Edupocalypse Now: Removing the BS from the BS

December 8, 2011 at 9:14 am 54 comments

Aaron Lanterman has started his new blog with a bang.  He asks the question, “What would a BS (Bachelor of Science) look like without all the BS?” That is, the crud we make students take because “it’s good for them.”  That’s what Amy Bruckman was referencing (I think) when she talked about all the candidate school topics to remove so that computing could have a place.  Aaron’s point is well-taken about the high price of higher-education, and consequently, the enormous cost per good-for-you course.

My colleagues on curriculum committees – particularly those involved with ABET, the mother of all engineering curriculum committees – should remember that every class requirement represents a tremendous expense in time and money (and not just the time spent by the student). You need to have a rock-solid argument for each requirement. Your argument must be less wishy-washy than “it will help make them well rounded” and less cliche than “it will help teach them to think logically.” It must be less vain than “it’s a class I teach” or “it’s a topic I do research in.” It must be more forward-looking than “well, I was forced to take it when I was in school.” It must be more precise than “well, I took it when I was in school, and I remembered something from it that I threw into a grant proposal three years ago.” It has to be less pretentious than “aaaah! if we stop requiring this class, we’re lowering our standards!” You must to be able to argue that the class you are requiring is so vital, so essential, so irreplaceable, that a student should go deeper into debt – a particularly toxic kind of debt that is non-bankruptable – in order to take that class. Student loan debt is nearing a trillion dollars. I beg my fellow academics to think carefully about whether we are contributing to that unnecessarily.

via Edupocalypse Now.

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New book on integrating technology: The Learning Edge: What Technology Can Do to Educate All Children Technology changes what we teach — even in CS

54 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  December 8, 2011 at 9:29 am

    The problem with the argument is that it doesn’t separate out what it would mean to retain knowledge in an operational fashion — “at one’s fingertips” to be used as context in thinking about all manner of things — from the problem that many “educational processes” (and “educatees”) are so broken that very little is retained in a useful way.

    And it misses the context that allows the notion of “vocational training” (or much much more) to even be thinkable. Where did that context come from? Which adult citizens in a society are supposed to maintain, nurture, protect and grow the context? What do they need to know in order to do this?

    That these issues don’t come up in a discussion of “education” is quite telling.

    Reply
    • 2. Aaron Lanterman  |  December 8, 2011 at 9:36 pm

      Dear Alan,

      Thank you for your comment – as usual, you pack a lot things to think about in just a couple of short paragraphs. It’s fitting that you were the first commenter on Mark’s post, since my idea to start my blog crystalized after attending Rich DeMillo’s C21U kickoff, which you e-attended. (That was also my introduction to Robert Schank.)

      In your first paragraph, I think you may be hitting on many of the points Schank often makes. I’m increasingly convinced that professors (including me) would be better off if we stopped characterizing what students learn in terms of what *we say*, and started characterizing it more in terms of what the *students do*. I used to lecture on Fourier series and then say “well, I ‘covered’ Fourier series, why are they not getting it?” Then I stepped back and thought, “wait, what does ‘cover’ really mean?” I’m increasingly seeing my role as more of a native guide than as a “teacher,” if the latter is defined as being something like a book-on-tape. I’m just barely starting to try to formulate my thoughts on that. I’ve been a university professor for ten years, and I’m kind of embarrassed that it’s taken me so long to even start trying to formulate the right *questions,* let alone find answers.

      Your second paragraph is absolutely on target, but daunting. I must confess I have little notion as to where to start thinking about it. When I try, I find that I often just fall back to the things I am familiar with. I am the fish who is just starting to recognize that the aether I’m swimming in may be different than that outside of the bowl.

      Reply
  • 3. Rob St. Amant  |  December 8, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    “What would a BS (Bachelor of Science) look like without all the BS?”

    I think that this touches on the philosophy of education, which I know next to nothing about, but here are a couple of thoughts anyway:

    I’d like to think there’s a lot of overlap between the concepts of “a well-educated person” and “a college graduate”. To me, being well-educated means knowing about more than one specific discipline. I’m assuming that the “BS” courses are in the humanities and social sciences, but without some broad exposure to areas outside computer science, our graduates would be less likely to engage with the real world. I don’t have anything but my own experience as an undergrad to support this view, though.

    On going into debt to take “BS” courses: I’ve read that half or more of undergraduates switch majors at least once. Even today, at some universities, students who are interested in a challenging major but don’t have high enough grades in the early courses to matriculate find it difficult to change their target to a different major and graduate in four years–there’s often not enough overlap in the curriculum requirements. Saying that a B.S. should dispense with requirements for courses outside a given major would make it much harder to change in midstream. It’s not obvious to me that there would be definite savings in time or money. In the worst case, with no majors requiring any “BS” courses, a student who decided to change majors would have to start from scratch.

    Reply
    • 4. Aaron Lanterman  |  December 8, 2011 at 9:57 pm

      Dear Rob,

      Thank you for your thoughts.

      To me, being well-educated means knowing about more than one specific discipline.

      I agree. I’m questioning why that “knowing” necessarily has to be characterized as 3-credit-hour courses taught in a specific quarter or semester format that check off various boxes.

      I’m assuming that the “BS” courses are in the humanities and social sciences, but without some broad exposure to areas outside computer science, our graduates would be less likely to engage with the real world.

      I’m not sure how taking particular classes would necessarily make student more or less likely to engage with the real world. (Although I hesitate to promulgate typical stereotypes, maybe computer science students have more issues that?) Is it that college students start out more likely to engage the real world, and then become less likely when they focus on one discipline? That’s a variation of the first argument people make against homeschooling – “how will the child be socialized?” – as if homeschooling implies that children will never leave the house, or the school is the only place children will see other children.

      In terms of what the “bs” stands for in a “B.S.-bs,” or a “B.A.-bs,” that varies from field to field. I am an engineering professor, so indeed, when talking about a B.S.-bs in EE or CompE, “bs” might be as you describe. But for someone majoring in the humanities or the social sciences, the “bs” would of course be defined differently.

      Think about your discipline, and what classes (or set of classes to choose from) you would require for *your* discipline. What classes do you argue with your colleagues about in terms of what should be on the syllabus? What textbook should be used? What prerequisites are required? (The prerequisite question is particularly useful, since it automatically pulls in classes outside of your field – my canonical example is engineering needing physics and math. But that’s not just because engineers should know some physics and math; I can point to specific classes that need them.) Think about cross-listed classes. Do you get into arguments with other departments over who teaches it the best? Write all that down. That’s your core “B.S.” or core “B.A.” or whatever.

      Ah, yes, but you want students to be broadly educated! For that, though, you don’t have to do very much work. The university-level curriculum committees, usually driven be requirements of accreditation agencies, has defined that for you. Your department doesn’t have to worry about whether 2 courses from category X and 3 courses from category Y are required, or vice versa. *That* is what I’m calling “bs” *relative to* your degree program.

      Your last point is one I’ve heard from several quarters (including another commenter below). I’ll likely save that for another post for another time.

