Students of the Business Information Systems (BIS) degree in UCC do a final-year project which takes a ‘fail-fast’ approach to learning good habits.
Graduates can sometimes enter the workplace and find they have no idea what’s going on – they might find that the course they have done in college has failed to prepare them for the fast-moving worlds of business, science and technology.
For Dr John McAvoy, one of the people behind University College Cork’s (UCC) Business Information Systems course, there is a very simple answer to overcoming this problem. All UCC Business Information Systems (BIS) students do a final-year project that must solve a real-world business problem.
Final-year projects are an important learning component of many third-level courses across the country, not just at UCC. “It’s a baptism of fire,” says McAvoy, “but it prepares students for the reality of the working world”.
As the leader of the final-year project module which is a key component of the course, McAvoy is a tough taskmaster, albeit one with a sense of humour.
When SiliconRepublic.com asks him for a rundown of what BIS is, he explains: “We’re the translators in the middle between the nerds and the people with the money”. It’s not an inaccurate explanation, to be fair. And it is probably quite easy for the schoolchildren that McAvoy has to speak to at careers fairs to grasp.
But he has a more sophisticated explanation, too. “Business Information Systems is really about how you can use technology in business. BIS, we’re the bit in the middle. We’re the people who talk technology and business.”
BIS at UCC is in the Business School, so it is technically a business course, but it has a lot more tech modules than other courses. Students learn how to programme, work with analytics, data and many kinds of tech tools that businesses use to improve their operations.
By the time students graduate, they will have undertaken a big project that involves using tech to solve a problem for a business. That is the only briefing they are given for their final year project, McAvoy says. “They decide themselves what they are going to do. Students are told ‘Go find a problem and find a technological way of solving that problem’.”
Self-directed learning is a ‘big leap’ for some
“It freaks them out a little bit at the beginning. It’s completely self-directed and that’s really important for students, because when you go out into the workplace, you don’t have a lecturer standing beside you.” It’s a big leap for them, he says, but students generally say they understand the reasons behind the project once they graduate.
They aren’t left completely lost in the weeds, however. “They have mentors,” says McAvoy. “We have about 12 mentors who are there and they meet their mentor every two weeks and they just talk to their mentor about what they’re doing.
“Their mentor is not there to lecture them. Their mentor isn’t going to go ‘No, no, I think you should use an x280 there instead of an x282 – there’s none of that nonsense, right. The mentor is there to go ‘Why did you do it that way?’ It’s about giving them feedback, not telling them what to do. And again, that’s a big difference from what students are used to.”
It requires a completely different way of approaching college work. “One thing we really encourage is this idea of ‘fail fast’.”
McAvoy says there’s no such thing as being given a whole semester to do one part of a project with this module. There are “deliverables” every two weeks, meaning students must show concrete progress at every stage.
It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s realistic. McAvoy and the rest of the BIS team are there to remind the students that if they knuckle down, it is actually quite doable.
Learning skills with every mistake they make
The failing-fast, baptism-of-fire approach helps students to learn skills like time management, adaptability and responsibility. As McAvoy says, the process can be a learning curve for even the most astute students because their solutions can become obsolete with improvements and advancements in tech. “In industry, it’s normal, we adapt.”
“They learn from the project themselves. They also learn things like a deadline means a deadline. You don’t come into industry and give the excuse like the cat ate the homework or the dog was run over. Nobody cares. There’s an expectation there to deliver something. And there’s no excuses.”
Together with the industry work placement component of the course, the final-year project helps mould students into well-rounded, capable and confident individuals. Whereas they gain skills like teamwork as part of the work experience – which they can do pretty much anywhere in the world – they are the sole drivers of their project.
“This isn’t a taught course – the final-year project. The students are teaching themselves. They’re learning. And you know what the best way of learning is? And the students will say this themselves – not at the time, but afterwards – ‘Yeah, the best way I learned about that was when I screwed that up completely and it didn’t work’.”
“They are the project manager as opposed to being part of the project team,” McAvoy says. “If you put the placement and the final-year project together … each on their own are good but put them together and they’re absolutely fantastic for the students.”
When they graduate from BIS, people can work anywhere. As the course progresses, students can choose what areas they want to focus on, whether it’s business or tech.
“We’re not training them just to be programmers,” says McAvoy. “Some of our students do become programmers. But most of them are things like business analysts, project managers, things like that. People ask me this question all the time, what sort of jobs do they do? It’s really hard to answer, because they are trained across a lot of areas.”
“The percentage of our students in employment after graduation is huge. A lot of companies make an offer to the students before they are finished. A lot might know them from placement, for example.”
As it turns out, SiliconRepublic.com profiled KPMG technology analyst Niamh Kiely last year. Kiely spoke to us about her experience of the company’s graduate programme following her graduation from the UCC BIS course.
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