Bridging the Knowledge Gaps in Information Systems: A Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge Perspective
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Most students who complete third-level higher education undergo a transformational learning journey. This learning journey is moulded by their experiences not only within the context of the third-level institution but can also be shaped by their experiences in work placement in courses where this option is available. Threshold concepts are core concepts that when understood by students facilitate their transformational learning journey. However, the inherent troublesome knowledge associated with threshold concepts can represent significant barriers to transformational learning. A student’s inability to overcome threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge can impact their socio-cultural development and ultimately impact their ability to operate within their community of practice. This research uses a case study approach in the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology to explore final year business information systems undergraduate students’ understanding of information systems. The research objective was developed following a comprehensive review of the literature which determined that there was a research gap in understanding how business information systems students encountered and overcame threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge when learning about information systems. The research objective was investigated using several research questions which were explored using a mixed-method approach combining lecturer interviews, a student questionnaire, and a student focus group. The study adopts a social constructivist research approach encompassing several theories of learning which act as theoretical lenses: threshold concepts, social-cultural development, and communities of practice. The findings reveal that the students find the theoretical, technical aspects, and the terminology used within the discipline relating to learning about information systems challenging. Specific threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge associated with these concepts are identified under these several headings. For example, database design was identified as a threshold concept where students struggled with the troublesome knowledge of normalization and entity-relationship theory. Additionally, it emerged that the students use specific coping mechanisms to assist them in their transformational journey to understand information systems which include peer learning, independent learning, practical application, lecturer support, lecture experience, and work placement support and mentorship. Finally, the results suggest that information systems as social systems constitute a threshold concept whereby the students struggle with the following troublesome knowledge considerations when learning about social systems: communication, ethics, and social system versus technical system differentiation. The study concludes by offering recommendations on how third-level education institutes can enhance awareness of threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge to limit their impact on students’ transformational learning experiences. For instance, the study recommends the creation of a lexicon of conceptually challenging terms by lecturers for students for their modules.
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