      Reply
      • 5. Rob St. Amant  |  December 8, 2011 at 10:22 pm

        Thanks for your thoughtful response, Aaron. You raise good points. One is that a grab bag of electives outside a student’s major isn’t anything like a guarantee of being well-educated or well-rounded. Another is that, of course, students can learn as much about things they’re interested in outside a classroom as inside one. You’ve given me stuff to think about.

        (As for what I’d like to add to my major’s curriculum… experiment design/empirical methods would be at the top of my list. And maybe cognitive psychology. And something that involves creativity, like writing or art or music. I think knowing something about these topics makes someone a better computer scientist as well as a well-educated person. But that’s a side issue.)

        Reply
        • 6. Aaron Lanterman  |  December 8, 2011 at 10:51 pm

          Thank you for your kind words!

          Going the goal of enforcing “well-educatedness” and “well-roundeness” for a second, I’m wondering if that might be better served by something other than the “grab bag of electives.” My wife says that she thoroughly enjoyed her 8th grade science class, which was, of course, a pretty broad and not very deep survey. We were chatting about this issue the other day, and she mentioned that instead of being forced to take science classes on specific topics (in her case, she chose dinosaurs and history-of-the-universe-until-a-few-million-years-ago) from that approved “grab bag,” she might have been served better by something like a college-level version of her 8th grade science class. Perhaps more along the lines of “science as an approach” than “science as a jumble of facts,” or even “science as a jumble of facts about a couple of specific topics?” (This harkens back to things I’ve often heard Alan Kay talk about when discussing the way science is taught in schools. Science is taught as stuff to spit back on a test, not as a principled approach to understanding the universe.) Or, maybe go ahead with the jumble of facts, but make the facts smaller and the bag bigger. Or, perhaps try to optimally mix the two.

          As for what I’d like to add to my major’s curriculum… experiment design/empirical methods would be at the top of my list. And maybe cognitive psychology. And something that involves creativity, like writing or art or music. I think knowing something about these topics makes someone a better computer scientist as well as a well-educated person. But that’s a side issue.

          Perhaps you could give students samplings of these things *within* your CS classes? I’m thinking of something along the lines of what Mark did with his “Media Computation” course, but at an expanded scale. Students turned on by these “free samples” might be enticed to try more, and then go for a class (or whole program) in computational neuroscience, or something like Georgia Tech’s Music Technology program, or computational linguistics.

          Reply
          • 7. Joyce  |  December 9, 2011 at 2:54 pm

            Actually, the 8th grade science class was a “jumble of facts”–they just happen to have been presented in a really engaging manner. I got to look at protozoa through a microscope, thus I still remember that the paramecium has three nuclei, and I still have a very clear visual memory of a stentor swimming through algea. We dissected bullfrogs, made molecular models, and I wrote a science fiction story about using the scientific method to explore another planet (which I read aloud to the class, who promptly made fun of me, sigh). IOW, that oft-hackenyed phrase, “learning by doing.”

            But I didn’t actually learn about “science as an approach,” (despite the aforementioned scientific method lessons) until…um…about last year, when I started reading atheist and skeptical blogs. The phrase “falsifiable theory” only entered my vocabulary this year. So find myself feeling betrayed–all that time and money wasted on these stupid core requirements, but I had to read blogs in my 30s to actually learn what science is. WTF?

            –your wife, the eternal example 😉

            Reply
          • 8. Joyce  |  December 9, 2011 at 2:55 pm

            Two, dammit, it has two nuclei. You remember that bc it’s a “pair o’ mecium.” Stupid interface won’t let me go back and edit.

            Reply
    • 9. Joyce  |  December 9, 2011 at 3:43 pm

      You say, “Saying that a B.S. should dispense with requirements for courses outside a given major would make it much harder to change in midstream.”

      That assumes that the outside requirements in the first major are pertinent to the second major, which is not necessarily the case. If I switch from history to computer science, the biology core requirement is still irrelevant.

      And, honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not being able to finish in four years bc you’ve switched majors. A history degree takes four years; a comp sci degree takes four years; thus, a third of a history degree + a comp sci degree will naturally take more than four years. That’s simply a consequence of changing your mind. Besides, many people don’t finish their first choice of degree in four years, often due to those pesky, irrelevant core requirements. Insult to injury: not only can’t I graduate, I have to pay for another semester so I can take Philosophy of 5th Century Etruscan Underwater Basket-Weaving.

      Reply
  • 10. Barry Brown  |  December 8, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    This could take us down a very slippery slope. Who is to judge what material is BS? I think valid arguments about uselessness could be made about every course in a typical undergraduate education.

    Imagine if we had a crystal ball that allowed us to know exactly what occupation each student would have once they finished their education. We could customize a curriculum for each person that would teach them precisely what they needed to know to be able to do their job. We could start training them at an early age for the job we knew they’d eventually have.

    Wait. There are countries that do exactly that.

    Most of us reading this blog live in countries that allow us to choose our own occupational path. Who’s to say what courses will or will not eventually be needed? The best we can do is expose our students to a lot of different things and hope that a few of them turn out to be truly useful.

    Reply
    • 11. Bijan Parsia  |  December 8, 2011 at 9:41 pm

      Barry,

      I’m teaching in the UK but was trained in the US. I was shocked by the 3 year undergrad (you pick your major when you APPLY!?!?) and the 3 year PhD (no classes?!?!).

      But does the UK turn our systematically worse people and people with PhDs? It’s just not evident to me. Am I glad I took all the different things I took in college and grad school. Absolutely. But…I know people who would have been better off with less diversity.

      Hard problem 😦

      Reply
    • 12. Aaron Lanterman  |  December 8, 2011 at 10:08 pm

      Who is to judge what material is BS?

      In the college context I’m trying to focus on, that’s not a rhetorical question, even *within* a particular major. My School just fought an epic battle over revisions to our Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering undergrad programs. (Frankly, we largely just rearranged the furniture on the EE side. I think our new CompE is groundbreaking, though.) The answer, ultimately, consists of faculty (hopefully with input from industry and the community at large) in various departments, and beyond that, faculty working at the university level and people working at accrediting agencies. The closer someone is operating to their domain of expertise, the more I’m likely to trust their judgement about what a student does or doesn’t need. The further we are away from that, the more I’d prefer to put that power in the hands of the student.

      I think valid arguments about uselessness could be made about every course in a typical undergraduate education.

      I’m more often seeing people write the opposite; they pick a particular course and make an argument for its *usefulness.* If someone lived forever and had infinite resources, they could take them all. 😉

      Who’s to say what courses will or will not eventually be needed? The best we can do is expose our students to a lot of different things and hope that a few of them turn out to be truly useful.

      Again, your first sentence is not a rhetorical question. Time is a limited resource, for both the student and the professor, and everyone else involved in this endeavor. It’s nice to expose students to “lots of” different things, but it’s reasonable to liik more closely at what that means and the tradeoffs involved.

      Reply
    • 13. Joyce  |  December 15, 2011 at 1:18 am

      I don’t think Aaron is advocating any such narrow specialization. Why take out the BS only to add alternative BS? All he’s saying is to let the students major in their majors, and also take other stuff if they want, or not, if they don’t want.

