When the Stakes are High, the Tests Had Better Be Up to It.

(This is on the stronger opinion side but, in the case of standardised testing as it is currently practised, this will be a polarising issue. Please feel free to read the next article and not this one.)

If you make a mistake, please erase everything from the worksheet, and then leave the room, as you have just wasted 12 years of education.

A friend on FB (thanks, Julie!) linked me to an article in the Washington Post that some of you may have seen. The article is called “The Complete List of Problems with High-Stakes Standardised Tests” by Marion Brady, in the words of the article. a “teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author”. (That’s attribution, not scare quotes.)

Brady provides a (rather long but highly interesting) list of problems with the now very widespread standardised testing regime that is an integral part of student assessment in some countries. Here. Brady focuses on the US but there is little doubt that the same problems would exist in other areas. From my readings and discussions with US teachers, he is discussing issues that are well-known problems in the area but they are slightly intimidating when presented as a block.

So many problems are covered here, from an incorrect focus on simplistic repetition of knowledge because it’s easier to assess, to the way that it encourages extrinsic motivations (bribery or punishment in the simplest form), to the focus on test providers as the stewards and guides of knowledge rather than the teachers. There are some key problems, and phrases, that I found most disturbing, and I quote some of them here:

[Teachers oppose the tests because they]

“unfairly advantage those who can afford test prep; hide problems created by margin-of-error computations in scoring; penalize test-takers who think in non-standard ways”

“wrongly assume that what the young will need to know in the future is already known; emphasize minimum achievement to the neglect of maximum performance; create unreasonable pressures to cheat.”

“are open to massive scoring errors with life-changing consequences”

“because they provide minimal to no useful feedback”

This is completely at odds with what we would consider to be reasonable education practice in any other area. If I had comments from students that identified that I was practising 10% of this, I would be having a most interesting discussion with my Head of School concerning what I was doing – and a carpeting would be completely fair! This isn’t how we should teach and we know it.

I spoke yesterday about an assault on critical thinking as being an assault on our civilisation, short-sightedly stabbing away at helping people to think as if it will really achieve what (those trying to undermine critical thinking) actually wanted. I don’t think that anyone can actually permanently stop information spreading, when that information can be observed in the natural world, but short-sightedness, malign manipulation of the truth and ignorance can certainly prevent individuals from gaining access to information – especially if we are peddling the lie that “everything which needs to be discovered is already known.”

We can, we have and we probably (I hope) always will work around these obstacles in information, these dark ages as I referred to them yesterday, but at what cost of the great minds who cannot be applied to important problems because they were born to poor families, in the ‘wrong’ state, in a district with no budget for schools, or had to compete against a system that never encouraged them to actually think?

The child who would have developed free safe power, starship drives, applicable zero-inflation stable economic models, or the “cure for cancer” may be sitting at the back of a poorly maintained, un-airconditioned, classroom somewhere, doodling away, and slowly drifting from us. When he or she encounters the standardised test, unprepared, untrained, and tries to answer it to the extent of his or her prodigious intellect, what will happen? Are you sufficiently happy with the system that you think that this child will receive a fair hearing?

We know that students learn from us, in every way. If we teach something in one way but we reward them for doing something else in a test, is it any surprise that they learn for the test and come to distrust what we talk about outside of these tests? I loathe the question “will this be in the exam” as much as the next teacher but, of course, if that is how we have prioritised learning and rewarded the student, then they would be foolish not to ask this question. If the standardised test is the one that decides your future, then, without doubt, this is the one that you must set as your goal, whether student, teacher, district or state!

Of course, it is the future of the child that is most threatened by all of this, as well as the future of the teaching profession. Poor results on a standardised test for a student may mean significantly reduced opportunity, and reduced opportunity, unless your redemptive mechanisms are first class, means limited pathways into the future. The most insidious thread through all of this is the idea that a standardised test can be easily manipulated through a strategy of learning what the answer should be, to a test question, rather than what it is, within the body of knowledge. We now combine the disadvantaged student having their future restricted, competing against the privileged student who has been heavily channeled into a mode that allows them to artificially excel, with no guarantee that they have the requisite aptitude to enjoy or take advantage of the increased opportunities. This means that both groups are equally in trouble, as far as realising their ambitions, because one cannot even see the opportunity while the other may have no real means for transforming opportunity into achievement.

