Surveys of industry and past alumni won’t inform new degrees

December 20, 2010 at 12:31 pm Leave a comment

In the College of Computing, we’re considering a proposal to change the requirements of our MS in Computer Science degree. Concerns about the impact of this proposal on the industries that hire our students led to a call to survey industrial contacts and new alumni. That’s a common response to curricular change, and quite reasonable. I argued that that wouldn’t help.  It’s holiday time, and blogging time will be scarce over the next couple weeks, so I hope you’ll excuse some recycling of some carefully constructed and controversial prose on a topic that does impact computing teachers regularly. Happy Holidays to all of you, and thanks for reading and interacting here over the last year!

I appreciate the desire for solid data to inform our process. However, I don’t think that the data we’d collect would help us to make this decision.

There have been several surveys of what industry wants from our graduates (some published, including one Mike Hewner and I published on the game programming industry). These surveys almost always demand “more and more” — everything we’re currently teaching, plus please also include more on (for example) team leadership, communication skills, etc. Very rarely do we ever read an industry survey that says, “You can stop teaching X.” If we did the marketing survey you propose, we can already predict that no industry representative will say, “Dropping Systems and Theory will be fine.”

I believe that the results will be similar for our former students. They will tell us that they needed what they took. Even when it’s dubious (just how much calculus do any of us actually use as computer scientists, as compared to how many semesters of it we took?), successful people will rationalize how their educational experiences have helped them in some ways. I predict that our former, successful students will tell us to leave the degree requirements just as they are.

Yet, we do need to make change. We want to attract new kinds of students, and we want to prepare them for new kinds of jobs. We invent degrees that we believe are coherent and useful, and our track record is pretty darn good. CoC Alumni with a BS in CS complained strongly about Threads and even more strongly about the BS in Computational Media. They felt that these new degree requirements and options diluted the brand, and in effect, their degree. Yet, the BS in CS has only grown since Threads, and Computational Media has been successful beyond anything we originally envisioned. At 300 students, the BS in CM program is much larger than we predicted, and the students are getting great jobs with companies that didn’t used to interview our BS in CS students (like Disney Imagineering).

I do appreciate your concern that, in developing these specializations, we dilute our product and our brand. It’s a risk, but I don’t think that we can gather useful data from industry or former students to inform us about the risk. We have faced such a decision in the past, and we have been successful. I support the change, because it puts us in a position to attract new students and to prepare them for new jobs.

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