      Reply
  • 14. Bijan Parsia  |  December 8, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    I have to give a bit “meh” to this.

    This is basically a UK undergraduate program. It’s fine. I feel it’s not ideal because it really does edge people toward the narrow which I don’t care for. (Switching programs is rather hard.) On the flip side, I don’t know that the UK college educated populace is any worse off in terms of general knowledge or understanding than the US one. (It wouldn’t have been awesome for me, but I was clearly not a remotely typical student.)

    When I taught philosophy in grad school, it was 90% people taking it as a core requirement. I had e.g., a pharmacy student making precisely this complaint (why should he have to take something he had no interest in?). I like to think that I did right by those students (and got some positive feedback to that effect), but who knows.

    I think the ability to focus more (a la the UK) whilst retaining or supporting some of the freedom of the US would be pretty damn good. (And how about 3 year PhDs! Manchester is just moving to a 4 year model, but really, are UK PhDs any worse than PhDs from anywhere else? Not overall, afaict. Do we have a higher failure rate? Not as far as I can tell. Why the 5++++ year PhD?!)

    However, I think the “save money” argument is rather crap. The insane cost of university is not due to core requirements in any straightforward way that I can tell. (Core requirements have stayed stable while tuition outpaced inflation…instructor salaries have not kept up with tuition.) Average length of college is growing even while, afaik, requirements for graduation is not going up. I’m all for shifting things around if they make sense, but I don’t want to make a change to solve a problem that change can’t solve. (So “You must to be able to argue that the class you are requiring is so vital, so essential, so irreplaceable, that a student should go deeper into debt – a particularly toxic kind of debt that is non-bankruptable – in order to take that class.” I say, “meh”. Usually the number of required courses is more or less fixed and we’re arguing on what fills those slots. Reduce the slots, fine!

    Similarly, “Looking in the other direction, I can find few legitimate arguments for requiring all students majoring in computer science to take chemistry, or even calculus, although I know I will be branded a heretic for saying so. One of the best Lecturers in our College of Computing almost didn’t make it through his undergraduate CS degree because of the calculus requirement. I sat in one of his classes, and can attest that he is an amazing teacher” Yeah, and we can find stories about people who would never have gone into X until they took a required course and found their passion. Numbers please! Effects at the margin, please! If you are going to demand clear and compelling arguments, provide them please! (Not that this absolves curriculum designers from providing proper arguments for their classes as well, natch.)

    Reply
    • 15. Aaron Lanterman  |  December 8, 2011 at 10:38 pm

      Hi Bijan,

      Thanks for your feedback. I’m thrilled that my posts have generated so much discussion.

      I confess I wasn’t familiar with the U.K. undergraduate degrees you are referring to. I need to look into that more. Three years??? I can’t fathom how that is possible, unless a B.S. in engineering there is less in a B.S. in engineering here. Georgia Tech’s EE and CompE degrees are dense; applying the “-bs” operator to our “B.S.” degrees wouldn’t actually trim that many classes. We’re currently trying to finalize our new curriculum, so I’ve been staring at the draft prereq chart a lot, and I’d be hard pressed to compress it into something less than four years because of the prereq chains if nothing else – and this is after making a conscious effort to shuffles topics in various classes to shorten those chains. Do students come out of U.K. high schools with vastly better preparation in math and science than in the U.S.? (That wouldn’t be hard, frankly.) If that’s true, I could imagine it working.

      When I taught philosophy in grad school, it was 90% people taking it as a core requirement. I had e.g., a pharmacy student making precisely this complaint (why should he have to take something he had no interest in?). I like to think that I did right by those students (and got some positive feedback to that effect), but who knows.

      I confess I probably have something of a – hmmm, I want to say “advantage,” but that’s not the right word – here, in that my department doesn’t have any classes that are required of non-engineering majors, and only a few required of non-ECE students. Biomedical Engineers have historically been required to take our sophomore “Introduction to Signal Processsing” class, and we have an “ECE for nonmajors” sort of class and associated lab that’s required of aerospace, mechanical, biomedical, etc. engineers. (I think the syllabus and lab assignments are outdated, and that they doesn’t serve any of those audiences particularly well, but that’s a topic for another day). So having to teach “draftees” isn’t in my experience set, although I’ve heard the laments of many friends in History graduate programs who pretty much only taught draftees.

      Just curious: What did you tell the pharmacy student? 🙂

      If you could have gotten the same stipend for teaching just the 10% who wanted to be there, would you have taken that option? What could you have done differently in such a class? (I realize we’re beyond apples-to-oranges comparisons and are more in the realm of toasters-to-lemurs.)

      Usually the number of required courses is more or less fixed and we’re arguing on what fills those slots. Reduce the slots, fine!

      Uhm, OK, I think we’re in mostly agreement then. So why is everyone arguing with me? 😉

      The issues surrounding the exploding cost of hire education deserves its own blog – and there are several out there, along with books, etc. My initial focus focused on tuition, but to some extent the money is a surrogate for another, more precious resource: time. Governmental monetary policy may fiddle with money, but time is zero-sum.

      Reply
      • 16. Bijan Parsia  |  December 9, 2011 at 2:25 am

        I confess I wasn’t familiar with the U.K. undergraduate degrees you are referring to.

        Funny! 🙂

        Three years??? I can’t fathom how that is possible, unless a B.S. in engineering there is less in a B.S. in engineering here. Georgia Tech’s EE and CompE degrees are dense; applying the “-bs” operator to our “B.S.” degrees wouldn’t actually trim that many classes.

        Whether its less or not is immaterial to whether it serves the students less (in a more general sense).

        The right questions to ask are:

        Is a random US college graduate (4 years; liberal arts) “more” or “less” educated than a random UK (3 years; focused). (And, of course, you have to determine the possible negative effects of being “less” educated”.)
        For any given major, is a random US college grad in that major (4 years + core) less well served over their lifetime by that education than a random UK college grad in that field

        As I said, when I came here I was shocked, shocked by the compression of time and the lack of breadth (classes are shorter too! my undergrad class is 2 hours of contact time a week than the standard 3 in the states…madnesss!!!). And a 3 year PhD!??!?!?!?!?!?

        But, in the end, the question is what the marginal gain is for more time.

        Do students come out of U.K. high schools with vastly better preparation in math and science than in the U.S.?

        I’d be surprised.

        In any case, I think starting from a comparison at this sort of level would provide a lot more insight and grounds for evaluation than the “Justify your coursssssssssssssse” line your original article made, esp. as you prima facie ruled out breath and roundedness as a consideration.

        (I think focusing on the precise pedagogic value of requirements, etc., is required, period. Presenting it as a way to deal with the cost problem just muddles the issue. (It is dramatic.) Some cases it is central, of course.)

        Just curious: What did you tell the pharmacy student?

        That it wasn’t my decision, but that having to take classes outside his core desire was not remotely an absurd design choice for a degree even if he didn’t see the value and then talked about what generalizable skills he could derive from my class.

        I don’t know what I would have said about an art history class. All the intro philosophy classes, regardless of their readings or subject matter (except for symbolic logic), emphasize the development of core analytical, argumentative, and writing skills.

