Especially In Computing: ‘Trust Us’ Won’t Cut It Anymore – Commentary – The Chronicle of Higher Education

January 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm 8 comments

Given that we have a track record of being unable to measure accurately our students’ achievement, I suspect that those of us in Computing are particularly susceptible to this criticism.

“Trust us.”

That’s the only answer colleges ever provide when asked how much their students learn.

Sure, they acknowledge, it’s hard for students to find out what material individual courses will cover. So most students choose their courses based on a paragraph in the catalog and whatever secondhand information they can gather.

No, there’s isn’t an independent evaluation process. No standardized tests, no external audits, no publicly available learning evidence of any kind.

Yes, there’s been grade inflation. A-minus is the new C. Granted, faculty have every incentive to neglect their teaching duties while chasing tenure—if they’re lucky enough to be in the chase at all. Meanwhile the steady adjunctification of the professoriate proceeds.

via ‘Trust Us’ Won’t Cut It Anymore – Commentary – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  January 18, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    MIT is the worst. They are so happy to tell you that they changed their curriculum to be more relevant, but have they released ANY public details of how the change to Python and other changes are going?

    The college I went to, they didn’t even have a way to measure performance. When we asked for nameless statistics that we could independently audit the aggregate results of, they told us how bad their data collection was. They didn’t keep information on transfers to and from, etc. It was worse than a black box. At least a black box can have outputs for inputs.

  • 2. Alan Kay  |  January 18, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    How do med schools and the profession of Medicine handle this problem?

    (Not as far-fetched an analogy/metaphor as it might first seem …)



    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  January 19, 2011 at 10:32 am

      Hi Alan,

      I’ve been trying to think this through. Are you thinking about the apprenticeship model of interns and residencies, or the national boards of examiners and having licensing for doctors? A big difference between the med schools and the topic of the Chronicle report is that we’re comparing a graduate degree to the first two years of College. Are you suggesting, Duderstadt’s Millenium Center that we should make CS and all of Engineering into graduate-only degrees, and all CS students should get a liberal arts degree first?


      • 4. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  January 19, 2011 at 11:47 am

        I think Alan is deliberately not suggesting anything, but hoping you’ll learn with him, by observing and classifying with him, exactly How do med schools and the profession of Medicine handle this problem?

        Please, let us reject the idea that it is about so-called “big differences”; it is about systematics. The differences are not how old you are or how long you’ve been institutionalized for before learning useful things. I hear this excuse a lot, and am sick of it. You can never leap to the Big Idea with this excuse. Get rid of it. The idea that college freshman can’t do X is really a subversive way for teachers to say, “I want to be the heroine of this story, and I want to be the one person to make the difference, so I am going to come up with a stereotype of people and target how I can improve the abilities of that stereotype.” Again, get rid of it. You need to think systematically. It is not about what one person can pass on to a group of students. It is much broader than that.

        Med school is systematically different. They do *everything*, from role playing to observation to histology, etc. Another major difference is the amount of reading and memorization required in the first year of school, and how every year after that depends upon how well you memorized those facts and theories. Care to tell me how diverse your experience was in undergrad, Mark? What about how diverse the experience is for students at your university?

  • 5. Alan Kay  |  January 19, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Hi Mark

    It was neither a trick question, nor one that I had the answer to. But I certainly would feel worse than uneasy if the medical profession policed itself like computing (and the medical profession is far far from perfect).

    And I wasn’t thinking about the liberal arts degree before an engineering or CS graduate degree (but this is probably a good idea and would help CS, if not engineering, quite a bit).

    The medical profession’s thresholds are aided by law, and by moving from an ad hoc discipline to a scientifically backed discipline roughly around WWII.

    Still, the best estimates are that somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people die needlessly each year from doctors not washing their hands enough (this is not only a real scandal but a terrifying window into both the human mind and the possible limits of education — i.e. if doctors cannot continuously imagine invisible pathogens after being taught about them and seeing them under microscopes, then what kinds of goals can we reasonably pick for education?).

    On the other hand, they do make more of an effort (and I think more of a successful effort) than computing in enforcing thresholds for what it is supposed to mean to be a doctor licensed to practice medicine

    It formerly wasn’t possible to essentially buy an MD from a university, and I don’t think it is possible today. I don’t think there has been much if any grade inflation for an MD, or for premed. But I think universities are essentially selling degrees in many fields today, including computing.



    • 6. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  January 19, 2011 at 12:02 pm

      Medicine has changed, but we are not selling MD’s. The major difference is driven by the market, namely lawsuits.

      In response to lawsuits, insurers raise the cost for MD’s to cover their practice in the case of accidents.

      In response to the raising cost of insurance, MD’s take home less money.

      In response to taking home less money, MD’s come up with new ways to make money, such as joining “Physician Groups” (affiliations with hospitals), moving into larger offices and hiring specialists who can perform high operating margin services like bloodwork, skin lesion removal for cancer detection, etc. In response to moving into larger offices, they also need more staff, which means more physician assistants who are not as capable as doctors but are supposed to also be trained differently from doctors. In addition, secretarial staff always offer patients the opportunity to meet with a physician assistant first, and patients are likely to accept this first option without considering the benefits of waiting for a real doctor. So if we are actually sending sick people to PAs instead of MDs, haven’t we essentially watered down the cost to be an MD?

      Quality of life for doctors is also decreasing, since now doctors with these big offices usually rotate Saturday duties with other doctors in their practice once a month. That is one less day a month that they can spend with their family, work on their golf game, etc.

      The days of doctors owning their own practice where they are the only practicing doctor are over.

      It is pretty clear that although the quality of doctors has not decreased, the overall system has taken a substantial hit from the rising costs of doing business.

      Bottom line: Although MD still has the blessing that the person is a high-caliber individual with unique skills, their availability is diminished and it is not clear at all to me that we are doing a great job in this area.

      And what about the cost to the consumer? Are they paying less for this McDonald’s-style approach to healthcare, where everyone has a specific niche role to play and we increase revenue while decreasing costs?

      a) It is cheaper to do bloodwork at a bloodwork lab.
      b) Most doctor’s offices can’t provide you with a bill of materials that tells the patient how much a skin lesion removal & diagnosis will cost, since in order for them to get the results for that, they have to out-source it to a third party, usually located at a hospital or specialty lab.
      c) Billing is complicated in general, and, for example, if you have a baby at the end of the calendar year, you risk not being able to receive all your bills before the March deadline under many tax deductible plans. Under some government plans, you lose whatever tax money you set aside. Under all insurance plans, you will have your deductible reset and the charges applied to the new year, so the actual chances of you exceeding your deductible decrease.

    • 7. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  January 19, 2011 at 12:06 pm

      By the way, Alan and also Mark,

      I recommend you both read Atul Gawande if you have not before. He has served as an advisor to many Democratic presidents, and some of the most conservative Republicans I know greatly admire his work. (Usually when somebody earns cross-party respect it is a sign they simply get things done and are extremely smart.) He has written many articles in the New Yorker magazine, which in turn led to several book deals, such as “Better” and “The Checklist Manifesto”. The books are really just detailed versions of the New Yorker articles.

  • […] of seeing what students are understanding on a day-by-day basis.  I’m now a convert.  Given what we know about how little students learn in the first years, one could argue that it’s unethical not to use peer instruction — how else will you […]


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