The desire to control the world, to change the perception of inconvenient facts, to avoid hard questions, to never be challenged – all of these desires appear to be on the rise. This is the desire to make the world bend to our will, the real world’s actual composition and nature apparently not mattering much. It always helps me to remember that Cnut stood in the waves and commanded them not to come in order to prove that he could not control the waves – many people think that Cnut was defeated in his arrogance, when he was attempting to demonstrate his mortality and humility, in the face of his courtiers telling him that he had power above that of mortal men.

How unsurprising that so many people misrepresent this.


The Invisible War – How Do You Find What You Don’t Know You’re Missing?

Photo: jasonEscapist, CC licence, click for details.

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know, we don’t know.

Donald Rumsfeld, when United States Secretary of Defence

I realise that this quote has been mocked before but I have always found it be both clear and interesting, mainly because accepting that there are things that you don’t know that you don’t know is important. Because of the way our world works now, where most information is heavily filtered in one form or another, it is becoming more a world of unknowns unknowns (things that are so filtered that you didn’t even know that you could have known about them) then a world of known unknowns (things that you have yet to look into but know exist).

I have a student who is undertaking a project exploring ways of exposing the revision history of Wikipedia in a way that makes it immediately obvious if you’re reading something that is generally agreed upon or in massive dispute. The History and Discussion tabs in Wikipedia are, for most people, equivalent to unknown unknowns – not only do they not even realise what they are there for, they don’t think to look. This illustrates one of the most insidious forms of filter, one where the information is presented in a way that appears static and reliable, relying upon the mechanism that you use to give that impression.

How, for example, can a person inside the Chinese web search zone find pictures of Tank Man at Tiananmen Square, if all legitimate searches that might turn up anything to do with it have been altered? If no picture of Tiananmen shows protests or tanks, how do you even know to search for Tank Man? Even if you find a picture of a man standing there, in front of tanks, how do you then discover the meaning of the picture?

I was reminded of the impact of filtering while I was reading Metafilter the other day. One of the Front Page Posts (FPPs) dealt with the call to boycott a Fantasy writer/game article contributor who had advocated the use of rape in fantasy literature as an awesome way to make the story better (in a variety of ways). I started reading the article, because I assumed that I would take issue with this Fantasy author but wanted to read the whole story, and left the page up to see what sort of comments unfolded. Because this could take time, I ignored the page for about 30 minutes.

Then, when I reloaded later, the post had been deleted. Now, because of the way that Metafilter works, a deleted FPP still exists and can be located in the database, but it is no longer linked to the front page and can no longer be modified. So, suddenly, I had an island of effectively hidden and frozen information. Having read the contents, the comments so far, and the write-up, I was still quite interested to follow the story but the unfolding and contribution of other people in the comments thread, which is the greatest strength of Metafilter, was no longer going to happen.

Now there are many of these deleted FPPs in Metafilter, easily accessible if you search for them by number, but they are closed to comment. They are fragments of conversations, hanging in space, incomplete, cast in amber. You can see them but you can’t see the final comments that would have closed the debate, the petering out as the arguments faded, the additional links that would have been added to this shard of the data corpus by the 12,000 active account holders of Metafilter.

Now, of course, whenever you look at Metafilter, you’ll know that for every few stories that you see on the front page, there’s probably at least one deleted one. Whenever you look at Wikipedia’s illusion of a clean white page where everything looks like it’s just been printed, you may realise that this could hide hundreds or millions of updates and corrections behind the scenes.

How does this change your perception of the information that is contained in there?

While it is easy to point to traditional publishing, especially for text and reference books, and point out the elitist cabals and intellectual thuggery that permeated some of these avenues, we must accept that the printed book never changed once it had been printed. To change a printed book, you must excise, burn, overprint, paint, physically retrieve and then re-insert. There is no remote update. There is no way that an invisible war can be waged against the contents of your copy of uncorrected Biggles or that someone thousands of kilometres away can stop you from opening the pages of your history text that describe the Tiananmen Square protests.

We have always had filter bubbles but, at the same time, we had history and the ability to compare fixed and concrete entities with each other. Torn out pages left holes, holes gave us questions, unknowns were discovered. I try very hard to read across and out of my filter bubble, and I strongly encourage my students to do the same, but at the same time I have to remind both myself and them that we are doing what we can within an implicit filter bubble of known knowns and known unknowns.

By definition, even though I’m aware of the possible existence of things that have already been so well hidden from me that I will never find them in my life time, I have no idea where to look to find these unknown unknowns. Maybe that’s why I’m buying more books and magazines at the moment, reading so very widely across the written and the electronic, and trying to commit as much as possible to here?

