Skip college to study computing?

June 20, 2010 at 5:26 pm 12 comments

This interesting piece in the NYTimes highlights the growing number of jobs that do not require a formal college degree.  Paul Goodman wrote about this in Compulsory Miseducation in the late 1960’s — that we increasingly require college degrees where they really aren’t necessary, and by forcing everyone down one path, we do many students and our society a disservice.

“It is true that we need more nanosurgeons than we did 10 to 15 years ago,” said Professor Vedder, founder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a research nonprofit in Washington. “But the numbers are still relatively small compared to the numbers of nurses’ aides we’re going to need. We will need hundreds of thousands of them over the next decade.”

And much of their training, he added, might be feasible outside the college setting.

College degrees are simply not necessary for many jobs. Of the 30 jobs projected to grow at the fastest rate over the next decade in the United States, only seven typically require a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

via Plan B – Skip College –

What does this mean for computing education?  I’ve been thinking about this while reviewing chapters of Brian Dorn’s thesis.  His graphics designers value computing education highly, but don’t value College computer science classes at all.  They don’t see that we’re offering what they’re needing.

Should we have non-College paths for computing specialists?  I think that we already do, but perhaps we could use these alternative paths to develop expertise and avoid the confounds in our discussion of computing education.  We often struggle with creating deep thinkers, or skilled practitioners.  Those aren’t necessarily the same thing, and given the hours it takes to develop expertise, it may not be possible to generate both at scale.  In his work on the Great Principles of Computing, Peter Denning has pointed out that our current computing education system does a poor job of creating the experts, the master programmers.  Posters in recent discussions on the SIGCSE members list have emphasized that our current system is well set up for creating “software engineers.”  That’s not necessarily the master craftspeople that Peter is describing.  What would we do differently if our goals were to create the master craftspeople?  Would these master craftspeople be more highly valued and avoid some of the Geek shortage vs. layoffs that we’ve described here?

Could we produce these skilled programmers in our current college settings, or should we create a different path?  Richard Gabriel has argued for an “MFA in Software,” suggesting that we should create master programmers in the way that we create master artists.  In the MFA world, the education would still happen in college, but it wouldn’t have to.  We might create Plan B’s that better serve our students and our society’s needs, without involving colleges.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg Wilson  |  June 20, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    I’ve worked on projects with over 130 students during the past eight years; of the dozen I think were best at building interesting things well, only three or four had anything like a conventional path through academia, and two dropped out entirely after realizing that what we teach in Computer Science wasn’t going to make them better craftsmen. For others, though, conventional academic CS was a very good fit: one went on to do graduate work in robotics, for example, and (so far) has needed big-oh more than he’s needed to be able to add 5,000 lines of code to a 250,000-line code base in two weeks from a standing start. I don’t think that telling the former type of person that they must pursue a path designed for the latter serves any useful purpose.

  • 2. Alfred Thompson  |  June 20, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    I think there are multiple paths these days. For example I have been very impressed with students going through programming courses at career technical high schools of late. Note that they avoid the term computer science in part at least because of the vocational nature of these schools. While college prep high schools try to avoid the appearance of vocational training as if preparing one for a job is a bad thing, career tech high schools embrace the word as a part of their mission. More practical than theoretical these programs are sending students to college but they’re looking to prepare for industry not academia.

    Community colleges are also more vocational (get them a job) focused but there is a mixed bag there. Faculty usually tends to be good but the students are not always motivated to work and learn. For too many of them they think, like the straw man in the Wizard of Oz, that the only difference between them and others is a diploma. Sorry not the case unless you really have learned the stuff outside of class.

    Four year colleges tend to focus on theory rather than practice. I do believe that is usually great in the long run. They may have a longer ramp up in industry than the community college/vocational programs but in the long run the theory will serve them well as the field changes.

    And then there is the totally internally motivated self-directed learner. Some of these people can hold their own with any tier I university graduate. And better than many of them. I’ve known several of these over the years and they are amazing. Bill Gates is one of these people – not that I claim to really know him.

    We need several kinds of people in the field. To get there we need several types of programs. I don’t think there is a one size fits all learning program. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

  • 3. Alan Kay  |  June 20, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    If take jet engines, suspension bridges, large buildings, etc., — all big structures that will have people as major parts of their purpose — then we want to ask, should the designers, structural engineers, architects etc., go to college?

    I’d say (a) “Absolutely” and (b) we should not allow the bricklayer roles to also try to do the designs. This bad idea has happened over and over and has resulted in no end of mischief and bad systems …



    • 4. Erik Engbrecht  |  June 21, 2010 at 4:07 pm

      Exactly what is a bricklayer role in software development?

      There are certainly different levels of detail at which people do design…right down to where the encoding of their design is code, but I don’t think software development has an analog to the bricklayer.

      • 5. Alan Kay  |  June 21, 2010 at 4:35 pm

        Hi Erik

        Could be an anachronism throwback. In a galaxy far away, there were “programmers” (who did the designs in some detail) and “coders” (who essentially acted the part of higher level language compilers to make code — usually machine code — that would do what design — often in flowchart form — specified).

        By the time the 70s rolled around, this was a little different. Everyone was writing code (my personal opinion was that most programmers “shouldn’t”).

        As an old fogey, things seem much worse today. There isn’t much in the present (and the past is ignored or coped with) to deter people from just making code (and perhaps fooling themselves into thinking they are designing). Seems like mostly bricklayers trying to make skyscrapers …

        But of course all of this is safely ignorable …



  • 6. Tom Hoffman  |  June 20, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    Yay for Paul Goodman shout outs!

  • 7. RC  |  June 21, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Right or wrong, most (big) companies use a college degree as a requirement for
    employment. And having a college degree in Computer Science does not
    automatically make you capable of building or modifying software.

  • 8. Alfred Thompson  |  June 21, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Most big companies use a college degree as a proxy for experience. Someone who has real world experience and who can demonstrate it can often get a godo jb with a big company. Although I hear talk that Google is really degree and grade crazy I don’t know for sure.
    The problem for most young people starting out is that they don’t have a good way to demonstrate what they know. They may have some small projects (which are probably as good as what many college projects are) but that is not by itself impressive. So most self taught people start in smaller companies until they have built up a resume that a big company will accept.
    While I do have degrees one reason I was not asked many technical questions when I got my present job was a resume that demonstrated that I could actually do what the degrees suggest I could do. Even someone with a degree from a top school will be asked to demonstrate knowledge when looking for that first job BTW.

  • 9. Alan Kay  |  June 21, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    P.S. To the comment to Erik June 21 4:35

    I forgot to give the prime example:

    What do people think of how the web browser was thought through and constructed, given what was already long around on personal computers?



    • 10. Erik Engbrecht  |  June 21, 2010 at 5:59 pm

      I don’t think people think about it much at all. HTML 5 is obviously a true revolution in computing. 🙂

      I think there’s two problems with the architect/bricklayer analogy:
      1. It implies stratification first and specialization second*
      2. It doesn’t scale down well to systems where a single talented person, especially given powerful tools, can effectively play both (or all) roles

      *The implication is based on the assumption that architects make more money than the skilled laborers who build their buildings. I suspect this distinction doesn’t jibe too well with reality. Although in general architects are better respected.

  • 11. Multiple Paths into Computer Science  |  June 22, 2010 at 6:45 am

    […] started out as a comment on Mark Guzdial’s blog post titled “Skip college to study computing?” but I decided to add a little and post it here as […]

  • 12. rahul  |  July 5, 2011 at 2:37 am

    this is a right for most companies use a college degree as a requirement for employment.


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