        If you could have gotten the same stipend for teaching just the 10% who wanted to be there, would you have taken that option? What could you have done differently in such a class? (I realize we’re beyond apples-to-oranges comparisons and are more in the realm of toasters-to-lemurs.)

        Would I have wanted to teach some such courses, of course. Those were the sort of course I took. I’d also rather teach honors or graduate classes (up to some point) and smaller classes. And classes wherein I ended up collaborating on an awesome paper with each student. Would I have in principle wanted to avoid teaching the forced classes? Nope. Done well, which I like to think I did, they generally served the students pretty well. The pharmacy students was in the minority….of course that could just be brainwashing.

        Uhm, OK, I think we’re in mostly agreement then. So why is everyone arguing with me?

        Eh…no. I’m not sure which model (UK or US) is best or most cost effective (even just measured in time), but that’s a rational comparison with a natural experiment ready to hand. Your scoldy “YOU MUST HAVE HARD ARGUMENTS OF THE HIGHEST KINDS THAT YOUR COURSE IS WORTH THE MONEYYYSZZZZZZ” (to, er, present it in its full dignity :)) variant seems more provocative than first order useful.

        The issues surrounding the exploding cost of hire education deserves its own blog – and there are several out there, along with books, etc. My initial focus focused on tuition, but to some extent the money is a surrogate for another, more precious resource: time.

        Dude, please. If higher education were free the conversation would just be vastly different and this version of your argument would simply be null. (Extended education is a very useful way to delay entry into the workforce and certainly kinder than enforcing higher “natural rates” of unemployment, for example.)

        Let’s have the first order analysis first: Are breath requirements in or out of a major serving a useful educational purpose a) for most students, or b) for enough students (with little enough downside) to make them worth (educationally) imposing overall? (And here I mean purely: Do they produce useful learning outcomes, or are they just lost. These questions can be asked at EVERY level…e.g., within a given course!) Then we can ask, “Given the current structures, is there a cost that makes it worth while? Or would the savings moving to a more constricted curriculum merely delay the crises?”

        Reply
        • 17. Aaron Lanterman  |  December 13, 2011 at 1:33 am

          You and I value time differently.

          Reply
          • 18. Bijan Parsia  |  December 13, 2011 at 4:06 am

            Or perhaps we value non sequiturs differently.

            Are you saying that we value the time of students differently or we value the time of people trying to figure out whether a given educational arrangement is worth it differently or that, by our volume of posting, we value our own time differently?

            (A general note: I find it pretty annoying to have my beliefs and values inferred in this way and as below (“You are assuming…”). Base your case on what I’ve written not on what you believe you know about my psychology.)

            All I can guess is that this is in response to:

            Dude, please. If higher education were free the conversation would just be vastly different and this version of your argument would simply be null.

            But this is indisputably true. You didn’t make the time argument first, you made the money argument. People regularly trade time for money, so both are typically relevant to an assessment of cost. One way to assess the cost of an extra year of school is its affect on the lifetime earnings of the student (minus the direct and opportunity costs of that extra year). It’s not the only consideration, but it’s a major one.

            Reply
    • 19. Joyce  |  December 9, 2011 at 3:15 pm

      You say, “However, I think the “save money” argument is rather crap.”

      You are assuming full-time enrollment. A part time student pays per credit (in the US, I don’t know how it works in the UK). Thus, every time the part-timer pays their term bill, they are paying for whatever specific class they’re taking that semester. So regardless of whether the slot is for a degree requirement, a core requirement, or an elective, they’re paying for *that class*. And if it’s a class they have no interest in, and/or with no relationship to their chosen field of study, they are forced into buying something they don’t want. It’s not a “save money” argument so much as it is a consumer choice argument.

      Reply
      • 20. Bijan Parsia  |  December 10, 2011 at 6:54 pm

        Hi Joyce,

        First, my main concern with the money argument is that they were, as presenting, strongly suggesting that a major cost center for students were “general education” required courses (at the margin) in the current configuration in the US. The implication being that giving up such courses either would reduce costs (doubtful, if you just require more courses to be done in major) or be more over all cost effective (since students would get more desired bang for their buck).

        The first is weak absent a strong restructuring of the US degree to something like a UK degree (e.g., requiring fewer total credits). I’m pretty amazed that anti-“fluffers” seem to think that an engineering degree requires 4 years without the fluff when we have existence proofs otherwise. If we are shearing fluff, we should shear it regardless of where it occurs.

        Even then, the pedagogic argument really needs to be made first. If a degree with a breath component has (educational) value (not necessarily for each and every student, obviously, because not every student benefits sufficiently from *any* educational modality) then we should assess that value.

        The second is more prima facie plausible, but perhaps more dangerous because of that. The naive appeals to student desires are cherry picks: Students dislike all sorts of things about an education. Similarly, the great CS teacher who struggled with calculus is like the great CS teacher who failed the SAT: unfortunately, but unless they aren’t anomalies we shouldn’t change general practices (but rather keep an eye out for them).

        Re: Part time. I don’t quite understand your reasoning. The students, however they are billed, are purchasing a (chance to get a) degree. Whether they are explicitly billed per class or in a lump is presumably irrelevant (except insofar as shifting institutional requirements wrt part time is easier). In both cases, you’d be forcing them to pay for something they didn’t want/educating them in accordance to best practices (just to present the polar views).

        So, no, I don’t think I made any assumption about the part/full time status of the student.

        Aside from the inherent weakness of the money arguments thus far presented, I worry about it because it provides a distraction from the very serious cost problems students face. With tuition rising fast than inflation, no tweak around the edge will fix this forever (exploiting grad students and adjuncts, aside from being evil, only postpones the reckoning).

        Reply
        • 21. Joyce  |  December 16, 2011 at 4:50 pm

          “Whether they are explicitly billed per class or in a lump is presumably irrelevant (except insofar as shifting institutional requirements wrt part time is easier). ”

          Depends on the school. In some places, full time enrollment is a significant discount over per-credit payment. The full timers can take up to x number of courses under their lump-sum semester tuition; the part timer is paying for each course individually, which comes out to more than the lump sum over the long haul. Also, the part timer is paying student fees every semester, so every extra class they have to take is adding on hundreds of dollars of fees they wouldn’t have to pay otherwise.

          Finally, over the course of the part-timer’s longer stay in school, tuition will inevitably rise, so the classes they take at the end will cost more than the classes they took in the beginning (as an example, in the time since I started my master’s program in 2005, tuition has *doubled*). Adding extra, irrelevant classes to the degree requirements will correspondingly increase their time in school and the extra tuition they end up paying.

          Reply
          • 22. Bijan Parsia  |  December 16, 2011 at 4:57 pm

            Let me grant all this.

            It’s remains the case that in the context of tuition rising faster than inflation that this is a temporary bandaid rather than a solution. Sufficiently high tuition potentially makes any class an unreasonable burden. Distorting pedagogy to not solve a problem seems like a bad idea to me.

            Contrariwise, if a course is a waste then it’s a waste even if free.

