I pose to you today a question that I wish for you to consider, as you re-enter your classrooms and dormrooms and lecture halls (that is, if, you, like me, are a university student; else, perhaps as you send your sons and daughters and friends back to such similiar places).

What is the price of a good education?

It is true, of course, that on some level a good education has no price. For knowledge is both priceless and infinitely valuable.

But this is not how, for all intents and purposes, we are taught to think in pragmatic life, or at least not at our present state and nation; and this you must surely know, for even public schooling is not truly free, paid for students in the form of taxes and subsidies and other pecuniary means. Budget cuts, tax increases: these are the buzzwords we often hear in the political arena with respect to education. I, for one, loyal to my liberal stance, default to protest the cut of funding for schools and cheer programs to increase its quality. Yet at what point may we say, STOP? and when must we say, GO?

I am an undergraduate of Columbia University, surely among the most expensive educations in the world. The raw cost of 1 year’s tuition is $45,028.00; with financial aid and scholarship, it becomes incrementally more affordable, but even so, an enormous sum (and not all Universities provide such great financial support). Surely, at this price, my education must be nonparallel; and in some ways, this is in fact true, and I am extremely fortunate.

But if we may read the quality of education as proportional to its price, and thusly say that this is truly the highest quality of education that humanity can provide at this moment, than I reply that humanity must be in a very sorry state indeed.

In the first 2 days of courses this semester I can already count 2 classrooms that had not enough seats for students; 3 that were over-registered. In one class more than 10 students sat on the floor for the duration of the nearly 2 hour lecture below the vision of the professor; in another, students were encouraged to sit on window ledges rather than crowd the aisles on a day of 7°F wind chills.

This is one of the highest price tags for education in the world; and if at 45,028.00 dollars we cannot provide even the bare essentials for students (a place to sit and the ability to both see and hear the lesson), it frightens me to hear at what tuition hike this may be proposed feasible.

I have, of course, no definite answers, and my question of price is less about money than to suggest a point about the usage of that money and the approach that the society in which I live takes to approach the education question. It is a question that, as a student, one has a responsibility to ponder, and that I hope to explore, and I ask you to do the same.

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As I sit here working on a project in lieu of going to class for the umpteenth time, I realized with sudden clarity that perhaps the current way that Computer Science is taught in universities is not the optimal way. Large lecture halls, clunky languages– it’s a bad sign when even a die-hard “learning for learning’s sake” student skips class on a regular basis.

anyway, a few thoughts on how I would change the structure of Computer Science courses to maximize efficiency + interest and minimize pain:

STOP TEACHING JAVA.

Seriously. I have never, ever been required to interview in a specific language at any company (even the “big names”), and if the people you’re talking to are deadset on Java, you probably don’t want to work there anyway. C is a much, much better “lower” level language for really grasping the way programming works, and Python is a much, much more fun language if you want to lower the barriers to entry and get students making things right away.

MAKE GRADES ENTIRELY PROJECT BASED FOR NON-THEORETICAL CLASSES

For classes like data structures, advanced programming, OOP, etc., etc. students tend to learn a great deal more and invest much more time and interest in coding projects. These should be the heart of the course, and is what matters in “the real world”, anyway. No one’s going to give you a bonus for remembering the difference between inheritance and polymorphism: let’s face it, you’d take the 5 seconds to Google the
definitions and move on. Big projects, tight deadlines, collaboration: this is where the real learning is.

IF YOU MUST MAKE STUDENTS TAKE EXAMS, STOP ASKING LANGUAGE-SPECIFIC SYNTATICAL QUESTIONS

In my opinion, you should not administer written exams in technical classes (see above). However, if you must, for heaven’s sake, please, please do not ask us things like the difference between strcmp and strncmp. Sometimes coding by hand with pencil and paper is good practice for interviews, but the code should be judged for logic and not syntax. Exams should be theory-based. Technical evaluations should be project-based. EOM.

IF YOU MUST HAVE LECTURE COURSES, PLEASE LIMIT THE SIZE OF THE CLASS

Size matters. This one is a given. Of course small seminars are best, but it’s understandable that budget might not allow for it. Lectures for intro courses only, and please, please try to cap them: there is a huge difference in ambiance and quality of learning between a lecture of 50 and of 250. I’m talking to you, Columbia. When I’m in a room with 300 other students learning about the difference between * argv[] and ** argv I immediately want to fall asleep or eat.

THAT’S ALL I CAN THINK OF FOR NOW.

then again, it’s entirely my fault for taking up class time to write in English instead of C++.

P.S.: Shout out to everyone in AP lecture who’s on Facebook right now. Hello! Now I feel less guilty for skipping class. At least I’m “working” in the library.

P.P.S.: For the record, I do believe that Jae is a great professor and administers valid albeit perhaps too difficult exams. Personally, I enjoy tough exams (sink or swim time/everyone failed so I feel less bad for not studying). The main clincher here is a) the size of lecture (TOO BIG) and b) little grade weight on projects. Neither of these can really be blamed entirely on the professor, cough *administration* cough cough

P.P.P.S.: Yes, perhaps strcmp and strncmp + polymorphism are not the best examples, as esp. the polymorphism question is more theoretically important. But you get the gist of the idea.

