Dot Physics

This Week in Tech on Education

In this WEEK in TECH episode 197 there was a pretty good discussion about education and the university system. In case you are not familiar with TWiT, it is a tech-based podcast with Leo Laporte (from the old Screen Savers show). If you want to listen to their discussion, it starts about half-way through the podcast. Here is what I find interesting – these are mostly tech-oriented people (there was one person in education) but they can clearly see some of the problems with the educational system. I think the following quote sums up their ideas pretty well (can’t recall which twit said it):

College is a great place to spend 4 years and get older.

Unfortunately, that is what many people get out of college – age. So, should we get rid of universities? I don’t think so, but we should not do things just to get and give grades. Grades are really kind of dumb. Students (and even some faculty) seem to focus on grades as the whole point of a college degree, but I don’t think so. Grades are really just a way to some how “certify” what students have done. They do a poor job even at this. Some faculty use grades as a motivation for learning, but this doesn’t really work either.

So, what do I think about university level education? How should it work? I really don’t know, but here are a few random thoughts.

  • First, the university should be an environment for a community of learners. Even the faculty are learners – this is obvious when it comes to research. Research is a key component of a university, if done correctly. Research can contribute to student learning when they participate in research (actually, I think this is when they learn the most). Also, research contributes to the scientific community.
  • Get rid of grades. I don’t know how, but do it.
  • Eliminate any course that could be done by a robot. If the main purpose of the course is to memorize, regurgitate on a test and then forget, cancel it. A robot could do this much better.
  • Stop with the obedience stuff. I see this a lot. Some faculty and students think college is all about doing what your are told. I don’t want to be an authority, let evidence and research be the authority. I welcome different types of thinking, you don’t have to answer a question the way I say to.
  • Don’t use technology just to use it. Another thing I see a lot. Oh look! We put this stuff on BlackBoard, therefore we are using technology. The same goes for those stupid smart boards. Maybe they are cool, but do they improve learning?

Ok. That is enough. Really, I just wanted to mention the this WEEK in TECH episode. Check it out.


  1. #1 Jasper Palfree
    June 5, 2009

    I agree with your random thoughts. In particular, about getting rid of grades. I read a neat article on just that subject. Not only does it explain the adverse effects grading has on students, but it also gives suggestions to convert universities to a “no grade” system. You might want to check it out:

  2. #2 Matt Leifer
    June 5, 2009

    The live version of this TWiT episode also included a short discussion of the problems with science after the recording had finished, which was also interesting.

    As for the education discussion, I think the main problem is that the financial incentives for universities are stacked against providing a good quality eduction to students. Until this changes, I cannot see the situation changing. For example:

    • Universities have an incentive to pack classes with too many students because they get a higher ratio of fees to number of faculty members. Therefore most classes are too large for effective interactive teaching.

    • Students, despite being the consumers of education, seem to want to go to the most prestigious universities, which often have the worst teaching conditions. They have to pay higher fees for this “privilege”. The majority of the research conducted at these institutions, to which their prestige is due, is not accessible to them until they are in grad school in any case, so “prestige” is a very bad reason for choosing a university.

    • A large number of students don’t really go to university to learn, but rather they are interested in getting a piece of paper that will further their chosen career. So long as they come out of it with a high grade they are happy. This is largely the fault of employers who demand such qualifications. Therefore, universities do not have an incentive to improve teaching because these students are not demanding it.

    • Career incentives for faculty are highly weighted towards performing “original research”, which in practice just means maximizing the number of papers in high impact journals. This is partly due to historical reasons, but primarily due to the fact that such research brings in extra funding for the university, which is not obtainable via other scholarly activities such as teaching. Therefore, faculty have an incentive to take short-cuts in their teaching, which is what the current grading regime is all about. They also have incentives to take short-cuts in their research, by orienting their program towards publishability rather than genuine interest.

    All these reasons may seem like old hat, but financial pressures exert overwhelming influence in modern western society, so you cannot really fix the problem unless you find a way of making them push in the opposite direction.

  3. #3 Uncle Al
    June 5, 2009

    the university should be an environment for a community of learners The university was a place for the wealthy to send their otherwise worthless offspring to make social contacts and thereafter continue to impress a feudal contract upon society at large: fraternities; Yale. University as technical institute began after WWII and massively accelerated after Sputnik. Quoting Lord Byron at length won’t get you real world orbital bombing capability – as NASA political appointees have repeatedly demonstrated.

    Technical people are infinitely fungible. They identify themselves as their jobs not as their storied surnames. Academic grant funding and industrial research are both administered by centralized professional management granting themselves performance bonuses for process not product. A business plan is submitted with PERT charts and spreadsheets. Zero risk is tolerated. Discovery is insubordination. The future is thus absolutely assured in a tightly administered managerial environment. Deeetroit comes to mind, as do Bell Labs/Lucent and Wall Street. Robert McNamara departed Deeetroit (Ford’s “Whiz Kids”) to run Vietnam (into the ground) by the book.

    First, social engineering exits public education as does psychobabble, psychopharma, and smothering administrative layers. Reinstate US education from 1836 (McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer) through the 1960s – sit down, shut up, learn – in English. Even 19th century immigrant Irish learned English. Teachers who do not produce are fired. Second, install intensive standardized testing for intelligence (IQ) and achievement (e.g., New York Regents exams, Iowa exams). Third, reinstate the four tracks – Gifted (no more than top 2%), academic, commercial (including trades!), and retarded. Education is manufacture. It has specifications, unit operations, quality assurance, and optimization. It has dumpsters, too.

    Fourth: If you don’t have a market for your goods, why are you manufacturing them? Even the retarded can be trained to sweep floors. We are not passengers on Spaceship Earth, we are crew. Save the drama for yer mama; get down and PUSH. (The Marines are dripping BAMs. Kill a maggot in Basic and it’s a scandal. How the mighty have fallen.)