            That’s my point about the cost issue being a bad argument. (Now, in so far as we can mobilize such an argument to spare particular students their individual burdens, we should! No doubt. But blaming core requirements that have remained largely stable (with lower teaching costs often as they are shifted to adjunct and PhD student instructors) gives aid to destructive forces.)

            Reply
            • 23. Joyce  |  December 16, 2011 at 5:12 pm

              Ah, I think I see what you’re saying here. And I’m not suggesting that we dispense with core requirements merely bc they cost money. I’m saying they are arbitrary and pointless, *and besides* they cost money. It certainly wouldn’t be valid as the only argument against them, but it is nevertheless, I feel, a valid argument, and one that resonates strongly with anyone who had to pay for their classes on their own.

              Reply
          • 24. Bijan Parsia  |  December 16, 2011 at 5:28 pm

            I agree that the cost issue makes “extra” classes more problematic, but then it seems straightfoward that they are bad whereever they occur.

            The UK has a 3 year undergrad program for most everything. AFAIK, there’s no evidence they come out worse trained physicists, computer scientists, etc. So why a 4 year major (as Aaron argues?)

            I want this conversation, but I think the first order question should be pedagogic and evidence based. I think student autonomy has pedagogic benefits and pedagogic problems and there are trade offs between them. I think breath both in and out of a major are useful, not primarily for selection issues, but because I think it’s important to understand and have some experience with alternative modes of intellectual endeavor. (A problem I regularly encounter with many students is that they just can’t imagine other modalities of investigation or evidence, much less mobilize them.) Similarly, I think there are a set of skills which everyone should have: (reading, writing, statistical reasoning at a basic level, argument, presentation and discussion skills etc. i.e., various forms of basic literacy).

            Now, how best to achieve these is, to my mind, an open question. In our program (a UK one), we try to incorporate some writing and presenting (for example). But we do it in a pretty crappy way, afaict.

            And, as I said, all curricula need to cater to the broad swath (and not harm too much the extremes) of students as we actually get them. Perhaps that’s by being tougher on requirements (i.e., less choice but better crafted requirements). Or just fewer requirements.

            The biggest challenge to my think about all this has been my UK experience: Fewer years, no breath, shorter classes (by far). And I’m hard pressed to argue that it’s worse in a material way, rather than merely different. It wouldn’t have been good for me, but I wasn’t typical.

            Reply
            • 25. Joyce  |  December 16, 2011 at 6:15 pm

              Well, now we’re getting into issues of how high school prepares students for college. I would argue that most of the things you’re talking about properly belong in high school. If kids can’t do this sort of thing, what are they doing in college? But that’s a whole separate blog entry–possibly even a whole separate blog!

              Reply
  • 26. Aaron Lanterman  |  December 8, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    Gah, I meant “higher education,” not “hire education.” (Yes, I’m obsessive.) Although in the context about discussions about whether a college degree should or shouldn’t be focused on someone getting job, it’s an appropriate typo. 😉

    Reply
  • 27. Jeff Rick  |  December 9, 2011 at 6:01 am

    Let me be controversial. We need more BS, not less. “It’s a class I teach” [well] and “it’s a topic I do research in” are the two best reasons I can think of for teaching a class. College faculty are knowledgeable and passionate about their fields. Why make them teach something that they do not want to and don’t feel passionate about? At that point, you’d be better off hiring people who just got their BS. Back to basics wastes your university’s biggest asset. Thinking back on my Georgia Tech experience, the two most important classes I took were “Mobile and Ubiquitous Computing” with Gregory Abowd and Thad Starner and “Educational Technology” with Janet Kolodner. Both were, to use your terminology, BS. They were not core to the field and neither was a required class. Both were taught by acknowledged experts in their field who were excited about sharing their insight and passion. My current research is at the intersection of ubiquitous computing and educational technology.

    Why do so many people change majors? Why are so many people unhappy with the degree that they have? Why do so many people work outside of what their degree is in? My guess is the dominant factor is a lack of passion. If your students graduate with a rock solid understanding of the subject but no passion for it, I would regard that as a failure.

    Reply
    • 28. Aaron Lanterman  |  December 9, 2011 at 2:11 pm

      Dear Rick,

      The Abowd & Kolonder classes you mention do not at all fit my definition of “bs,” relative to CoC’s current programs, since they are not *required* (other in the broadest sense that if you are some kind of CS major you have to take CS-ish classes, which is to be expected). If the only students taking the class are the ones who are interested in it enough to sign up, it is *not* “bs” by my limited definition. (I realize this is a bit slippery – students in EE generally are not happy with taking electromagnetics, i.e. they’d rather not sign up for it, but it’s not difficult to argue against its fundamental relevance to EE.)

      I teach two special topics courses, “Electronics for Music Synthesis” and “Multicore and GPU Programming for Video Games.” Neither is required, but I have no problems drawing an audience for either class. The former focuses on old-school 1960s/1970s style synthesizers, which provide a great vehicle for “contextualized” (to use Mark’s term) education about analog circuits. Both are project focused, and largely born out of my desire for students to do things that are “real,” or at least *seem* more real.

      I’m not focusing on whether a class should be *offered.* If you can get enough of an audience to pass whatever minimum-number-of-student threshold is needed to avoid your department beancounters canceling your class, and if you can get our colleagues to sign off on your special topics proposal (if needed by your department rules), go for it! The more the better!

      Irfan Essa’s courses on Computational Photography and Computational Journalism aren’t particularly “core,” but that doesn’t make them “bs” relative to traditional CS. They are awesome in their own right.

      it would be easy to imagine some new kind of degree called “Mobile Computing and Applications,” in which case requiring Starner’s class would make more sense, and it wouldn’t be “bs” relative to that “Mobile Computing and Applications” degree.

      You’ve made me realize that I need to be more precise in my definition of “bs.” I’ve spent a lot of time trying to clarify it relative to how fundamental it is to a particular field and trying to emphasize how it changes from field to field. But it also changes from student to student; it is relative to their interests as well. You interpreted my little rant as defining “bs = not core || required.” I meant it as “bs = not core && required.” I should refine that a bit — the “bs” variable may not be a boolean quantity.

      Perhaps “requirement” isn’t boolean either. Saying a student in degree program X must take specific class Y is a superstrong. requirement. Saying a student must in degree program X must take 2 our of 4 classes from list Z is a strong requirement. Saying a degree program X must take 20 classes in field X from the list of all the classes departments X, A, and B offer is a weak requirement. The higher the “requirement index” goes, the stronger your argument for that requirement needs to be, particularly if that requirement prevents a student from having time to sign up for a class they’d really dig, like mobile computing or educational technology.

      Reply
    • 29. Joyce  |  December 9, 2011 at 3:09 pm

      You say: “It’s a class I teach” [well] and “it’s a topic I do research in” are the two best reasons I can think of for teaching a class.

      Absolutely! But it’s not a good reason for making students take a class. Why make them study something that they do not want to and don’t feel passionate about?

      Reply
      • 30. Bonnie  |  December 11, 2011 at 4:35 pm

        Because the students might discover something they do feel passionate about?

        I hated math until I took calculus. My father forced me to take calculus. If I had not taken it, I would not have ended up as a math/CS major.

