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A Community Outreach Programme for Information Systems Students at the University of Cape Town

Project Coordinator: Jean-Paul Van Belle


One of the stakeholders of the University is the community. African universities have realized this perhaps more than their overseas counterparts and most South African Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have a number of community outreach programmes in place. Although many Departments of Information Systems have system development projects with corporate or NGO sponsors, more often than not the major benefit lies in the student (or department) finding mentors and/or staff to solicit user requirement specifications the sponsoring organisation usually ends up a prototype or, at best, somewhat buggy, unsupported crippleware for their time involvement. A true community outreach project is where the balance of value clearly lies with the community, not the university or students side.

Traditionally, the Department of Information Systems (IS) at UCT has required third year and honours students to select system development projects as well as empirical research topics in the community at large similar to the curriculum requirements at many other HEIs. However, most of the outcomes of these benefited the students more than the sponsoring organizations. Last year a purely altruistic programme was launched in which all registered full-time IS Honours students are required to engage in a community project of their choice in order to gain some practical real-world experience and let the community benefit from their IS skills.

2. An Educational Rationale for Community Service Projects

In addition to the community benefits, it is strongly believed that these types of service projects contribute greatly to the students learning experience i.e. experiential learning. This is reinforced by research that demonstrates clearly that knowledge and learning retention rates are many times higher when teaching others and practicing rather than merely reading or listening to information.

An interesting framework to demonstrate a community-service learning approach is Finks taxonomy of Significant Learning meant as a social update of the more widely known Blooms taxonomy. Fink distinguishes the following levels of learning:

  • Foundation Knowledge understanding and remembering facts and ideas;
  • Application acquiring skills, creative and critical thinking, managing projects;
  • Integration connecting ideas, people, and realms of life;
  • Human Dimension learning about oneself and others;
  • Caring developing new feelings, interests, and values; and
  • Learning How to Learn becoming a better student, inquiring about a subject, self-directed learners.
  • So, a community-based programme can be seen as a powerful and proving teaching strategy which can enrich student learning, enhance your teaching, and revitalize the community.

3 . The Community Outreach Programme for IS students at UCT.

3.1    Description

The project implemented at UCT goes under the acronym HOCIP: Honours Outreach and Community Involvement Programme. All registered full-time IS Honours students are required to engage in a community project of their choice in order to gain some practical real-world experience and let the community benefit from their IS skills.

3.2    Some salient features

  • Time budget: The total time commitment expected from the student 20 contact hours (excluding travelling and preparation time)
  • Individual: The engagement is an individual one, but students may work together in small groups where appropriate if this results in a more meaningful overall project engagement.
  • Independent: The involvement may in no way whatsoever be linked to any other academic or commercial project undertaken by the student e.g. it may not be the same organization as the sponsor for the IS Honours system development or empirical research project, or be related to any paid-for
  • Community: The project should help the larger community i.e. it should take place in NGOs, government organizations, schools and similar organisations. It may NOT be done in a commercial or for-gain environment.

3.3    Deliverables

Three deliverables have to be submitted to the HOCIP coordinator.

1. At the start of the project, each student must submit an initial Memorandum of Understanding (a sample form is provided to students).

It consists of:a. about -page on the organization: name, mission, contact details including sponsor (contact person)

b. About 1 page stating the nature of the engagement as well as a very specific description of the duties of the student (including dates/times). 

2. At the end of the project, students are required to submit a 2 page Project Summary specifically detailing the outcomes and/or contributions by the student. In 2005, this will also require a self-reflective statement on what the student learned from the project. In addition, a 1-page time sheet detailing dates & times spent by the student is also required (students choose their own format) 3. One short confidential report or letter (on the letterhead of the sponsoring organization) sent by the sponsor directly to the department as an independent verification of the student contribution. One paragraph generally suffices. (Free format)Note that all deliverables have to be signed by the sponsor.

3.4    Practicalities

The student is responsible for locating a suitable project.

The Memorandum of Understanding should be handed in mid-March. The final Project Summary should be handed in by the end of May. The confidential report from the sponsor must reach the department by mid-June. The hand-in dates are early in the academic year so that the HOCIP does not impact on the larger deliverables required from students (their systems development project and their empirical research report). However, hand-in dates can be postponed on request given an acceptable motivation and if the student takes full responsibility that this extension will not impact negatively on other honours deliverables.

It is not the intention of the programme to generate marks but satisfactory completion and hand-in of all deliverables is a course requirement. Non-compliance may result in a DPR. In addition, a small course mark (

3.5    Typical Examples

The following are some sample programmes a student can investigate.

  • Installing and maintaining an open-source software installation for an NGO/NPO/community organization/educational institution.
  • Designing a customized database for an NGO.
  • Developing and finding a (free) host for a simple static website for an NGO/
  • Doing a once-weekly maintenance of the computer lab of a school.
  • Getting together a group of first year students from disadvantaged background on a weekly basis to discuss their studies (and various other related problems they may be experiencing) and serving as a mentor for them.

