Computer Science vs. Information Studies vs. Information Systems (With a Little Informatics)

Article first published as Computer Science vs. Information Studies vs. Information Systems (with a Little Informatics) on Technorati.

There are possibly a half-dozen major, intertwining domains in the IT field, and sometimes a little deciphering is necessary when assessing the education possibilities. When it comes to assessing how things stack up, a little cheat-sheet can be handy.

Student on laptopComputers are still calculators. Even the self-driving Google Car still functions on a mathematical basis. Behind the artificial intelligence that allows Google’s vehicle to navigate in traffic is a complicated system of calculations. This system was developed by the best and brightest of the info-tech sector. Whether you are getting ready to become the next Pierre Omidyar or you are hiring your next Mad Scientist, you need to know the difference between the numerous IT academic programs that exist. This requires a quick trip through the information science domains, starting with the fore-father: computer science.

Computer science is the grand-pappy of the Information Revolution. Heavy in math and theory, computer scientists solidly learn the foundation of computer methods. Comp-sci covers everything: networking, programming, theory, practice. Computer science is the font, and good students should be able to quickly learn most any technical task. Bad CS students, on the other hand, know just enough to forge havoc. Computer science is by far the most difficult field, and probably has produced more liberal arts majors than any other scientific field besides medicine.

Information systems has a dual identity. One path of IS deals with technical management. The other part of the IS field deals with expert systems, artificial intelligence, databases, informatics, and all those enterprise-level developments that you hear about. Certain schools have even more specialized topics, and many universities form partnerships with corporate R&D departments. Information systems comes in as a strong contender, and is a highly competitive program for IT positions after graduation.Brass robot running

Software engineering deals both with software development, system engineering, and project management. At the core level, software engineering teaches advanced methods to handle software application development. Kind of like computer science on steroids, this is much more an engineering field than the other, lighter information technology domains.

Information studies is the field that librarians hail from. Information studies deals with both the end-user usage and organization of information. How information is used, reproduced, analyzed, and integrated: all of this is part of the information studies domain. Beyond strict skirts and buns, librarians now practice web design, various database usage, and the perfection of specialized query techniques. Also, teaching the basics of smart computer literacy is a foundation of information studies; after all, educated citizens are competent citizens.

The informatic domains are the newest players on the field. Informatics can roughly be described as the intersection of technology, people, and business. Not quite hard-core IT, far from liberal arts, informatics blends a mishmash of different technical concepts together. While informatic work is common and necessary with every aspect of technology, the field itself has barely become established. Some schools have sub-specialties in community informatics, medical informatics, or information management. Effectively, all of these informatics domains are siblings, and they are all distant cousins of their grandfather, computer science.

There is a plethora of computer science domains to pick from. Importantly, the technical domains are not exclusive – many information studies majors can function as a Tier 1 help-desk technician with minimal training, and all IS graduates have heavy experience with database administration and system design. Computer science can lead directly into software engineering, and good informatics programs offer enough technical education to meet criteria for most any position. If you are hiring, assess by grades and graduate-level work. If you are choosing a program, honestly pick by interest and ability. Be willing to learn more, and be dedicated to learning/discovering/developing the next big thing. Finally, I ask you to carry this imperative lesson away: Technology is skill, not luck.

Images from Free Digital Photos, photographers are Graur Codrin (student) and Luigi Diamanti (robot).

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