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From Ferranti to Faculty: Information Technology at Monash University, 1960 to 1990

Conclusion

Sarah Rood

The Monash University Student Handbook for 1991 was a large, three volume publication. It was the first handbook of the new, greater Monash – the expanded University that had been created by its merger with Chisholm Institute of Technology in 1990. The handbook detailed the courses on offer at the new Monash, now spanning campuses at Caulfield, Clayton, Frankston and Gippsland. Some of the courses were the same as the previous year. But some were new. Some were offered by entirely new faculties, also created by the merger. One of these was the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology, the first of its kind in Australia.

The faculty’s very existence in the early 1990s was remarkable – the discipline it housed was less than sixty years old. The Faculty of Computing and Information Technology was also remarkable for all that it brought together – practical computing and theoretical computer science, as well as the cultures, identities and practices of two extremely different institutions, each of which had a long and intricate story. The story of the emergence of the discipline of computing, and computer science within each institution, is similarly intricate and involved. They are stories of struggle and achievement, innovation and dedication.

The history of computing and computer science at Chisholm and Monash is set against the backdrop of a changing system of tertiary education. The Department of Computer Science at Monash and the Department of Electronic Data Processing at Chisholm each emerged at a time when the tertiary sector was divided into a binary system. There were technical colleges with an emphasis on vocational training and practical application based education, and there were universities, committed to the principles of teaching and research in a more theoretical, traditional framework. The type of education that each offered was different, and as a result the computer related departments that emerged in each were also different. But the Chisholm and Monash departments were both faced with the same challenge – carving a place for the new discipline of computing and computer science in the tertiary sector.

Computers were an entirely new technology. As few as ten years before the then Caulfield Technical College offered its first short course in data processing, the first computer in Australia was yet to be built. But as the technology rapidly developed, so too did the need for teaching and research in this new and exciting area. The tertiary sector was the ideal place to do this. However, it was an entirely new field, and as a result there were no structures in place to support its teaching or research. In addition, there were many who had not even heard of computers and had no idea of their existence or potential applications. An entirely new discipline had to be introduced, explained and validated as well as taught and researched. Unlike the traditional disciplines of science, humanities or engineering, there were no established funding criteria, no course frameworks, no equipment and often very little understanding of what computers actually were.

The Departments of Computer Science and Electronic Data Processing faced a unique challenge. Each had to build teaching and research frameworks from the ground up in institutions that had established structures and processes that did not necessarily easily accommodate the new discipline. Staff had to define an entirely new discipline as it developed, introducing computing and computer science to peers who were often reluctant to embrace the field.

The story of how each of the departments came into being is unique. At Chisholm the Department of Electronic Data Processing grew out of the teaching of a short course in applied data processing, introduced at the then Caulfield Technical College by a visionary principal who saw the future of computing. Expertise in applied computing was ensured by emphasising links with industry and employing industry trained professionals as teachers of data processing.

The department later struggled for recognition, funding and independence, facing hostility from other departments that did not recognise or acknowledge the importance of computing or its potential. But this struggle united staff and students and helped to develop and solidify a strong shared identity. Gradually the department began to achieve the independence and recognition it deserved. By the early 1980s the School of Computing and Information Systems had emerged and it continued to grow. The Department of Electronic Data Processing had to be adaptable. The name, structure and governance of the institution that it was part of changed repeatedly over the years, evolving more and more towards a university model of teaching and education. The department used this change to its advantage as it continued to build better industry links and diversify its course offerings.

The story of the Department of Computer Science at Monash reads differently. It grew, more quickly than was intended, out of a proposal to advertise and appoint a Professor of Information Science in 1964. Monash was a young institution, less than a decade old when the first computer science unit was taught, struggling to find its own footing against the older, more traditional University of Melbourne. It was forging its own identity and building its own culture while the department was doing the same. The creation of a department for teaching and research activity in computer science was, however, beset in its early years by an ambiguous relationship with the Computer Centre, which serviced the computing activity of the University. It also suffered from a poor understanding of the nature of computer science and inappropriate funding.

As with the Department of Electronic Data Processing, this struggle and frustration encouraged staff and students of the department to look within to find support, which in turn assisted in the development of a strong teaching and research culture. It forced staff to develop a strong voice with which to demand better treatment and understanding. A long and drawn out review of computing activity at Monash in the early 1980s took place in a tumultuous period. However, this helped the Department of Computer Science raise its profile in the University and forced the University to decide what sort of role it wanted computer science to play in the future of Monash. The resulting affirmation of the University’s commitment to computing was an important foundation for future developments in higher education.

In the years leading up to the abolition of the binary system and the introduction of the Unified National System in the late 1980s, computing departments at Chisholm and the Department of Computer Science at Monash were crying out for additional resources as well as independence. It was at this point that Monash was finalising its negotiations to merge with Chisholm Institute of Technology. Discussions about the new Monash and its internal structure led to the suggestion of the establishment of the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology.

The creation of the faculty was a pivotal step in the history of computing in Australia. It was the first stand alone faculty of information technology in Australia and it is fitting that it came into being when developments in computing and computer science collided with the policy change in the tertiary sector.

The Faculty of Computing and Information Technology relied upon the merger of Monash University and Chisholm Institute and the underlying policy change to bring it into being. However it also relied upon the struggle that the departments of Computer Science and Electronic Data Processing had experienced throughout their development. This struggle, frustration and challenge strengthened the identity of each department and helped them to define themselves and their new and developing discipline. When the opportunity for the creation of a faculty emerged, each of the tightly knit, resourceful and pioneering departments saw the opportunity and seized upon it.

The history of computing and computer science had entered a new era. With the creation of the faculty, the discipline entered the 1990s in a position of strength and independence that its earliest pioneers may not have considered possible. Drawing the departments of each institution together would be a challenge. But challenge was no stranger to these departments as the legacy of those who had worked tirelessly to establish computing and computer science in the tertiary sector lived on. It was to the future, to integrating the strengths of each of the parts into a strong and viable whole, and to the continuing development of information technology, that the new faculty turned.

 

Cite this chapter as: Rood, Sarah. 2008. ‘Conclusion’. In From Ferranti to Faculty: Information Technology at Monash University, 1960 to 1990. Melbourne: Monash University Custom Publishing Services, on behalf of the Monash University Information Technology faculty. pp. 5.1–5.3.

© Copyright 2008 Sarah Rood

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From Ferranti to Faculty: Information Technology at Monash University, 1960 to 1990

   by Sarah Rood