There are signs that the relatively high drop-out rate among students taking ICT courses is being successfully tackled, a seminar at the Institute of Technology Tallaght (ITT) will hear this morning.
The forum on improving retention rates on ICT courses, organised by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and ITT, will be told that very significant progress is being made at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) in addressing the drop-out rate in this crucial area.
In her presentation, Dr Cecilia Chan of the Faculty of Engineering at DIT, will reveal that the numbers of students who successfully completed their end-of-year degree examinations on the electrical and control systems engineering had improved by 38pc in 2004. This follows an even healthier 45pc rise in 2003.
The improvement is being largely attributed to a targeted peer-mentoring initiative funded under the HEA programme where the institute works closely with students to boost self-esteem and help them overcome any difficulties they may encounter.
Promising signs have also appeared at NUI Maynooth, which experienced a 17pc improvement in the numbers that successfully completed the Introductory Course in Computer Programming (BSc in Computer Science) in 2004 compared to 2003.
In 2002, the Government set up the Information Technology Investment Fund, under the aegis of the HEA, to address ICT completion rates. More than €3m has been allocated from the fund to 22 third-level institutions to implement measures to improve completion rates in ICT. Some €1.5m was spent in the 2002/3 academic year and a further €1.5m is being spent in the current year.
Institutes have used the funding to provide additional resources, primarily directed at first-year undergraduates. Implementations have varied between institutions and include student-support centres, peer mentoring and use of problem-based learning, ie which replaces the traditional one-way style of teaching with greater interaction between lecturer and student to reinforce learning.
Pat O’Connor, head of the ICT Skills Project team at the HEA who is chairing today’s event, said: “While the findings relate to just two institutions, the positive signs are a welcome development. With ICT skills being a national priority, progress of this kind is a very encouraging not just for our economy but also in terms of the human impact of improving the educational experience and personal development for our students.”
Today’s seminar will review progress and share experiences to date with a view to improving the overall outcome.
While little data exists for the university sector, a survey of Institutes of Technology in 2001 found drop-out rates of more than 40pc for computing and electronics courses – a much higher rate than in other disciplines.
Whereas in the past, a student that made it through first year had a good chance of completing his or her course, a worrying development in recent years is that more students are dropping out after first year, according to O’Connor. “In the past couple of years, we’ve noticed that the drop-out rate has started to happen in further years, which didn’t happen before. We believe that lifestyle factors, such as the growth of part-time working, may be partly to blame.”
Despite this trend, O’Connor believes that first-year students will remain the primary focus of student-retention programmes. “What’s for certain is that it’s all about tender loving care. This students come in from a cocooned second-level environment and if they are not the best and the brightest they may run in to difficulty. They drop out and we simply don’t know where they go. We should intervene and do so as early in the academic year as possible,” he said.
Today’s discussion forum will discuss the various ways in which students can be retained in the system and a report on the findings circulated to all 22 third-level institutes.
By Brian Skelly