Critical thinking skills needed for IT skills shortage

Julie Kukesh, director of education and university programs at Mendix, explains the importance of soft skills and critical thinking

The extent of the IT skills shortage in the workplace is top of mind for leaders in IT education.

It is a driving factor for schools, colleges, and universities which need to accurately identify the specific skills to develop in their students, to ensure that when they leave the institution they have the talents employers need.

A 2017 study by recruitment firm Robert Half Technology suggests that IT education does not match the expectations of CIOs and a recent report found that over 90% of CIOs say IT education does not match employers’ needs.

So right now, there’s something of a gap. What more can educators do to educate students in the skills that are most sought after by employers?

One area of opportunity is to focus on developing critical thinking skills.

Through my current role at Mendix, I’ve had the opportunity to work with higher education providers; professors, lecturers and instructors from around the world. I meet with educators of a variety of coursework such as management information systems (MIS), information systems (IS), application design and other related business and technology topics. They often share their perspective on the balance of technical and soft skills they are actively working to cultivate in their students to prepare them for a successful career.

My exposure here stems from the fact that educators have the opportunity to take advantage of commercial technology such as Mendix, to enable their students to expand the critical thinking skills that will help them in the workforce.

When students have the responsibility of delivering a fully-functional application to an end-user, the importance of delivering value becomes tangible

While both technical and soft skills are of extreme importance, my interest has been ignited in the importance of soft skills, in particular, critical thinking skills for students studying information systems and similar coursework. Often, the students on these courses come with a spectrum of technical experience and confidence in developing technical solutions themselves.

At one end, students are technically-savvy with traditional programming experience either from previous coursework or self-taught. At the other end are students who are comfortable with using technology, however they don’t have the hands-on experience of some of their peers and are more interested in the entrepreneurial and business implications of new technology.

That’s why I’m so fascinated by the approach to developing a student’s critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is imperative for students who will seek a career in technology, regardless of which end of the tech experience and skills spectrum they sit.  Once students graduate and enter the workforce, some will embark on a more technical path while others will take a business-focused path. Whichever route they take, students will benefit from the opportunity to develop their critical thinking skills.

Low-code approaches to application development can free students to practice the soft skills they’ll need to bridge the divide between business and IT teams

I’ve identified four areas where educators can structure critical thinking skill learning and objectives.

Shared Ownership of Learning through Project Consultation

Students must understand that it’s important to ask “why” throughout a project.

Dr. John Kingston, senior lecturer at the University of Brighton encourages his business computing students to understand how organisations work by learning to conduct a business audit using the Mendix low-code platform.

The students must help their client define what the business problem is before diving into developing a solution. This perspective and responsibility helps the students make critical decisions for what requirements they need to include in the application they develop to meet the needs of their client.

It is through thorough questioning that students are able to hone their confidence in uncovering a challenge, defining it and delivering on a solution.  

Being Focused on Delivering End-User Value

When students have the responsibility of delivering a fully-functional application to an end-user, the importance of delivering value becomes tangible.

Teaching from a textbook often becomes a list of checklists that students must complete. This can become boring, especially for students who don’t yet have professional experience. They simply don’t understand what the impact of learning the fundamentals of information system when they haven’t seen it in practice.

Project-based learning and giving ownership of the planning, iteration and development of a solution is essential for students to gain critical thinking skills. Hands-on experience and observing the impact of a solution on an end-user is a great learning opportunity for students as it reinforces the value they can have when developing applications.

In addition, the students can use the project as a testament to their capability, experience and problem-solving ability when interviewing for a position after graduating. 

How to Collaborate 

Effective collaboration skills are crucial to have an impact in a workplace environment.

In the information systems and related courses that use Mendix as the tool to facilitate application development learning, students learn to take an agile approach to application project management.

The fundamentals of agile-methodology are real-time collaboration and iteration to quickly test and edit an application until it delivers on the needs of the end-users.

This mindset and approach expose students to the impact that collaboration has on driving at a shared outcome. 

Bridging the Divide between Business and IT

Often in businesses, lines of business and IT operate as separate units. Frequently this is because they lack a common language and means of collaborating in the build of business applications. (Only programmers ‘speak’ code).

But this gap can be closed.

While there will always be a need for skilled coders, the visual-modelling approach offered by low-code platforms offers a bridge between business and IT, via which users and developers can exchange feedback.

Low-code approaches allow applications to be developed iteratively towards the solution users need and will adopt. 

For educators, low-code approaches to application development can free students to practice the soft skills they’ll need to bridge the divide between business and IT teams.

Instead of being focused on learning to code, students can be given more of an opportunity to put into practice what they’ve learnt about establishing project business goals, writing user stories, and creating backlogs. They can easily share working demos at the end of sprints with users to gather feedback, uncover unanticipated needs and solve these in future sprints.

The University of Brighton has been using the Mendix low-code development platform to help students understand the fundamentals of building applications without having to have in-depth knowledge or experience with coding.

Low-code application development creates a common language for developers and users to discuss functionality and validate assumptions while enabling changes to be made and previewed right there on the spot.

Dr John Kingston explained: “Mendix requires students to learn how to structure data, create workflow diagrams and specialised user interfaces. Once they enter details of a business process into Mendix they just press a button and it creates the application. We are using it with first-year Business Computing students, which has resulted in one student getting a summer job with Brighton & Hove City Council.”

Overall, critical thinking is an important soft skill for students to take with them into the workplace. Evidence that they can ask key questions, take full ownership of solutions and work effectively across an organisation is imperative as a student leaves education and embarks on their professional journey.