis is derived from the literature and will be tested using the primary research conducted by the researcher.
H1: “There exists a skills gap among Information system professional in the e-learning sector”


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