Apparently We’re Doing It Wrong: Jeffrey McManus Thinks We Should Shut Down More CS Courses

I ran across a blog post by Jeffrey McManus, who runs a for-profit training organisation called CodeLesson. You can find his post here. Jeffrey’s thoughts appear to be (my summary):

  1. Most students want to learn applied software engineering, not computer science.
  2. Undergrads don’t know if courses are good or bad, therefore they are captive consumers, therefore all universities are slow to adapt and reform.
  3. Two universities in commuting distance shouldn’t have the same academic departments because more courses encourages mediocrity. (Does this apply to internet providers like, for example, Jeffrey’s?)
  4. We should be using good online courses instead of mediocre or outdated (implicitly not on-line) ones.
  5. Most university courses aren’t that good if you want applied software engineering, because PhD graduates are out of data by about 5-10 years and have apparently never updated their skills. But, that’s ok, because it’s not the academic’s fault, it’s the fault of a crusty old dean somewhere.
  6. Our academic departments should be reorganised frequently.

I’ve tried to be pretty fair in my summary but you should go and have a look at the site for yourself because (a) I work at a Uni so I might be biassed and (b) I wasn’t very impressed so I may have filtered him a bit, for which I apologise but I am human. I agree with a few of his points, or parts of his points to varying degrees, but I suspect that he’s got too many interacting issues jammed together – there are any number of business people whose hair will turn white if you say that constant reorganisation is the path to success.

I hear arguments like this occasionally but it makes me sound like I’ve trapped these students in my evil cave and I won’t let them out until they graduate. Far from it! When I start in first year, I tell them that if they just want to program they should leave and go and do a tech course somewhere. They can be a successful programmer in 3-6 months. If they want to innovate, lead, and be ready for the challenges of the future, including writing the languages and systems that everyone else can learn to use in those courses, then they probably want to hang around. (Yes, yes, famous college dropout counter-example – who mysteriously employs a vast number of people with CS or ICT degrees. Moving on.)

Points 2, 4 and 5 don’t really hold up, to me. Point 2 is either irrelevant or universal – therefore irrelevant. Lack of discernment can’t just be limited to undergrads so this ‘inability to detect rubbish’ skill should lead to everyone being slow to adapt and reform. If you’re in any awful program then wouldn’t know it until you developed enough knowledge. Yes, college courses are longer but we have all sorts of industry placement, outreach and practical programming exercises to try and deal with the problem of transition to industry. Apart from anything else, our students are developing other skills as well as coding. Coding doesn’t equal computer science. Point 4 assumes that because applied software engineering can be taught online it should be taught online. The entire point is based on the assumption that face-to-face is mediocre. Point 5 is actually pretty offensive. Are we all sitting around pulling on our grey beards and contemplating our navels, having looked at nothing else for 10 years?

Once again, we’ve got this terrible issue with our identity and the way that we are regarded. Once again, we have a case for building up perceptions of our community and getting rid of this farcical representation of our profession and our Universities.

There is a rebuttal on the post, which isn’t really necessary as he’s walking his comments list and shooting down pretty much all opposition. It’s worth reading the comments to remind yourself how many people think that we produce graduates to produce professors to produce graduates (rinse/repeat). Someone discussed the idea that a CS degree is only partially about what you need next year and what we may need to have to do in 10,20 or 40 years. Jeffrey’s response?

 I will probably be dead in 40 years time. Anyway, who says they can’t provide education that’s relevant both today and in decades hence? Virtually every other technical discipline seems to be able to do that.

Now, I’d argue that a lot of us are doing that but maybe we come back to that issue of ICT identity. Here’s a guy who is actively making money running on-line courses that are built on technologies developed by people who have the degrees that he doesn’t think are necessary – and he doesn’t seem to realise the issue with that. Or, he does, because he’s a businessman, but not enough other people do. We’ve still got an identity crisis to address.

Should we aiming to maintain (or develop) excellence? Yes. Should we balance industry and academic requirement? Yes. Should we be using on-line effectively? Yes. That, however, is not what I believe Jeffrey is saying – I think that he’s saying that we are intrinsically unworthy and, to an extent, providing a mechanism to waste a student’s time when they could be learning pertinent information at a reasonable price in an on-line manner.

He seems to be pretty keen on addressing posts that disagree with him so I’ll wait to see if he shows up here. In the meantime, read the post, especially the last line where his entire business case is based upon people believing everything else that he wrote in that post.

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