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Today I started telling tmehlinger about some of my opinions on academia and education in science and engineering.

Disclaimer: The following is the opinion of William H. Hsu only, and should not be construed as representative of Kansas State University. That said, I think I'm qualified to wibble and rant about some of these subjects. I ran the gamut of educational backgrounds:

  • Catholic preschool (in Maryland)

  • Protestant primary school (Arlington Baptist Elementary School in Baltimore, MD and Temple Christian Scool in Lakeland, FL)

  • Public elementary school (Hillsborough Elementary School in Hillsborough, NJ; Scott Lake Elementary in Lakeland, FL)

  • Public middle school (Severna Park Middle School in Severna Park, MD)

  • Private high school (Severn School, a preparatory school in Severna Park, MD; the CTY program run by Johns Hopkins University - Homewood Su86, Fa86, Su87)

  • Private university undergraduate (Johns Hopkins University, B.S. CS/MathSci 1993)

  • Private university postgraduate school (Johns Hopkins University, M.S.Eng. CS 1993)

  • State university postgraduate program (UIUC, Ph.D. CS 1998)


So, that's me.

Now let's look at What Is Happening To America'sThe World's Youth:

Here are some causes of educational standards erosion that I have postulated over the last two years.

  • 06 Feb 2004, publisher greed. zengeneral may disagree, or aver that Greed is Good, but as we all know, he's evil. ;-)
    Seriously, textbook price gouging has long since reached usurious levels, and it needs to swing back. People should be made to pay for textbooks, if only so they will cherish and value them, but they don't need to pay through the nose. "Through the nose" causes inequities between foreign and domestic students, and it means different things to poorer and richer students. The more spoiled students will lack appreciation whether they are wealthy or not, while those who pay their own way will appreciate books whether they cost a lot or a reasonable amount. More important, it's very bad when not all the students have the textbook, and sharing leads to an inability to do all the homework in a timely way. This last bit is a particular pet peeve of mine, because it falls to us as instructors to "lay down the law" and say "if you don't buy the textbook, it's your tough luck". Enforcing that statement consistently is a tremendous nuisance: some people almost always slip through, and someone gets short-changed when they do. In computer science, this is also true of computer hardware, software, and - to an extent - internet service.

  • 12 Feb 2004, the Virtuosity Dichotomy. Just as we sometimes mollycoddle students, we (that is, teachers as a whole, especially college and university instructors) sometimes quell ambition and tout innate talent over training and discipline. IMO, training has at least equal importance as talent, past a certain minimum level that is not too hard for most university students to meet. I think discipline and attitude are more important.
    The problem is: what does "intelligent" mean? Are students who grew up on the utter pablum of the last 10-15 years doomed? I'd like to think not, but I can't agree that we are getting better, or maintaining past levels of competence, by any measurable standard.

  • 09 Oct 2004, vocationalization and a commensurate decline in prestige. Yes, my friends, computer science educational has become a vo-tech industry, and to quote the horse from Ren and Stimpy, "no sir, I don't like it!" As Dave Schmidt wrote in the letter I quoted, "Computer Science has an image problem: it is no longer as prestigious to be a computing person, and worse still, there doesn't appear to be job security. This is an endemic problem in CS and IT". As he said more recently, "You seldom hear an eighteen year-old kid say to his parents, `Mom and Dad, I want to go to university because I want to become a philosopher; I don't know how much I can make, but I really love it in my soul.'"

  • 11 Nov 2004, changes in the fundamental mission of children's educational TV. Sic transit gloria mundi. Boohbah is a different brand of brain rot than even Saturday morning cartoons of the 1970s and 1980s. `First a purple dinosaur; then semi-humanoid kewpie doll-faced creatures with tuner antennae on their heads; and now semisentient dancing blobs... It's one thing to be politically sensitive or even "politically correct"; it's quite another to divorce our children's learning minds from any rational awareness of human society or reality.' Whatever happened to Square One TV with MathNet and MathMan, or to Bill Nye the Science Guy?

  • 08 Dec 2004, erosion of self-sufficiency, durability, flexibility, confidence, and diligence. There was a time not long ago when students saw difficult exam and homework problems as a challenge and rose to meet it. It is not a legendary time, nor was it "back in my day". I'm only 32, so my day isn't over (shaddap, zengeneral). I think it's quite recent that the serious erosion has occurred: perhaps in the last 5-10 years.
    As you can see from my rant last fall, I think a lot of it has to do with personal accountability. Some students have become somewhat spoiled in certain areas. As rsmit212 said around the time I posted this, some of it is a side effect of overcommercialization of the academic sector, particularly university education.
    I say: bring back self-sufficiency! Once students begin (again) to set and meet goals for themselves, it will help us, their instructors. Of course, we are already in the valley now, so there's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here. Ideas are always welcome.

  • 30 Apr 2005, decline in the prestige of systems knowledge. You didn't think this was all about theoretical CS and "esoterica", did you? Indeed not.
    I call the love of systems the Sysadmin Club for Users ("I'm not only the UNIX sysadmin; I'm also a user"), and in my User-Centric Manifesto, I documented some of the ways in which the love of the craft has eroded.


Opinions, as always, are welcome - I am interested in both the supporting and dissenting variety, or anything in between. Feel free to expound on the correlation between educational standards and the number of pirates, if you like!

--
Banazir

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
atelierlune
Nov. 17th, 2005 04:53 am (UTC)
As a devout soldier of the Sesame Street Army,
I must concur. I credit good educational TV with not completely hollowing out my brain in my early years, but of late it is hardly a shell of its former self, which I am disappointed with immensely as I really hoped I would be able to pass it along to my children as I had experienced it. Sesame Street taught me that it was cool to know the right answer, to ask questions, to problem solve. I feel like today's public television stresses interpersonal skills and not very much else.