        The thing that amazes me when I do advising is the number of students who simply are not interested in *anything*. When I ask one of these students if he has thought about what he wants to take for a humanities requirements (for example), he will shrug and say “I don’t care”. How can you not care whether you take a literature course or an art history course??? The same student will have the same attitude on which history course, and even which computer science course. Software engineering or computer architecture? “I dunno, whatever I need I guess”. If we just went with what students are interested in, many students would simply end up taking nothing!!

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        • 31. Bijan Parsia  |  December 11, 2011 at 4:45 pm

          Great point. We can identify this as a pedagogic point of breath requirements: “to supports students in discovering their passion, even if they have no idea what it is”. There are weaker versions, e.g., “to understand other modalities of investigation/that there are other modalities, etc.” as well. I think these are, in fact, valuable. I remember my very logic oriented student being flummoxed by a “formal definition” from sociology. “But it has no math in it!?!?!” Exactly.

          Now, we can ask, 1) how effective are the current suite of general requirements at facilitating these goals and 2) what do they cost and thus 3) are the benefits worth the costs.

          If one superstar CS person is stymied, but 25-50% of the cohort is well served and the remainder is ok, that’s probably the right choice. If one now superstar Math/CS person (Bonnie!) is gained, but 25-50% of the cohort gets nothing and the rest get minimal benefit, then that’s probably the wrong choice (and vice versa).

          (I trust we all agree that in the absence of fully personalized learning, we have to accept poor fits around the margin.)

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          • 32. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  December 11, 2011 at 8:08 pm

            I was really surprised when I first got into discussions of general-ed requirements (many years ago) how many different ideas people had about the goals of general-education.

            Major selection was one of the goals (and some of the staff advisers thought it the most important one, since they had to deal with the students who had no idea what they wanted to major in).

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        • 33. Joyce  |  December 15, 2011 at 12:53 am

          You know why students don’t know what they’re interested in? Because they’ve spent their entire academic lives, from kindergarten onward, with no say in what they study. Of course they shrug and don’t care–the very idea that they should care, that they’re even *allowed* to care, and that their preferences will be honored, has never been part of their education. Instead of forcing more lack-of-choice on them, we need to push them to make their own choices, educate them in how to make good ones, and let them bear the consequences if they make bad ones. So they don’t take calculus–years later, when they need it, they’ll go, “darn, I should have taken calculus,” and then, because–surprise!–learning can continue after college, and even *outside* of college, they can go out and study some calculus. Or not. But that’s their decision. Or it should be.

          Furthermore, we need to question the wisdom of dumping kids willy-nilly into higher education if they have no clue what they’re doing there. If they truly don’t know what courses they want to take, even in their own major, clearly they should be figuring that out *before* shelling out tuition dollars to take a bunch of random courses on the off chance that they’ll find their passion in one of them.

          For that matter, passion is not a limited resource. You could have found a passion for any number of things, regardless of taking calculus. Your father forced you to take it, and congratulations, you’re a happy and fulfilled comp sci major. But if he hadn’t, you might well have become a happy and fulfilled linguistics major, or performing arts major, or plumber, or whatever. And then, because people don’t stay in the same career for their whole lives anymore, you might have gone back to school, taken some other related course, exclaimed, “hey, I like this, I think I’ll major in comp sci!” and then taken calculus *of your own free will*. It’s not like you had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to find your one and only passion, and undergrad calculus was the only path to it.

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          • 34. Mark Guzdial  |  December 15, 2011 at 11:24 am

            Of course, it could be that they don’t know what they’re interested in because they’re 18 and haven’t had enough experiences to know. I don’t think we “dump” kids into higher education — they have to apply and pay for it. And it seems to pay off, with higher incomes, more stable family life, and less unemployment.

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            • 35. Joyce  |  December 15, 2011 at 3:39 pm

              Mark, you say, “Of course, it could be that they don’t know what they’re interested in because they’re 18 and haven’t had enough experiences to know.”

              I think you vastly underestimate 18-year-olds. As does our preparatory education system, which consistently denies students the opportunities to *have* enough experiences to know what they like, or to make any decisions about it. If they spent their high school years, and earlier, seeing and helping real people doing real things, instead of sitting in classrooms being educated at, they might have a better idea of how to manage their own educations when they get to college, and lives when they get out.

              You also say, “I don’t think we “dump” kids into higher education — they have to apply and pay for it.”

              Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply “we” as academia, but rather “we” as society. The default assumption after high school has become college for a vast number of kids, most of whom have no idea what college is, how it is (or should be) different from high school, and what they can do there. But honestly, if academia as an institution is not “dumping” kids into higher ed (perhaps “dragging” is a better word), why are they accepting students with no declared majors, and only vaguely expressed career interests? Why is our entire model based on getting kids into college without any thought as to why they’re there?

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          • 36. Bijan Parsia  |  December 16, 2011 at 10:31 am

            Joyce,

            Because they’ve spent their entire academic lives, from kindergarten onward, with no say in what they study.

            Surely this is overstated. For example, from 6th grade on I had increasing numbers of elective slots. Even in a university with a strong core curriculum, there was a great deal of choice within the curriculum. I was far more limited by restrictions in the general set of offerings (e.g., courses offered every other year; courses that fulfilled requirements or were popular that got slurped up by seniors…).

            But let’s suppose that 18 year olds with suitable prior experience could, with guidance, fruitfully plot an undergraduate and postgraduate degree. Is this true of the current set? Isn’t your argument that students have been trained not to manage choice one against moving directly to a pure choice model at the university level?

            I’m still waiting for an account on at what level restricting student choice is reasonable. What about inside the “chosen” program? What about inside a chosen class? How do we distinguish disliked requirements which are disliked for good or for bad reasons?

            One thing that I’m finding working in the 3year UK PhD model, is that, on average, we need a heck of a lot more guidance than we are structurally set up to give (though, in our school, that’s changing a bit). I want to let them wander and find their own paths, but they often dislike it and often end up in the weeds. So I find I have to be quite directive early on until they get into the mode of operation.

            Can we get some statistics about student satisfaction with core curricula?

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            • 37. Joyce  |  December 16, 2011 at 12:25 pm

              Oh, there was some latitude in what electives one could take in high school. But we had well-meaning counselors chivvying us into what they thought would be good for us. Since my counselor barely knew me from Adam, among his several hundred charges, he pushed me into all the college prep and honors courses, regardless of my actual aptitude for or interest in them. I was the smart kid, I took smart classes, period. Never mind that I was completely lost in math, uninterested in chemistry, and didn’t know what the Advanced Placement classes were for. Smart kids take smart stuff. Later, I transferred to a school where the counselor knew even less about me: she saw a poor, smart kid with low ambition, so suggested I join the military. Because that what you did with poor, smart kids with low ambition (and, um, a problem with authority–I’d have been booted out of boot camp before you could say “insubordination”). I knew what kinds of things I liked to study, but had no idea how to parlay that into a career; instead of helping me figure that out, the counselors just pushed me into their preconceived slots.