Do we need to know what we don’t know? How will we achieve this? Is this just another twinge as we move towards a different way of managing information?

What will this post say tomorrow?


Thoughts from the house of enquiry.

Today we renamed the building that is at the heart of the Faculty of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences. The new name for our new eight-storey, highly efficient and environmentally sustainable building, only 18 months old, is Ingkarni Wardli. This name comes from the original custodians of the land upon which the University is built, the Kaurna people, one of the indigenous people of Australia. The name means “place of learning or enquiry” but another reading of the name is “house of enquiry“, which is my favourite.

Ingkarni Wardli
The University of Adelaide

At today’s ceremony, there were the usual speeches that ones would expect at an event of this nature but the big difference for me was the sincerity and genuine recognition that accompanied the renaming. The Kaurna people are extremely pleased to have a building named in this way, and that it is this building, because they value education and enquiry and place a strong emphasis in local cultural and educational leadership. Our Executive Dean, Professor Peter Dowd, has been strongly committed to this for some time and, to do it properly, it has taken some time. (Our Vice Chancellor, Professor James McWha, has made our reconciliation week events, recognising the custodianship and contribution of the indigenous communities, a significant part of our University culture for over a decade, and has also been strongly supportive of this initiative.)

Why did it take time? Because it would have been easy to do it quickly and get it wrong. The unthinking or uninformed use of words from another language are the source of much derision on the Internet and there are even web sites devoted to it. (Don’t even ask about that unfortunate town in Europe whose name is an obscenity in English.) It would have been easy to drag together a few smatterings of language from various peoples across the region, or from the larger groups in the East of Australia, and jam this name on to the building.

Of course, it would have been a meaningless and empty gesture – potentially even insulting in its ignorance – while giving a number of people that nice warm feeling that they had used a ‘native’ name.

I work at a University. Knowledge is our business. To be more precise, the correct use of knowledge is our business. For us, this would have been far worse than launching a Nova car in a Spanish speaking country – this would have revealed us to be shallow and insular, uncaring and insensitive. Ignorant.

So it took a while. We approached the Kaurna community and quickly discovered that our original suggestion was a word that made no sense by itself – it had to be combined with another word to become a sensible phrase. Approval was sought and granted. Plans were made. Signage was changed. Today, however, the building’s name actually changed. From now on, it is Ingkarni Wardli.

I felt privileged to be a part, even in a very minor way, in today’s ceremony. The Dean’s speech emphasised the importance of the name, why we had chosen it and how it brought our cultures together. He made a point that there are many synonyms for recognition but that the two most common antonyms are ignorance and forgetfulness. By recognising the Kaurna people and asking them for a name, to work with us on providing a name, we show our awareness, our remembrance and our knowledge of their presence in the past and in the present. The representatives of the Kaurna, among them a senior Kaurna elder who gave a wonderful speech, and other peoples present clearly felt recognised, acknowledged and remembered and this cemented the importance of the ceremony. This was not a segregated event – it was all of us together, bound by our love of learning and knowledge. Seekers all, together.

I have, with some regret, seen people sniping at the name, pulling faces, making comment about how long it took, even suggesting that no-one would use the name. To them, I say, grow up. Our students learn from us (the good and the bad things we do) and we have no time for such facile and, ultimately, useless gestures. If you genuinely want to change the name, state your case, make a stand and work to change it. If not, then start using it without the eye-rolling or deliberate mis-pronunciation. Names change all the time, for far less significant reasons than this. To snipe at a name just because of the race of the people it came from? I’m sure that there’s a word for that – and it’s not one that I would ever want to see associated with someone involved in the formation of new people and the development of emerging thinkers.

There are great divides between many cultures and it is rare to be able to find a bridge that connects two disparate cultures in a way that aligns their most treasured characteristics. The naming of our new building is a bridge between the learning culture that we all value at our University and the learning culture so valued, and recognised, by the Kaurna people.

This is a good name. I look forward to using it.


Students and the New Content Models – What Would We Have Done?

I’m heading over to Cupertino this week to talk at Apple’s Education branch about institutional support for iPads used in teaching. As it turns out, there are some good ways and not-so-good ways to get a large rollout of tablet devices into a University and we’ve, well the Faculty of Sciences, have managed to have a very successful roll-out. To support this, they now have an all-electronic textbook model so that students no longer have to lug 30kg (66lbs) of textbooks around with them.

