Friday, January 19, 2007

Uneducational Crisis Pt. 2: Subject Matter

When I think about these last four years, I don't usually think about the university. Much more important and interesting things have been happening in my life. I think that says something about the quality of education as a life experience: you only consider it important when you're forced to do it during the better part of your day.

But when I do think about the university, the first thing that comes to mind are the professors. I've had a few excellent professors who were a pleasure to study with, but the rest ranged from merely disinterested to downright inept. In my previous post, I covered this topic in detail.

The second thing that comes to mind is what I learned. Or rather, what I was supposed to learn. Now that the things are drawing to their unceremonious end, it's amazing to look back and see just how many things I've been told were
  • misleading
  • wrong
  • obsolete
  • stupid
  • some or all of the above
With a lot of real-life experience in software industry, you can afford to be told such things because your brain will reject them automatically after a brief examination. But the reason I started writing about the educational problems in CS is not because I feel cheated out of my money, but because of the kids who go to the university to try to learn.

You see, I love programming and I like doing it for a living. And I enjoy the company of other people who do it. Sure, school might not matter if you're good enough (and infatuated enough). The knowledge is out there and you can learn it all by yourself. But you might not find it soon enough and you might get the wrong ideas at school and you might come out of it all utterly confused or frustrated or suffer some other damage. There's enough stuff in real life that will confuse and frustrate you, no need to start out like that.

So what's wrong with the stuff they teach you at the university?


I agree that learning about the past is important. You need some context if you want to understand not only the how, but also the why of the things you see today. But that's no excuse for teaching obsolete stuff.

Take waterfall model, for example. For a big enough project, as most of real-world projects are, it simply does not work -- there are too many things that can go wrong and will go wrong. And yet the universities insist on teaching it as the way to execute software development projects.

Another good example is the insistence on Design Flow Diagrams. I'm not implying that DFDs are obsolete. Nor am I saying the same about any other concept from SSADM. Had any of our professors bothered to teach us SSADM well, I might have learned enough to compare it to what I'm used to working with.

As far as DFDs go, I find them stunningly imprecise and uncomfortable, compared to UML. This, of course, is a topic for a discussion that goes beyond the scope of this post, but it's also a bit beside the point. The point is that if the course is called Systems Analysis and Design, I don't think it can stay locked in time forever, covering SSADM in depth and merely mentioning the existence of UML and iterative processes and the myriad of other techniques that evolved in the mean time.


The problem with SSADM vs. UML is just an specific case of a bigger and more general problem: the scope is all wrong. If you are going to give an OOP course, you should take care to explain what OOP is, what OOP isn't, why it's been invented, how it works, etc. Sounds reasonable, but it doesn't happen. What you get instead is a Java course, where in the first few classes you get a very brief, confused and inaccurate summary of OOP concepts and then you delve into the language specifics.

I love learning new languages. As Kevin Kelleher notes, each language tries to solve some problem. That means that each new language you learn might teach you about a new class of problems or a new class of solutions. The thing is, you have to realize what the problems are and why they are problems before you can benefit from learning a new language. Otherwise you're just learning syntax.

You could do it the way I did it: learn a new language, compare it with the one you knew before and gradually become aware of the new problems. After enough time and enough new languages, you'll be able to think of languages in terms of problems and solutions. Indeed, nothing can completely replace the process of learning from your own experience. But that doesn't mean you aren't entitled to decent formal education.

It's like your parents telling you not to play with fire. You might heed their advice and still get burned by something you didn't know was hot. Or you might disregard their advice and get burned. But if they didn't tell you not to play with fire you would surely get burned out of ignorance.


The problem of scope is what you'll see on the individual course level. But when you take a step back and examine the entire course curriculum, you'll find yourself facing the opposite extreme: breadth. The sheer breadth of subjects covered combined with the scope of each course makes you wonder why you got yourself into this at all.

Here's a bit of news for the guys who design the educational program: most of the software developers don't need to know about the implementation specifics of the datalink layer in ISDN. Nor do most network experts really need to know how to design a database in the third normal form.

I understand why the universities do this. It's a lot more manageable to have your courses flow sequentially and give everyone who survives the same diploma. Teach them all and let job sort them out. The question is, should ease of management excuse the poor results? Let's put it to a test: what would you think of a manager who told you, before the project started, that you'll have to implement a web-based user interface, a Swing GUI and an interactive textual interface, because it's easier to plan the project that way than to plan for capturing the UI requirements?


All of the problems I've described here could be easily summarised in one word: relevance. Obsolete subjects are irrelevant to what you'll be doing. Courses with wrong scope teach you irrelevant things. Lack of specialization ensures you'll be learning a lot of irrelevant stuff. I postulate that every problem with the subject matter in CS education can be filed under relevance.

So how do we solve this? I hate doing this, but I'm afraid I have to do a Robert Jordan and leave you hanging. By now I've built enough context to engage in a discussion that I wanted to start from the beginning, but that discussion merits its own post. Therefore, I have no choice but to say RAFO.

At least I promise to finish in the third post.

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