              You could just attribute this to a few bad counselors, but I contend that it’s a symptom of the very problem Aaron is poking at. I’m not suggesting switching cold-turkey to a “pure choice model,” more that we need to give kids more opportunities to make their own choices, and more guidance in making them (real guidance, not “kid A in slot B” counseling) in high school, *before* it’s a real-life make or break situation. Then when they get to college, they’ll be more prepared to manage their own education.

              “I’m still waiting for an account on at what level restricting student choice is reasonable. What about inside the “chosen” program? What about inside a chosen class?”

              I don’t think Aaron is suggesting taking it to that fine a level; I certainly am not. I am fine with requirements inside a major–obviously the department of X has put some thought into what a major in X needs to study, and generally speaking I am happy to accept their wisdom on the matter. It’s a smaller group of people, making decisions *for* a smaller group of people, with a more fine-tuned approach. So far so good–this has been my experience both with my BA and my MA. What the OP is about (as far as I know), and what my own argument is about, is the random cruft that gets thrown in around the edges in the name of “well-roundedness.” Incidentally, have you gone back and read Aaron’s other posts? He has one that specifically addresses this question of well-roundedness: http://edupocalypsenow.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/the-spherical-student-sacrifices-on-the-altar-of-well-roundedness/

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            • 38. Mark Guzdial  |  December 16, 2011 at 1:31 pm

              I don’t know about statistics, but I do know Mike Hewner’s work on How CS Majors select a specialization. This is part of his dissertation work studying how CS students define “computer science,” and how that definition influences their educational choices. I’ve blogged about his work previously. In general, Mike finds that CS majors do not choose their elective courses based on what they want to learn or what they hope to prepare themselves for (e.g., what work they want to do). They pick the courses that they think that they will enjoy, based on what courses they have enjoyed in the past.

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          • 39. Bijan Parsia  |  December 16, 2011 at 4:28 pm

            Oh, there was some latitude in what electives one could take in high school. But we had well-meaning counselors chivvying us into what they thought would be good for us.

            Ok, this is a slightly different issue, yes? (And fwiw, I was, based on elementary school stuff, slotted into the “dumb kids” class (in spite of having being in Triad based on IQ testing) for 6th grade, then readjusted to smart kids class at 7th and got into a lot of trouble in 11th for hating our anti-intellectual replacement teacher, etc. Some parts worked out for me, and a lot of parts didn’t.)

            But there remains the fundamental problem of how, in the absence of full personalization, do we craft a curriculum that 1) deliverable and 2) well satisfies the pedagogic needs of enough of th/the right cohort of students for acceptable cost?

            I don’t think Aaron is suggesting taking it to that fine a level; I certainly am not. I am fine with requirements inside a major–obviously the department of X has put some thought into what a major in X needs to study, and generally speaking I am happy to accept their wisdom on the matter.

            Yes, I believe neither you nor Aaron were taking it to this level, but I want to know why not? It seems Aaron’s original argument runs as well against “pointless” requirements within a major as across majors. And within classes. Now, I’m willing to accept that while the line is fuzzy, there might be points where the issue is clear. But that’s a case that needs making, I think.

            I am fine with requirements inside a major–obviously the department of X has put some thought into what a major in X needs to study, and generally speaking I am happy to accept their wisdom on the matter. It’s a smaller group of people, making decisions *for* a smaller group of people, with a more fine-tuned approach. So far so good–this has been my experience both with my BA and my MA. What the OP is about (as far as I know), and what my own argument is about, is the random cruft that gets thrown in around the edges in the name of “well-roundedness.”

            I’m not sure why the smallest of the group matters per se…if the decision is pedagogically wrong, it’s wrong. We can argue whether having breath requirements achieve their goals; we can argue whether achieving those goals is worthwhile; we can argue whether some specific breath requirements achieve their goals: I’m for all of that. But that all turns on the particular merits of the cases without a general presumption that ones sort (in major) has gotten it right and another sort (outside the major) has gotten it wrong.

            At least, I don’t see the non-anecdotal evidence otherwise.

            Yes, I read the well-roundedness post. I found it pretty uncompelling, argumentatively. Essentially, it equivocates: Yes, different modalities of experience gives a kind of roundness that yet another classroom experience does not. Hence, extra curriculars, lab work, field work, performance, internships and industrial experience, projects, and years abroad. All of which universities offer precisely for what they bring.

            Presumably the current discussion is about academic or intellectual well roundedness. Falling in love and losing that love expands my experience and perhaps my wisdom, but it doesn’t substitue for having a basic grasp of statistical reasoning or critical analysis.

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            • 40. Joyce  |  December 16, 2011 at 5:07 pm

              “Yes, I believe neither you nor Aaron were taking it to this level, but I want to know why not? It seems Aaron’s original argument runs as well against “pointless” requirements within a major as across majors.’

              I guess because I haven’t run into any pointless requirements in any of my majors. 🙂 I am sure there must be some in other majors, and surely that ought to be addressed, but as I believe Aaron mentions, that’s a different order of problem, with a different scale and a different set of inherent assumptions.

              The size of the group matters because a large committee at the top of the academic food chain may never get near the students whose futures they’re deciding; and what they’re deciding is not “how can we make experts in field X?” but rather “how can we make…” I dunno, educated, responsible adults? Well-rounded citizens? What exactly are those core requirements supposed to be accomplishing? I feel that the scale is too big to even take on. Whereas the departmental committees determining major requirements are at least in the actual courses with the students they’re teaching, and can focus their subject matter expertise on what those students need to become an expert in their field.

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          • 41. Joyce  |  December 16, 2011 at 4:52 pm

            Also, why are we assuming that all incoming freshmen are 18? There are plenty of adult students returning to school after a hiatus. Surely the 25-, 35-, and 45-year-olds can be considered to have enough experience to know what they want? Yet they are subject to the same arbitrary set of core requirements.

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  • 42. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  December 10, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    A couple of years ago UCSC completely revamped their general education requirements (actually reducing them somewhat). The new requirements have pedagogical justifications and seem to me to be mostly well chosen. I think that there are still one or two that have more political than pedagogical justification, but it is much better than the older system which seemed designed more for spreading enrollment to all departments than actually providing an education.

    A brief overview of the requirements can be found at

    Click to access GenEdReqs.pdf

    More information about the reasoning behind the changes can be found at
    http://senate.ucsc.edu/archives/ge-reform/index.html

    Reply
  • […] Edupocalypse Now: Removing the BS from the BS (computinged.wordpress.com) Share:PrintEmailMoreTwitterDiggFacebookLinkedInStumbleUponRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Leave a Comment […]

    Reply
  • 46. Mike McCracken  |  December 11, 2011 at 3:57 am

    A short comment on the 3 year UK BS degree. We need to realize that UK students attend school prior to university for 13 years versus 12 years in the US. So, they get that extra year in high school and it covers the “bs” courses that we normally require in our 4 year programs.

    Reply
    • 47. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  December 12, 2011 at 2:33 pm

      With mandatory kindergarten in many states covering numbers and reading, much of the US now has 13 years before college also. It was also my impression that the last couple of years of British secondary education were more specialized than US high school education, so that the breadth courses are not really taught there either. (My information about UK education may be out of date.)