Furthermore, a list of previous years projects and organizations seeking assistance for the current year is posted on the notice board. Work performed in exchange for a reward (whether financial or not) or intrinsically related to any other activity which has been rewarded, is not acceptable. Also not acceptable are favours to friends or family (e.g. teaching computer literacy to ones girlfriends father or removing viruses from ones grandmothers PC).

4 The First Two Years of the Project

The following graphs give a high-level indication of activities which are being undertaken. As can be gleaned from the charts, training and/or tutoring is the most popular type of project accounting for half of the projects in 2005. This typically involves tutoring of learners in schools in basic computer literacy or teaching-the-teachers projects, often including a component of network/computer maintenance. The second-most popular activity in 2004 was the design of a static i.e. informational website for various organisations. This dropped significantly this year although the decline is offset entirely by the concordant increase in design of web-based systems i.e. dynamic, database-driven web sites. However, the latter are classified with the system design category. Support of hardware consisted mainly computer labs (PC and network) maintenance.


Figure 1: Types of activities

Equally interesting is to look at the type of organisations. The most popular beneficiaries of the 2005 projects were on-campus organisations mostly SHAWCO and UCT sports clubs. This is a shift from 2004 where non-profit organisations accounted for one-third, which dropped to 13% in 2005. These figures exclude religious organisations such as churches which account for about a tenth of the projects. Interestingly, schools and other educational institutions account for roughly a quarter of the projects. Governmental organisations doubled their share from 6% in 2004 (mainly City of Cape Town) to 13% in 2005.


Figure 2: Project Beneficiaries

5 Some Typical Projects

The following are examples of projects undertaken by students, indicating typical or preferred types of projects.

  • Train high school learners and teachers in basic computer skills and lab management under auspices of SHAWCO.
  • Creation of a contacts database and integrate with a mailing system for the Center of the Book.
  • Act as business analyst and mentor disadvantaged learners in the City of Cape Towns Kulisa project.
  • Design a website for a church to allow members to access bible studies and electronically search the bible.
  • Develop a daily task management system for the Domestic Animal Rescue Group.
  • Capture and interpret data pertaining to structural fires for the Disaster Mitigation for Sustainable Livelihoods Programme.
  • Develop a browser-based children tracking database for the James House Childrens Home.
  • Build a website to assist in reunion of patients and friends post-treatment (JHB Hospital).
  • Static website and student pep talks for Mananga College (Swaziland).
  • Develop a society website template to allow for easy updating of any UCT SRC-linked societys website.
  • Develop an employee and sponsor database for the Self-Help for the Healing Business.
  • Develop an SMS/internet contacting system for the Bahai Community.
  • Assist with the PC literacy programme for the youth leadership rehabilitation programme of Polsmoor Prison.
  • Tutor students on the introductory IS course of the 4-year BAdmin degree at Tsiba Education.
  • Set up a library management system for the Islamic Youth Societys Library.
  • Develop a booking system for FamSA.
  • Set up a website and content management system for the Hope and Dream Trust.
  • Create a database for a UCT student residence.
  • Develop a lost and found animals portal for the Animal Rescue Organisation.

As can be seen, not only do the projects exhibit a wide scope and range of beneficiaries, but many tasks develop student skills. Hopefully, the benefits for the community are not only real and measurable, but hopefully sustainable.

Students do not only develop technical skills, but many benefit tremendously from their social engagement and gain a deeper understanding, appreciation and empathy for the societal needs. This is illustrated more clearly in a sample case study which has been included as an addendum.

6 Future Work and Challenges

There are still several issues to be resolved. Too many students still focus on easy targets mainly developing web pages for on-campus student organisations. For the students that do projects outside campus, we have not yet reflected properly on the possible risks involved. These would include personal safety risks for the student, UCTs organisational exposure for inadequate or bad projects and continuity concerns with sponsors that become unavailable.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is to incorporate and provide support for the critical self-reflection that should be part of the learning process associated with community outreach projects. We hope that we can formalize this component by next year.

Given the ease of implementation of such a programme, the early successes and the low overheads of running it, we strongly encourage colleagues to implement a similar programme as part of their post-graduate student IS curriculum.

7 References

Fink, L. Dee, 2003, Creating Significant Learning Experiences. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Theron, H. IS Honours students make their mark Monday Paper, University of Cape Town, Volume 23 No 21 (2 Aug. 2004), p.8.

Van Belle, J.P. & Smith, D.S. A Community Outreach Programme for Information Systems Students at the University of Cape Town. Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference of the Southern Africa Computer Lecturers Association, Kasane (Botswana), 3-6 July 2005.

8 Addendum 1 - 2004 Case Study: JAMES HOUSE COUNSELLOR SYSTEM

The following is a typical example of a HOCIP project. It is quoted wholly from Theron [6] to preserve the original comments and presented here in order to demonstrate the learning and development process which students undergo during their outreach engagement.

Nick Branco's group chose James House in Hout Bay, a place of safety, shelter and care for the children of Imizama Yethu. "They're doing a great job with the community in this informal settlement, providing mainly child care and family support," Branco said. The children's home had just bought a computing system to replace their established paper-based mode of operation. Using the technological skills, the group of Branco and team mates Andrew Klein, Richard Heslop, Gareth Edwards and Mark Meyer built a web-based system, one that was easily updateable and easy to maintain.

