History of Information Systems

Over the past 4 years, I have taught one class more than any other, Introduction to Information Systems. At every university I have taught this class (4 different ones), it is a core class for all undergraduate business students. While I agree that this class is essential for business students, I believe there is a general failure in how these classes are generally structured. Bill Gates is noted for saying that information systems are the "digital nervous system" of a business, but how can this essential system be portrayed to students in an effective way?

Many professors hate teaching this class. Reading through numerous textbooks for the introductory class gives a clue why. The textbooks bombard students with lots and lots of facts, like the difference between systems software and application software or what is a decision support system or name some hacking techniques to break into a computer. What is missing is a focus on integrating these facts into usable principles for utilizing and enhancing information systems for improved organizational performance. While most professors understand these principles, they feel it necessary to ram tons of facts down the throats of students and then ask the students to regurgitate the facts without applying them. For the professors that do ask them to apply the facts, most students are not equipped to do so. Without a focus on principles, most students are clueless on how to apply new technologies for business success. The professors certainly are not inspired. So there is little surprise that they cannot inspire their students.

To overcome these limitations, I have been redesigning this class to better highlight the principles of information systems. At first glance, the case study method offers a means of introducing facts by allowing sufficient discussion and contemplation to integrate the facts into usable principles. However, this method suffers from an over abundance of complexity. Often its is difficult for students to easily grasp the principles because there are often two or more different principles involved, complicating the issue. While I still use case studies, it is something that I utilize only after I have established the principles.

Instead, I have turned to history. It was amazing to me, that after I had completed my PhD in information system, I had no idea about where computers originated. To understand why computers are an integral part of business, its important to understand why they were introduced in the first place. By focusing on the historical aspects of computing, a bigger picture emerged about why they are so effective and popular. It also allows the instructor to focus on principles one at a time by picking historical examples the best exemplify its effects. It explains why in the 1940s, why 4 computer systems were invented independent of each other. It explains why IBM was so successful with the mainframe, but not nearly so successful with personal computers. It helps explain what email, cell phones, and Facebook have in common.

After introducing the historical aspects to information systems, I have received numerous comments from students that that was their favorite part of class. While my restructuring of the class is a work in progress, I have found inspiration from many of the great articles found in The Objective Standard that have effectively utilized a historic approach to present principles. For those of you unable to take my class, I have found a number of books that have really been key to my understanding. These include The Universal History of Computing: From the Abacus to the Quantum Computer, ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer, Computing in the Middle Ages: A View From the Trenches 1955-1983, and Computer: A History Of The Information Machine, Second Edition (The Sloan Technology Series).


  1. > "By focusing on the historical aspects of computing, a bigger picture emerged about why they are so effective and popular."

    Perhaps this is an instance of the idea, developed by Aristotle, I suspect, that to best understand what a thing is (being), one should study how it came to be what it is (becoming).

    (G. E. R. Lloyd, Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of His Thought, Ch. 4, "The Philosopher of Nature," might provide leads; also a possibility, some of the essays in Allen Gotthelf's highly technical anthology, Philosophical Issues in Aristotle's Biology.)

    This "organic" view is what I find so fascinating about History: It is a study of becoming and being. Everything has a history: particular ideas, institutions, languages, technologies, and so on.

    As an undergraduate student (History Dept.) at Tulane, 45 years ago, the courses most fascinating to me were the ones outside the History Department: history of philosophy, history of science, history of music, and so forth.

  2. Great post John. The historical approach will be a fruitful one for you and the students as the comments from them show.

  3. Burgess,

    This does seem to be an instance of that idea.


    Thanks. Time will tell as to its effectiveness.

  4. Great post, and the course sounds very interesting.

    As someone who won't get to take your course but is interested, might I suggest that you plant at the back of your mind a book project? If you can integrate the history of computing with the value of information systems to business, I'd think there would be a market in both academia and the business world.

    I'd certainly buy it!

  5. Great idea C. August. Its something that I considered a few years ago. After I become a bit more established and fully vet my course, I hope to put that plan in action.

  6. I was going to suggest a textbook.

    I love to see this idea of using history applied to information systems. Exciting stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    Have you read The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution? It's not broad enough to serve as full history, but it is a great read and gives the basic background behind the microchip. The author expresses admiration for the heroes Kilby and Noyce, which makes it inspirational as well. I think you'd like it.

  7. I think integrating history into an intro IS class would prove extremely useful.
    Part of the reason the intro class I took sucked where I attended was because Business program threw in in things like Microsoft Office proficiency into the class. Like many other classes, the though process and critical thinking is left out. Instead, you are challenged to memorize dozens and dozens of acronyms, not learning really how or why they are important or fit into the big picture.

  8. Amy,
    Thank you for the book suggestion. I'll take a look.

    My point exactly.