P.P.P.P.S. It is probably true that if I took 10 minutes to edit my posts I would not have to use postscripts, but what’s the fun in that?

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I’m going to make this short and sweet because I am techinically in Ethics recitation right now but 8 pm is way too late for any non-nocturnal attention span, in my opnion.

A few months ago I wrote a few thoughts on Coursera and other online learning companies. You can read my critique here and also the thoughts of another writer. In short, I argued that the idea of free knowledge is highly valueable, however virtual learning can never replace the priceless benefits of human-to-human interaction, and points to a serious need to raise the quality of university education.

At the time, I had never taken any online courses before or tried any of the programs. On principle I almost always prefer to speak with and learn from people in the flesh, and tend to be attracted to traditional modes of communication (paperback over e-book, etc.).

Fast forward to midterm season, where I suddenly find myself knee-deep in upcoming tests and no idea whatsoever of what the heck Gaussian-Jordan Elmination or the column space of a matrix is. My Linear Algebra professor, although incredibly well-meaning and intelligent, has a thick accent and ultimately a teaching style I just can’t swallow. In come Kahn Academy and MIT Open Courseware to the rescue– concise, clear lectures (including those by the author of the textbook!) available on re-wind and at my desk. 5 hours of youTube videos later, my problem set no longer looks like a headache in matrix form.

I don’t recant any of the things I previously stated. All the issues that I brought up remain unsolved. However, the potential of virtual education may be greater– and more exciting– than I previously imagined, and neither scary nor robotic. If there’s a topic you need brushing up on or a subject that intruiges you, definitely don’t hesitate to give it a try. This does not mean, however, that we need do away with the concrete classroom environment, only that both areas of education (virtual and traditional) remain endlessly improvable.

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Here’s another writer’s words on why online learning can never replace the physical classroom. I’m in line with his theory, although, like I stated the other day, professors and institutions leave much to be desired in improving the quality of higher education.

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Yesterday, Coursera, an online learning company founded by two Stanford scientists, announced its plans to expand and include additional major research universities. Naturally, this article  drew a slew of comments, reigning from praise to outright condemnation.

Since I am a very impatient person with a natural distaste for politics (who also believes that any newspaper article that has more than one page could be condensed and rewritten), I’m not going to attempt to make some highfalutin, well-constructed argument for or against online education. Instead, I’m just going to give my general feelings towards this debate, formed from my experience (paying thousands upon thousands of dollars) at an Ivy-League institution (institution also being one of my least favorite words in the English language).

Here’s my two cents:
I am a big fan of open-source anything (the Hacker in me) and the idea of making education more transparent and accessible is wonderful, especially if that means we can narrow the education/socio-economic gap and help dissipate the notion of academics as a privilege for the elite.

Ultimately, the discussion surrounding Coursera and online courses seems to point to a big question mark: what is the point of pouring one’s life savings into education when, theoretically, you could get “the milk for free”?

The answer in my mind is, in theory, clear: the money put into schooling is never, ever simply for the lecture notes, but more than anything, the human interactions that one makes. Having the Powerpoints of a Noble Prize-winning professor is no where near the same as going to his/her office hours or even hearing his/her voice live and being able to ask questions. Online education is great for gaining technical skills and a godsend for those short on resources, but it can never replace the value of human contact. Of course an Ivy-League education is worth the price tag: that alone, in addition to being surrounded by some of the most intelligent and motivated students in the world, is more than enough.

Yet I am not sure if I can wholeheartedly stand by the statement. My first semester at Columbia’s Engineering school was miserable– filled with huge introductory lectures taught by professors whose brilliance did not necessarily translate to teaching. The required introductory course for all first-year Engineers was both boring and disorganized and furthermore felt useless (what use was modeling gears in Auto-Cad to Chemical Engineering (my interest at the time), or Computer Science (what I do now)? ). I am fortunate to have found a field of study that I can genuinely say that I am passionate about, yet had it not been for a last minute decision to sign up for introductory Java, that may have never happened. Moreover, and more significantly, had the professor not been Adam Cannon, whose class is often considered one of Columbia’s best, I may have found Computer Science to be just as tedious and uninteresting as I did Chemistry, which I feel is both unfair and untrue about the subject.

Hopefully, the discussion about Coursera will direct attention not only to the benefits of online learning, but more urgently, the flaws of the current state of tertiary education that we pay so much for, especially in the fields of science and engineering. The small discussion seminars constituting Columbia College’s Liberal Arts “Core” are almost universally viewed by students as positive and community-building experiences. The two that I elected to take were genuinely thought-provoking and I feel have had a huge influence on my character. Why should a student who prefers science be subjected to years of lectures and problem sets? All students benefit from interactive environments. In fact, I argue that scientists are even more opinionated and vocal about their beliefs and interests. I think I’d rather be sentenced to hell in an eternal argument between a radical liberal and a Right-wing conservative than Emacs versus Vim.

To close the knowledge gap by raising the value of virtual education while lowering the quality of live teaching is a phenomenon that benefits no one. Online tools are a great innovation, and ought to be viewed as a challenge for traditional schooling to step up to its price tag, rather than a make-do substitute for the real thing.

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