The Dumb get Dumber

Saturday, 16 August 2014

People are talking a lot about the income inequality these days. After seeing Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Wealth Gap (HBO), I began to think about the inequality that academia faces.

There are some universities out there that are good, they teach their students something useful, put them through a rigorous and relevant program and work towards building a community that encourages growth and exploration. Then there are "universities" that aren't really universities. These "universities" are business organizations that sell certificates. I go to one such place.

My university is bad, so bad that its unique in how crap it is. The courses that are taught using books over ten years old (not updated). Most lecturers just copy and paste slides from other universities (making sure to change the original author's name to theirs). Students are forced through a curricula that neither prepares them for work nor further study. Don't believe me? Read on.

Now, I study Computer Science. One of the most important courses in Computer Science is Functional Programming. It is imperative to our understanding of approaches in which problems are solved. This course is nowhere to be found, instead you will see that our course structure is littered with random Physics, Biology and Chemistry courses. You want Machine Learning? Not here. You want awesome courses like Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs? Not here. We have three programming courses, Introduction to Computer Science (Intro), Object Oriented Programming (OO) and Data Structures (DS). Intro is taught in C, OO in Java and DS in C++. See python anywhere?

This gives you very little time to actually adapt to any language, or learn its features in depth. You cannot choose to do the above mentioned courses in any other language other than the one designated by the instructor. After these courses, few courses require any form of strong programming knowledge. You're rushed into several semesters of Math (not discrete), Physics, Chemistry. You are taught tons of irrelevant material. Consequently, your actual field becomes something that you need to be acquainted with on your own time as you fight through five or six circuit courses.

Even in the courses where you should be writing code, you don't. Take compilers course for example, the last time the course was taught, the instructor finished the entire syllabus (its the same as MIT's compiler's syllabus, heck they just copied it) in seven lessons. Just seven. The people who finished the course can't even write a parser for a simple DSL. Most courses are exam heavy with anywhere between six to ten quizzes in three months time with two mid term exams and a final (which is often comprehensive). There are just a handful of courses that give you any substantial amount of project work. Most courses have lab work that isn't even relevant to the course.

Even for electrical engineering majors, most of their equipment don't work. We have four oscilloscopes in our EEE lab, and none of them work. There's a constant shortage of connecting wires (I kid you not) and they don't even have access to some of the more expensive equipment that's needed. CS students actually have it good, they can learn from other sources, and a computer is all they need to get rolling.

Put this in contrast to CMU's course structure, which is relevant to its field. Its not a degree in "Loads of random science and circuits crap", the course structure actually reflects the name of the degree. Not only are the courses relevant and up to date, the courses are also interestingly taught. Most courses have over 60% allotted to projects so by the time you graduate, you have a lot of projects that reflect your ability to make things; a portfolio.

Recently, I had a conversation with a senior lecturer from the University of Toronto. He was describing with great enthusiasm the way he teaches his courses. So, describing an operating systems course, he was talking how he helps students transition from writing applications where one can default back to the operating system, to writing applications where they are the programmers have to rely completely on themselves.

Describing an interesting course, that was both interactive and rewarding. I asked him, if I could have the lecture videos, and he promptly said "No, I don't record them". Soon, with furrowed eyebrows he relayed that he doesn't give 'lectures'. That got me thinking, I asked him, "What do you mean?". So, again with enthusiasm he describes how he teaches the course, with a discussion based approach. He talked about how he'd get students to work together, how he'd ask them questions to get started. He'd give them assignments, and readings to complete and in the actual class room, he'd ask his students what problems they had, and the discussions would begin.

This would be great because more often than not, students don't need a lecture, they can just read up what's in the book, then simply ask questions to sharpen their understanding on the topic. However, the professors at my university are not overly concerned with student understanding, they just teach their courses, take their copious exams and then they are done with it all.

This is one of the main reasons I've had to resort to the internet for most of my education. I've had to combine online courses with StackOverflow and IRC channels. I've met a lot of people in the process, I've learnt a lot too. Right now, I'm a lot more comfortable with learning on my own, that I'd prefer to drop out of university entirely if it were not tantamount to social suicide.

In short, I can get better education for free than the education that I pay for. I feel like I'm flushing my parents' hard earned money down a drain. Every semester, I fork thick wads of notes to a banker that gives me a slip, issuing me permission to take courses that are neither relevant nor appropriately taught.

So, I as well as many other students here are falling behind.

I initially thought, that the instructors were to blame. They aren't. One instructor for example has to take four different courses. They usually come to the university at 8 AM and leave at 6 PM. Life is tough. Couple that with the very different courses that they have to teach. One instructor has to teach compilers, intro, algorithms and data structures one after another, back to back. He's also a father and a husband.

The real beneficiaries of this system are the people who made the "university". They spend little on hiring teachers and even less on necessary equipment. Recently they forced the creation of a new grading system that's causing more students to fail than ever before. At one point this university was great, it hired the best it could get its hand on, and gave them free reign on what they wanted to do; now its just a greedy organization bent on making our lives miserable, and our futures bleak (while milking us for all we're worth).

Unlike financial inequality, the inequalities that surface because of a lack of proper education are a lot more harmful because they are a lot more complex. If a nation doesn't have money, then you can provide them aid, but a chronic deficiency in an education system will like render a nation and its people a crippling blow. Why? Because learning is more about passing courses or getting grades, its about the formation of mindsets. Mindsets, mentalities and ideologies take a life time to form, and hence once they've been badly damaged, they are very difficult to fix.

Take my university for example, students here have a 'pass exams' mentality, with no actual interest in what it is that they're learning (not that I blame them). This is quickly followed by a 'make it to America' mentality, and then eventually, 'get a high paying job' mentality. Were you to ask anyone what they aspire to here in this country, the highest that you will encounter will be "I want to work at google". There is no love for independence here, or discovery.

If you have a broken leg, you can limp. If you have a broken ribs, they will heal. If you have a broke hand you will use your other hand. But what happens when your mind and spirit are both broken and you don't even know?

Well, that's the status of most students here. I just hope that I can do something in time to fix it.