In general, I see a thread running through your points: a negligence and disregard for values and a lust for the bottom line in its place. Kids are looking to get the job that makes the money (I work in a trade school where we must always do our jobs with the concept in mind that people are here not to learn for the sake of learning, but to develop a skill to make money with), but corporate and government (dis)interests drove those kids to it.
chaosinaskirt
Nov. 17th, 2005 05:53 am (UTC)
i don't really have much to add as a whole BUT i wanted to add that as much good as the interweb does at certain levels, it does SO much damage to the educational development.


take the differences in how my english comp class was taught and my sister's. same high school, same class, different instructors, 10 years later.

mine emphasized the use of libraries as resources - we were instructed on how to use the LoC method that the three local colleges used (which our library cards were good at), and how to use the (comparatively limited) interlibrary search to find them.

hers doesn't talk about the library at all. they're expected to go online, with little training to descern what is a legitimate source (such as insect info available at http://encyclopeida.insects.iastate.edu) against what is not (such as anything found at geocities). they're not expected to use the library and in fact, when my mother (a former english teacher) force my sister to go to the library to find half of her sources there, my sister got her paper *marked down* for not using the internet!


another problem, one that my friend imbrium (a medieval studies grad student that's TA'ing frosh comp) sees is the complete and utter lack of grammar and proper spelling in their papers. granted, we're all human, etc etc and on the interweb i too am lazy about trivial things like proper capitalization - but it is not, and should not be, acceptable to submit papers like this (or writing lik u r 2 kewl 2 do it right)... but her students and so many others seem to think that it's fine.



ok, i lied, there's an underlying problem that's not even scratched: i think that the materialism, greedy, egoist, immediate gratification way that children are being raised is definitely a contributing factor. soccer moms unite: johnny got a c in algebra, and he's a bright boy, so obviously it's your fault teacher, not his *lather rinse repeat until the teacher gives in just to go on to jill's d being undeserved and jack's f*.
zengeneral
Nov. 17th, 2005 06:03 am (UTC)
ah
tis why we need a new plague which I will call the blue plague.

The Blue Plague
After contracting the blue plague, the patient will incubate the virus for about seven to eleven months without symptoms until they turn completely blue and collapse dead.
burkhardt
Nov. 17th, 2005 06:40 am (UTC)
Kate Monday will remain in my heart forever as one of my earliest TV memories, and I still fear the tornado that plagued mathmans existence.

Work ethic is in one of the most lacking things I notice in my peers both in my current working environment and back in college. Almost everyone hated this one professor in college. He was a hardass. He assigned difficult assignments. He taught some of the harder 400 level classes. His tests were brutally difficult. He was also my favorite teacher because he's one of the few that really challenged me, and really taught me anything. I was one of the few to have that opinion though, and I doubt it's gotten more prevelant as time goes on. To many people seem to feel that attending college and passing are rights not a privilage that requires dedication and hard work to achieve. College is sadly the new highschool. And I'm still annoyed highschool is like that.
kakarigeiko
Nov. 17th, 2005 02:07 pm (UTC)
Learned helplessness
This year I TA'ed for a class which assigned reasonably thought-provoking assignments. To varying degrees, I observed the following process:

a. First few assignments: Students tried the problems, got stuck, some sought help from TAs, most students turned in solutions that were correct regardless of the source of inspiration.

b. Next few assignments: Most students learned very quickly that getting stuck, seeking help, and then writing down correct answers produced the same or better grades than if they had pounded on the questions themselves for a week. Some students chose to still put in maximum effort, others scaled back a little, a significant proportion seemed to scale back a lot. Office hours attendance increased, general clueyness dropped.

c. Last half of the assignments: A good lot of students tended to give up very quickly and default to looking for answers elsewhere instead of making an honest effort to solve the problems. Some students turned up at my office hours waiting for answers to fall from other students' questions and comments after having not even read the problems themselves. General class morale was pretty low for the increasing number of students who simply seemed to feel the class was too hard for them and were just doing what they felt were necessary to pass the class. Very quickly it seemed we'd produce students with low self-confidence who give up easily and freeze in fear when confronted with relatively doable problems whose solutions are not immediately apparent.

Generally I believe your comments are right in describing why this kind of thing happens. I feel a big factor is that students are pursuing an optimizing function to maximize grades in minimized time due to various pressures. For a class, this translates into getting the best correct answers in the smallest possible time, which is somewhat orthogonal to the optimal learning process of solving the hardest problems that one can solve within the time allotted for the homework.

I've daydreamed about the feasibility of a graduated hint system where a student could receive increasingly easy versions of a problem for gently decreasing grades. E.g. each hint costs 10% of the grade, for 50% of the grade you get a rough sketch of the solution but you still have to do the writeup yourself. Of course then I'd have to find some way to prevent students from passing the hints among themselves!
gregbo
Nov. 18th, 2005 02:31 am (UTC)
Re: Learned helplessness
"I've daydreamed about the feasibility of a graduated hint system where a student could receive increasingly easy versions of a problem for gently decreasing grades."

I had a professor in grad school who used to allow students to "buy" (with exam points) parts of exam questions.

Re: decline of systems knowledge; follows from the overall decline of the computer industry. When I first graduated, it was considered cool to be a systems person. The pay was decent (and sometimes good), especially relative to salaries outside the computer industry. Also, sysadmin work has become rather thankless.

I should point out however that some of what sysadmins used to do has now been taken over by improved technology. For example, when I first started working, you were considered a wizard (of sorts) if you could route uucp mail by hand. Such a thing is unheard-of today with universal use of DNS.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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