Information and computation literacy vital in the digital age

This article was originally published in the Mail & Guardian’s Careers section on 23 June 2017.

Stellenbosch University offers BA degrees where students can study information science with a technical side

Discussing computational equations: Prof Derrick Kourie (left) and Prof Bruce Watson, both from the Information Science Department at Stellenbosch University, discuss computational equations for a research project investigating algorithm improvements in software. (Richard Barnett, Stellenbosch University)

If you’ve considered a career as a journalist, a political analyst, a social worker, an artist or actor, you have most likely been searching for information on BA degrees at a range of universities in South Africa. However, what you might not have thought of or heard about as much are BA degrees that focus on information science and can open up interesting careers in the artificial intelligence and software development fields to name a few.

At Stellenbosch University, the Information Science Department in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study a BA degree with the possibility of pursuing a career as an IT business analyst, cybersecurity analyst, software developer, systems analyst or a database administrator.

Information science is an interdisciplinary field focused on the storage and retrieval of information, the analysis and classification of information, and the movement, dissemination and protection of information. It forms a big part of our lives and impacts on just about everything we do. Chances are, if you’re using a computer, a smart phone or an iPad and storing information on it, you are already participating in a very basic form of information science.

“There is a worldwide need for the new generation to recognise the value of information and computation literacy to be able to function in a digital society. In future, you won’t even be able to function without these skills. It is one of the reasons that the research we do is also directly linked to the skills and knowledge we share with our students,” says Prof Bruce Watson, the Head of the Information Science Department and a Professor of Informatics.

Informatics, on the other hand, is the name given to the academic discipline concerned with looking at the design of computer-driven systems and their integration with organisational and social systems.  Cybersecurity systems that are used to keep us safe while we bank and shop online are an example of informatics in action.

“Our programmes are unique in the South African context. They focus on providing students with a deep understanding of technology, societal and organisational dynamics, and knowledge systems, and combine hard, technical subjects with either subjects from the social sciences, management sciences or geo-informatics,” says Watson.

The Department is also constantly involved in interesting research projects which impact directly on undergraduate students. Watson and a group of local and international computing and information scientists and engineers are considered the leading research group internationally when it comes algorithm improvements in software and the search for the correct construction techniques to use when designing new algorithms in future. An algorithm is a set of steps designed to allow computer programs to perform tasks such as a calculation, the processing of data or even reason. The project’s findings will help reduce the amount of software bugs that so many consumers have learned to live with in everyday items, such as computer software packages or apps.

As part of their research, the academics are also exposing undergraduate students to their work by teaching them how to “build systems that work correctly the first time around”. While a lot of what they are doing in this project is based on mathematics principles, Watson says they have taken the “sting out of it” by figuring out how to make the mathematics component fun, but still rich enough for effective learning.

“We have seen that information, computation and maths literacy are actually important no matter what career students decide to pursue in future. We are living in a digital age where our ability to absorb and process knowledge accurately in a work environment is vital,” says Watson.

The Department of Information Science offers modules leading to degrees in the Economic and Management Sciences, Arts and Social Sciences as well as the Natural Sciences. Click here to read more about our BCom offering and here to read more about our BA offering.