IT or CAT?

So your child is interested in computers. Your school offers Information Technology (IT) and Computer Application Technology (CAT). Which one to choose?

Contrary to popular belief, CAT is not a ‘similar but easier version of IT’. The common advice to start with IT and then drop to CAT if you don’t cope, might apply if you don’t really care what you do, as long as there’s a screen in front of you. But if your interest in computers is slightly more specific, it’s a good idea to understand what these two subjects offer.

Here’s a quick visual check: Which one of these two screens do you most want to get involved in? This one:

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Or this one:

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The first image is a small bit of coding behind a computer game – something IT will prepare you for. The second is a picture of different funky ways to represent data – something CAT will prepare you for. Both subjects are about problem-solving, but the problems they deal with are at two different ends of the computer usage continuum. In the computer industry, they often refer to end-users: those people for whom a program or application was developed. CAT is about solving problems in the end-user space. It is largely about becoming skilled in using software to create all kinds of solutions, like spreadsheets, presentations, web design, and so on, while learning about the theory and processing technologies. IT moves in the space of the programming of those software programs.

So it really boils down to this: IT teaches you to make something work; CAT teaches you how to use that working thing. Another analogy is that of a builder and an interior decorator, who both have interest in a new house, but on completely different levels and stages of the project. IT and CAT students are interested in computers, but their involvement is at completely different levels and stages of the computer user. IT can be compared to building the structure, and CAT to using the space to its fullest capacity.

It goes without saying, then, that IT and CAT students end up with very different skills sets. When you leave school with your CAT in your bag, you will not be able to code a check box for your Rage packing. But you will be able to manipulate computer programs to do just about anything they are capable of; you won’t be intimidated to tackle new and exciting programs and figure them out; you’ll be able to understand the ins and outs of computers, systems, networks and internet technology, and you’ll probably hand in the coolest assignments (and be paid to funkify your mates’ work too). In every training institution, in every workplace, in every job there are elements of computer work. This is a skill you’ll probably be thankful for on a daily basis!

It is worthwhile to check with your school which software programs they include in the CAT curriculum. Some schools expose their learners to more than the basic office productivity packages, and offer Web design, video and graphic editing, etc. Many educators feel that CAT should be part of the curriculum for all students, since every learner should leave school with a solid knowledge of computers and applications. CAT is of equal status to other subjects regarding the points they provide for university entrance.

IT students won’t hand in the best-looking assignments. In fact, they can be pretty useless when it comes to helping mom with that flyer she wants to put on Facebook. Their involvement is on a level which very few of us ever lay eyes on. They speak machine language which deals with binary code, integers and bits. Their problem solving is by nature mathematical, although their notation is mostly different. This is why, in many schools, learners who don’t do Maths Core are not allowed to do IT. It’s not just because one uses maths for coding. The mindset is very similar: you’re working with numbers to figure out a certain output, which is either correct or incorrect. Mathematical types of problems should interest you; you should have some kind of excitement when trying to figure out a numbers problem, otherwise IT might not be your thing.

IT prepares one for a career in programming and software development. Also, Computer Science-related subjects are compulsory (at least on First Year level) for most Engineering degrees, many BSc degrees, and some BCom degrees, like Information Systems. Although IT on school level is currently not compulsory for entrance into any of these programs, not even for Computer Science, it is best to do IT on school level if programming is something you’re interested in. To catch up 3 years’ worth of IT in your first year can make your first few months extremely challenging.

I hope it’s a bit clearer now that the skills sets you develop for each of these computer-related subjects are very different. The one difficulty remaining is that you might not know what specifically you like, because you haven’t done it before! Many schools don’t offer IT or CAT before Grade 10, when you’ve already chosen your subjects. Luckily, that is very easy to solve in time. There are websites where you can learn the basics of coding, e.g. Play around, learn a few things, and see if you get hooked, or bored. If you get drawn in, you’ll probably enjoy IT. Likewise, explore the internet to find sites where you can learn to create presentations, graphs, even websites, and see to what extent you enjoy playing around with the applications available to you. If you do enjoy it, then CAT might be for you.

You know yourself better than anyone else. You can make a good decision, if you consider the info above and put some time into exploring the different areas of CAT and IT. Don’t go for the popular choice, or the clever choice, or the easy choice…go for what you know will suit you best. Hear your voice, trust your path, love your life!

The world of computers is not one I’m particularly at home in; I needed help. Thank you to Diana Barnard, IT and CAT teacher at Oakhill School, Knysna, for her input. Thank you to Johan Hay, my BSc Computer Science son for checking my facts and providing me with a coding sample. And to Faf for making sure that I used the right words.

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