The Open University has created a virtual software company on CD-Rom to help its students fill the gaps between text book learning and real job requirements.
The CD, which was developed by OU academics and the University?s production centre staff, is a learning assessment tool for an optional module within the OU?s MSc course in software engineering.
Participating students join the staff of the virtual company, which is called Open Software Solutions. Faced with simulated software development projects, all based on real life projects, students have a chance to experience design and management issues in preparation for the real thing.
They receive assignments, visit clients and even avail of the experience of their virtual mentor within the programme. A lot of emphasis is put on interactive role playing and some of the projects involve teamwork with two virtual colleagues.
The virtual projects include designing real time information systems to support air traffic control, holiday bookings systems and an industrial production cell.
Helen Sharp, an OU software engineering lecturer, explained: "Even though the course is for people with experience in their field, people still have difficulty integrating textbook techniques with practical situations."
She gave an example. "During many real design projects software developers are faced with a daunting mass of different options. The virtual company offers a similar overload of information to prepare students for difficult choice making."
While the idea is a first for the OU?s software engineering department, far more students than expected opted for the module.
Gordon Ewan, development director at the IIT National Training Organisation, looked positively on the initiative. He commented: "The problem with IT jobs has always been that you need experience to get a job so any move to address this must be a step in the right direction."
He added: "The closer this module replicates reality the more successful it will be. Many universities include a work experience year in undergraduate courses to produce more mature graduates but it is also important to use technology to deliver learning."
Jon Morgan, recruitment manager at ICL,commented: "We give all of our employees fairly comprehensive training but anything that shortens the learning curve would be very useful."
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