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      • 48. Bijan Parsia  |  December 12, 2011 at 8:46 pm

        Also, afaict, all the anti-BS people are still expecting a 4 year degree sans BS.

        I don’t have anything directly to do with Brit secondary education, nor any experience, but what I glean from the visit days is that students are studying pretty narrowly for their A-Levels. From what I can glean, the analogy between “year 13” in the UK and “year 12” in the US is exact. ( e.g., http://www.fulbright.co.uk/study-in-the-uk/k-12-study/uk-school-system ) I would expect US high school students could apply directly to a UK university. Let’s see,ok:

        http://www.manchester.ac.uk/international/country/name-14788-en.htm?page=2

        We require a minimum high school GPA of 3.0. We ask for SAT I Math, Verbal and Critical Writing, with a minimum score of 550 in each.

        We also ask for AP scores in three subjects with a minimum score of 3, but preferably 4 or 5. SAT II subject tests will be taken into consideration, however we prefer candidates to offer AP test scores.

        The UK operates a system of ‘conditional’ and ‘unconditional’ offers. If we want to make you an offer, but you have not yet taken your AP tests, then we would usually make you a conditional offer subject to you achieving certain AP scores. When you receive your scores, you should contact us with those scores and we will be able to confirm if you have met our conditions. If you have, your place will then become unconditional.

        So, basically, A-Levels roughly equal AP courses. That seems pretty exact. Mike, do you have some contrary evidence?

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        • 49. Bijan Parsia  |  December 12, 2011 at 8:47 pm

          I seem to be stuck on “glean” as well, I glean.

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        • 50. Mike McCracken  |  December 13, 2011 at 6:13 am

          Nope, in response to what was said except the following. When I first met with UK academics I quizzed them about how the heck do they do it in 3 years? They all had gone through the UK system and had kids doing the same. Their comment was that in the 13 years they get the same as our students in 12, plus their first year at university. That’s anecdotal and based upon a few conversations. I found out that their time at university was quite focused on their subject area with little to no “outside of major” courses.
          Part of it also could be the British arrogance (I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense) of their education (k-13) being more complete and thorough than ours.
          Mike

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          • 51. Bijan Parsia  |  December 13, 2011 at 6:23 am

            Yeah, I think that’s probably arrogance, or rather, a post-hoc explanation. I certainly don’t find the students to be all that distinguishable (albeit I don’t teach first years). I put more trust in the Manchester entry requirements.

            It is superduper focused. It still astonishes me, though I’ve become rather normalized to it after 5.5 years 🙂

            But again, I don’t notice that the output is clearly worse (or even clearly less generally educated) than a US one. I’m not a good comparison since I’m an intellectual packrat and autodidact and I switched fields. So its hard to say…

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  • 52. Barry Brown  |  December 17, 2011 at 12:24 am

    After posting my initial comment, I’ve been sitting back watching this discussion. It’s civil and enlightening — I like that about this blog.

    If I may offer the opinion of a bystander:

    Re: the 4-year US education vs the 3-year UK education. The discussion has been over whether the focussed UK student is any more or less educated than the breadth US one. We should not be considering the post-secondary education in isolation. That is, the argument should not be whether 3 focussed years is better or worse than 4 broad years. Rather, we should be looking at the education system as a whole. In the US, little distinction is made between “colleges” and “universities.” One educational institution is as likely to call itself one or the other. But my (limited) knowledge of the UK system is that college is something a student attends after high school (or prep school) and university is something a student attends after college. In other words, the UK student receives his or her breadth (aka, liberal) education in college whereas the US students gets it intermingled with the major. It appears to me that both students get the same education, just in a different order. Perhaps the two students are ultimately not so different.

    Re: the granularity of removing BS. I’m with Bijan (#39) on this one. The problem may be too big to tackle. If we’re going to talk about removing BS courses, we must also talk about removing BS content from the remaining ones. Imagine this situation: you have two universities, one on the semester system with two terms per year; the other that divides up the school year into 10 month-long periods. The latter might have a whole course on some “BS” subject, but in the semester university it’s just a 4-week unit in a much broader course. Both must be equally scrutinized. If you’re going to excise the “BS,” it’s gotta be ferreted out at all levels.

    And that, I’m afraid, takes us down a dark, ugly alley.

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    • 53. Aaron Lanterman  |  December 17, 2011 at 1:08 am

      Welcome back Barry! 🙂

      One thing I want to make clear is that I’m not advocating removing courses from the catalog entirely, per se. I’m advocating a good look at what students are required to take for some particular “degree” (interpreted broadly). If enough students are interested in taking a class to offer that class, then it’s not “bs” to *those* students, regardless of how “useful” or “useless” the general public might think it is.

      Some people have misinterpreted my writings as a call to eliminate philosophy departments, philosophy degrees, and/or philosophy courses, for instance. If enough students want a philosophy degree to justify running philosophy courses and having a philosophy department, that’s awesome! Or, even if an institution doesn’t offer philosophy degrees per se, maybe there’s still enough student interest in philosophy courses to have a philosophy department. Or perhaps there are only a few students interested in philosophy, but the institution feels that it’s important enough for those students to be able to take philosophy courses that the other units in the university essentially subsidize the philosophy department.

      You bring up an interesting point about the two-semester vs. 10-one-month scenario. My department just fought a long, dragged-out battle over a curriculum revision, and a good portion of the arguments would have been more easily settled if we were still on quarters. It would be much easier for the Electrical Engineering camp and the Computer Engineering camp to agree on a quarter course of what “all ECEs” should know about electromagnetics than to get them to agree on a full semester course of what “all ECEs” should know about electromagnetics. (In fact, a lot of the arguments we had in the past two years can be traced back to artifacts of the original quarter-to-semester conversion in the late 1990s, which many of my colleagues are still annoyed by.)

      Reply
      • 54. Alan Kay  |  December 17, 2011 at 10:16 am

        There is “News” and there is “New”. The first can be told quickly because it is incremental to what we know and usually is in terms of long understood categories: a “car crash” here, a “mugging” there, a “war” over this way in this form, etc.

        By definition “New” will be invisible or almost so.

        McLuhan said “Don’t ask whether it is true or false or right or wrong, try to find out what is going on”. He meant that we will always miss “New” if we immediately judge from what we know. We have to learn to suspend judgement and start poking around to try to generate enough perspectives to be able to even see “New”.

        So being super-smart, but in 10,000 BC, is not going to help one make wise choices in any modern context.

        This means that we need advice and more during development for learning any sets of ideas that are not strongly built into our genetic collection of interests. We are not going to invent Calculus for ourselves and then decide we should learn more about it (or not).

        We can argue about when — ideally — in development a learner will have accumulated enough perspective to make most of their own choices.

        We can also try to ascertain when most learners — really — accumulate this perspective, especially when it is made relative to the fact that they -also- live in a society that depends on them for part of its guidance and governance.

        We can — quite rightfully — wring our hands over how badly so many educational institutions are at coming up with “advice and choices” for those who haven’t gained enough perspective — including teaching how to gain more perspectives.

        But separated out this way, it is pretty easy to conclude that most young learners really need deep guidance -and- that those charged with the important role of providing guidance should do a lot better.

        Reply

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