"The system was very similar to our final systems development project for another non-profit organisation, Warehouse, so it gave us a chance to test our skills," Branco added. Though the system they built was small in terms of "normal equivalents," it was still a comprehensive one, needing to fill all their clients' specifications. For example, tracking each child's progress in terms of emotional and behavioural development was initially done via a paper-based system. James House wanted a computer system to assist child tracking, providing reports on the children.

"We built a computer system that made it possible for counsellors to create daily reports on each child and to view summary reports on any child," Branco explained. It also featured a built-in user access function. They are particularly pleased that all the technology they used to create the system was open-source software (free software) and the system itself was released as open-source software. The system was written in PHP4 running on an Apache webserver, using MySQL as the database. The whole system runs on a Linux server.

It took some doing. Not only did their services save James House a wad of money (they had approached a private company to set up a system), they managed to build one along the same technological lines, to do the same job, without any restrictive licence attached. "And it was free, a big plus to James House," Branco says proudly.

The project also afforded some unique insights into community work, which Branco admits he had often though of in terms of feeding soup to the homeless. "There's nothing wrong with that, but it wasn't something I particularly wanted to do," he explained. However, through HOCIP, we were able to see that one can help the community by using skills and talents and improving one's skills at the same time.

9 Addendum 2 - 2005 Case Study: Youth Computer Literacy Program at pollsmoor prison

A group of 6 students undertook a program, Youth Computer Literacy Program (YCLP), headed by the Association of Regional Magistrates of South Africa (ARMSA). This was done in conjunction with a toast master association. The program entailed running weekly computer literacy classes for juvenile prisoners at Pollsmoor Prison.

The program ran every Saturday morning (09:00 11:30) from the 9th April till the 28th of May (8 Weeks). A gala evening event was be held on the 25th of June where the Students of the two programs will present on what they have learned and the top performers will be awarded with prizes funded by ARMSA. All participants of the YCLP were awarded certificates of participation.

The following comments were given by the tutors:

When the course first started, I was pretty cynical and apprehensive about the environment and students we were going to tutor. I felt unsafe in way, even though their wardens were around, and I also had my own discernments about them. I also was not too sure if the students would be willing to participate. However I was surprised at the way the students were so polite and involved in the sessions. As time went by, I got to see past the label I had given them, prisoners, because for some reason I understood that most, if not all of them, were in prison because of the circumstances of their own lives.

It felt inspiring and fulfilling to see how, the little that we were teaching these guys meant so much to them. I was particularly moved by a few students who stated how they regretted doing the crimes they had committed and how they hoped to take the course further and turn their lives around. I understand that most of these guys are not necessarily bad people. Even though they victimized other people, I also believe that they are also victims of the environments they live in, which is why they ended up getting into trouble.

The overall program was an eye opener for me. It forced me to get out of my own little comfort zone and it made me appreciate what I am and what I have achieved even more. [] I believe that giving something to others, as a citizen of the world, is the greatest reward of all. For me, this was the greatest opportunity and if I had a chance to do it again I would.

Being to a prison for the first time and the thought of being around criminals gave me that uneasy feeling at first. Only until I started teaching these students I began to see how well behaved and enthusiastic they were to learn. This changed the perception I had to teaching them. I was now looking forward to the following sessions and passing the skills I have onto them. I had developed a very close bond with my assigned group and it was a real pleasure to teach them. They seemed to grasp the concepts very quickly and always asked meaningful questions.

Polsmoor is a world of brutality where the weak are torn apart and hard men rule. Its a world in the shadows, a world with its own language, its own codes of violence and honour, its own complex mythology. []

This was not the kind of world that I entered into voluntarily. I was very sceptical about teaching criminals how to use computers. After all, what do they care about learning any sort of skill, was my pattern of thought. But after the first session it became clear to me that these kids were very keen to learn, some more than others. It was not all what I expected to find. It is hard to communicate with them, because they are living in a completely different world than us, but there is a common ground to be found between teacher and student.

During some of the breaks, I would speak to the inmates to try and get an idea of their life on the inside.

The following comments are taken from (voluntary) feedback by the participants (students):

Before I started with this program, I thought computers are just good for playing games, but its actually used for storage of information and all kinds of stuff that make life so much easier. I will really look forward to going out there and become a D.J and make my family proud.

This programme taught me how to do things on the computer that I was not aware of. When I go out of jail I will be able to go on a further course and learn more of what I already know, so that I can get a job.

I have to admit the program were unbelievable cause I learn quite a lot. Im positive I have an asurity cause of this marvellous program that Id build myself a base to take a step forward in life. The people who aid me, I perceive them as true role models & guiders in life. My tutor is really friendly, generous he teach as a professor cause I understand what he teach me & he would always like help me do new stuff with the comp. When being release Id like to go & work just to provide my own table with bread. If I can learn more you bet I will. The course was absolute incredible.