This is bad for physiotherapists but great for the students. Well, for those who buy the books.

We’ve seen the purchasing of textbooks drop dramatically over recent time. There are a lot of factors at play here: changing demography so that more students have to work and have to decide what to spend their money on, a return to charging students for study (even as part of a long-term loan scheme), the fact that books have a limited resale value because new editions (and associated electronic resources) are released annually for most texts… There’s a lot going on. The fact that books are heavy and hard to lug around is just one more part of it.

Now the whole secondhand market brings me to an interesting point. Students appear, small scale and informal survey here so this is bordering on anecdata, to favour buying the physical text and the electronic version. That way they get something large and clunky to read at home, the satisfaction of the physical book that never needs charging, while having the convenience of a searchable reference that is always available as long as they have their gadget with them.

But students aren’t silly about these things. They will ask you, up front, which textbook they actually need, which is a fair question. We have reduced our own dependency on textbooks quite a lot because (a) many students won’t buy it anyway and (b) we can put a few into the library and they will function quite well in reference mode instead. However, it goes beyond a “what do I buy”, it also comes down to a “what can I use that will meet my requirements”?

A real book is an amazing thing but, ultimately, if someone hasn’t indexed it properly, you’ll quickly find that you have to dangle page markers out the side, start annotating, and read the whole thing cover to cover.

You can only do this with an eBook (on whatever format) if someone has given you the ability to do so. There are a number of electronic books that my students won’t buy because they have restricted search abilities, or constrain the way you can label pages.

Worse, there are a number of textbooks that students won’t touch with a bargepole because they have limited licence lifespans or have been shown to be unreliable in their availability. All it takes is a hiccup in an on-line verification server and suddenly a book that you paid $50 for is now inaccessible. Of course, this also quite explicitly gives you no resale or secondhand value as well, if the authentication is locked to your identity or the ID of your device.

It is no surprise that a model that has been creeping into gaming is now seeping into textbooks. You buy the legitimate copy and then download the pirate version because the pirate version either doesn’t have the irritating levels of Digital Rights Management (DRM) that reduces your usage or it provides an additional set of features by removing arbitrary restrictions. Of course, I cannot condone this in any sense – because it supports piracy and the number of people who would use the pirate copy without buying a licence will, most likely, outstrip the number of people who buy a licence and then have a second copy. Seriously, I’ve never done it, don’t think that it’s ethically defensible but, more importantly, it reduces the need to solve the actual problem. Rather than try and get some change going that will move us to a point where we don’t have to do this, you reduce the incentive to change because you just work around it. Don’t like Apple’s Walled Garden? Then don’t use an iPhone or start advocating for change – but don’t jailbreak your phone because you’re not addressing the root cause. Vote with your wallet, advocate, try to support good models and encourage positive change.

This is why I strongly support models like O’Reilly and Associates, where you can buy physical + digital, or just digital, and it arrives in a multiplicity of formats, DRM free and yours to pass on, as long as only one copy is in existence and use at any time. Immediately, this reduces the need to go to the pirate feeds. This brings back secondhand value. This reduces the impact of device loss or identity crash. Yes, someone can put their copy on a pirate feed, of course, but there are always going to be thieves and receivers of stolen goods. Rather than dealing with the minority who will do it anyway, I support O’Reilly because they make it easier for the majority who wish to make legitimate purchases.

When it comes to book piracy (even with a legitimate licence purchase in parallel), it is easy to say “Well, students shouldn’t be doing that” and, of course, I wish that they weren’t, and I completely agree that they shouldn’t be doing it. But can I understand why they’re doing it when the products that are strongly limited and restricted actually provide a less attractive option than the physical book, especially when the book can be snatched out of your hands through a software error! I also understand, and completely agree, that rights holders should be rewarded for their efforts and want to find a mechanism that allows people to use items that they have purchased as they wish, while still allowing the rights handling and money issues to proceed in a way that has, as its primary affordance, a legitimate and rewarding experience for all participants. I think that O’Reilly (and the other providers who are following them) have set up the right way of doing it – set your price correctly, place your product into that slot in an attractive way and the vast majority of your interactions will be positive.

