To understand the distinction between computer science and other information technologies requires an understanding of a variety of differences that have evolved over time in the computing field.
- Computer Science (CS) as a profession has existed for over fifty years and was first embodied in a professional organization called the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM).
- Information Systems as a profession has existed for less than fifty years, was a natural offspring of CS, and is currently embodied in a professional organization called The Association of Information Technology Professionals (AITP), replacing Information Systems (IS) with Information Technology (IT).
- CS is generally associated with mainframe computers, operating systems, mathematical algorithms and a “close to the machine” mentality.
- IT is generally associated with users of computers, systems of people and computers, and with distributed
computing (networks, personal computers (PCs) and applications).
- CS programs at a small university frequently have mini computers running the UNIX operating system in
lieu of mainframe computers and proprietary operating systems.
- Frequently, CS is associated with Mathematics programs and Engineering programs, while IT is frequently associated with Business programs.
- The investment in computing technology (hardware, software, space, support, etc.) generally is much higher with CS than with IT because modest sized networks of personal computers are less expensive than mainframe or mini computers serving the same number of people. Equally significant is the comparable investment in software and maintenance of equipment. Mainframe software is very expensive. UNIX or Linux software is inexpensive and sometimes free, which is why mini computers thrive in CS programs in small universities. PC software is abundant and modest in price. Service contracts for mainframe computers often reach six digits per year, while PCs are usually replaced when the need for extensive service arises.
- Professionals in CS would work for companies developing operating systems, writing commercial software and working on optimizing the efficiency of computer hardware.
- Professionals in IT would develop applications for systems of people and computers to make people more productive and make systems that they use run optimally.
- Professionals in CS and IT write computer programs. CS majors would write programs in a language like C, whereas IT majors would write programs in Visual Basic (VB) or PowerBuilder. C is close to the machine and VB is close to the user.
The name game in computing technologies is interesting. It started with Information Systems in 1972 and continues today with names like:
- Management Information Systems
- Computer Information Systems
- Information Management
- Business Information Systems
- Information resource Management
- Information Technology Systems
- Information Technology Resources Management
- Accounting Information Systems
- Information Science
- Information and Quantitative Science
Yes, the list above are IT programs. Where is the list of CS alternatives? There is no list. Why? Because we are integrating computers with people to form systems and de-emphasizing attention to the machine. For a university that focuses on the liberal arts, the environment and people-centered professions, IT fits well.
Computing machines number in the hundreds of millions. The number of computing graduates in the US number around fifty thousand per year. CS graduates have declined as much as 50% over the last fifteen years. The variety of IT programs has grown over that same period. Why? Because the investment in IT programs is less than CS, and the emphasis is on applying computer technology and not on optimizing the computing function. A natural evolution.
Currently, CS and IT programs are feeling an upswing in popularity. The Internet has everyone's attention--that's where the action is. We have over four million people writing programs in Java, a programming language that has existed for approximately five years. Java is the programming language of the Internet. The apparent success of the CBIT (Center for Information Technology) program at UNE attests to the emphasis on networks of PCs and the Internet.
The AITP IS 97 Curriculum (IT) is complex, consisting of approximately two thousand learning units. The ACM 1998 Curriculum Classification (IT) and 1991 Computing Curricula Vol II (IS), and the 1991 Computing Curricula (CS) are less detailed. The curriculum supported by ACM and AITP, IS 97, is the historical document that blends the two organizations, suggesting that IT is the future. It takes a detailed review of the curriculums to compare courses between CS and IT programs. In general terms, CS is heavier in mathematics and emphasizes lower level computer languages. IT programs emphasize databases, systems and higher-level (object-oriented) programming languages.