I was fortunate enough to see the time before photocopying became cheap and widespread and, as a result, I was able to see how book use changed. Initially, almost all of us bought textbooks for our courses, if we could afford to. We had to, because photocopying wasn’t that cheap and the library copies always ran out. Without PowerPoint slides and photocopies of slides, you depended upon your handwritten notes and the textbook. Demographically, almost none of us worked and most were supported by their parents, who also bought the books. Then PowerPoint crept in, along with photocopied notes. Reliance on the textbook started to slip. Then photocopiers became faster, more reliable and cheaper. Suddenly people were carrying entire photocopies of the book, because the cost and time involved had become manageable. The second-hand book market, once a valuable commodity, started to slip as the photocopy price/time/availability started to move – but also because improvements in desktop publishing and electronic production meant that new versions could come out annually rather than ever 2-4 years. Suddenly, rather than finding a recent edition or current edition, you could be looking at something that was 4 generations old. This was compounded by the inclusion of “free access” to supporting web sites or code testing environments – which had a fixed lifespan and didn’t transfer with the book.

I left traditional study in 2001 (returning in 2004 for a PhD but that’s a different textbook relationship) and bandwidth was increasing, download limits were increasing and the time/cost metric for finding and downloading books was starting to reach the attractive point. And that’s where we are today – a new mechanism for grabbing stuff has reached the cheap enough point. It’s a new content mode but it’s the same old problem. We can talk about what we want students to do and not to do but, historically, they’ve always done the maths. It’s good to see that O’Reilly and people like that are also doing the maths and making it easier for people to act legitimately and do the right thing by the rights holders, without forcing them to bend over backwards to pay for things the right way and get what they actually wanted in the first place.


Once again, XKCD says it all – “Share Your Knowledge With Joy”

In a recent XKCD post, Randall Munroe asks us why we criticise people when they don’t know something, rather than taking it as an opportunity to inform and delight them. After all, what is the actual benefit of belittling someone if they haven’t happened to have been exposed to the same information as you.

Well, that’s an excellent question. And, if you’re an educator, it’s the essential question.

We know that out students come to us without the information that they need. Because of this, they are regularly going to not know things and, sometimes, that’s going to be frustrating, but that’s what we’d expect.

I’ve run across it a few times myself when I’ve been surprised that people haven’t known basic (and to me common) terms in other languages like French or German. Why should they? I was raised in England, intermittently around French speakers, and have been exposed to European languages in one form or another for 40 years. I studied French at school and have German-speaking friends and colleagues, who I’ve visited. When someone doesn’t know what bon mot,  or soupçon means, that’s not actually an indicator of anything, except that they don’t know it yet. Ok, hand up in shame, I have, in the past, been obviously  surprised when someone didn’t know something but, over the last few years, I’ve worked really hard to curb it and try to be positive and informative, rather than being a schmuck.

After all, when I was a wine making student, a Microbiology PhD student sneered at me, quite effectively, because I didn’t know how to prepare a certain type of sample. The fact that I had never been shown, it hadn’t been a pre-requisite, and that it was actually his job to show me apparently eluded him on the day. Net result? 10 years later I remember being made to feel small but I still don’t remember how to prepare that sample.

I know what it’s like when someone decides to feel superior through exclusivity, rather than get a kick out of sharing the knowledge. Even if it wasn’t my job, even if knowledge sharing wasn’t something I enjoyed, even if it wasn’t the only ethically defensible choice – I should still be doing the right thing because I know what it’s like to be on the other side.

Thanks again, Randall, for a potted summary, in fun cartoon form, to remind us what it means to not be a schmuck.


100 Killer Words (Pleas Reed Allowed)

Pigeon point lighthouse, with star-like rays emanating from the light.

Writing over 100,000 words in a year has an impact on a lot of things. It affects the way that you think about whatever it is that you’re writing on. It affects the way that you manage your time, because you have to put aside 30-60 minutes a day. It affects the way that you think about your contact with the world because, when you have a daily deadline, you have to find something interesting every single day.

I have always read a lot. I read quickly and I enjoy it a great deal. But, until recently, apart from technical writing, my reading wasn’t important enough to keep track of. I surfed some pages over there? Oh, that’s nice. But now? Now, if I read something and there’s a germ of an idea, I have to keep track of it because I will need that to put together a post, most often late at night or on weekends. My gadgets and browsers are full of half-ideas, links, open pages, sketches. It changes you, writing and thinking this much in such a short time.

Let me, briefly, tell you how I’ve changed this year. I don’t know what to call this year because it’s most certainly not “The Year of Living Dangerously” or “The Year My Voice Broke” and it’s most certainly not “The Year of Living Biblically”. But let’s leave that for the moment. Let me tell you how I’ve changed.

  1. I have never used my brain so much, for such an extended period. My day is now full of stories and influences, connections and images, thinking, analysing, preparing and presenting. This is changing me as a person – giving me depth, making me more able to discuss issues, drawing out a lot of the frustration and anger I’ve wrestled with for years.
  2. I now try to construct working solutions from what I have, rather than excise non-working components. If reading and thinking this much about education has taught me anything, it’s that there is no perfect system and there are no perfect people. Saying that your system would work if only people were better is not achieving anything. You have to build with what you’ve got. People are building amazing systems from ordinary people, inspiration and not much else. No matter how you draw up your standards, setting a perfection bar, which is very different from a quality bar, will just lead to failure, frustration and negativity.
  3. I can see the possibility of improvement. People, governments, companies, systems – they often disappoint me. I have had the luxury of reading across the world and writing a small fraction of it. For every cruel, vicious, and stupid person, there are so many more other people out there. I have long wondered whether our world will outlast me by much. Am I sure that it will? No. Am I more optimistic that it will? Yes.

But it’s not all beer and skittles. I also work far too much. Along the way, my workaholism has been severely re-engaged. I worked a full (long) week last week and yet, here I am, 5 hours work on Saturday and somewhere along the lines of 8-10 hours on Sunday. That’s not a good change and I have to work out how I can keep all the positive aspects – because the positives are magnificent – without getting drawn down into the maelstrom.

I would like to describe this year as “The Year of Living” because, in many ways, I’ve never felt so alive, so aware, so informed and so capable of changing things in a constructive way. But, until I nail the overwork thing, it doesn’t get that title.

For now, because I’ve written 100,000 words or, 100 kiloWords, I’m going to call it “The Year of Killer Words” and hope that, homophones aside, that there’s some truth to that – that some of my words have brought light into the shadows and killed some monsters. Rather idealistically, that’s how I think of the job that we do – we bring light into dark places. Yes, a University can look like an ivory tower sometimes, and sometimes it is, but lighthouses look much the same – it’s the intention and the function that makes one an elitist nightmare and gives the other its worth and nobility.

That image, up the top? That’s what I think we’re doing when we do it right.


What’s a Prof?

Have a look at this picture – it’s a grab of one of the Google Image search pages for Professors:

Images of Professors

If you look at the cartoons on the page, page 3 of the search, you’ll see lab coats and blackboards. While there are a lot of (obviously) portrait shots, searching across the images for yourself will reveal a lot of ‘action shots’ – talking, teaching and, in some cases, just plain thinking. However, what really sticks out on the first images you find, which I haven’t shown here, is the number of Professor Frink (Simpsons) and Professor Farnsworth (Futurama) images – characters who are ubernerds, with strange speaking patterns, a cavalier disregard for the human condition and a fundamental disconnect from the people around them.

Looking at Google Image Search, you’ll see pictures of young professors and old professors. Women and men. The range of races. Nary a white coat in sight unless they are actively involved in research that requires a white coat and are undertaking said research at the point of photography! (I should note that I subscribe to John Birmingham’s fundamental model of suitability of ethnic dress: one should only wear a Greek fisherman’s cap if one is Greek, and a fisherman. I extend it to scientific or trade garb, including military or paramilitary uniform, in that one should then only wear the dress while engaged in the activity. I wore a lab coat when I was studying wine making and in the lab. I think it’s become cleaning cloths now.)

This is all rather light-hearted, except for the slight problem that a number of people’s only interaction with the notion of a professor will be from widely available media sources – and, even though Futurama in particular is heavily ironic in its use, ironic use has a subtle aspect that can easily be lost in communication. It’s already obvious that the scientific community has an uphill battle sometimes and add to this an assumption that we are all bizarre anti-social, uselessly pontificating grey beards who have no understanding of real people and we start any discussion on the back foot.

I like the new image of science that is coming through the media – scientists and professors can be active, have relationships, do cool things, basically being just like everyone else except that they have a title of some sort that reflects what they are good at doing. We do, of course, have a sizeable chunk of the community who did come in during a time when a very different professorial model was encouraged and probably feel at least slightly under assault from the changes in role, respect and expectation that are now spreading across our Universities. But we’re still all just people, whether we look like professors or not.

We don’t have to define what a professor is but it’s always worth reminding people that we are people first, always, before you start trying to photoshop us into white coats, sticking-up white hair and Coke-bottle glasses.


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.