Monday, July 4, 2011

Universities are Important

I'm going a little bit off the topic of this blog in this post, but since most of the research in computational intelligence is done at universities it's still relevant. In a post at the blog, Nathan Furr discusses four myths on why universities don't matter anymore (they do). The most salient are the top three:

1) You can teach yourself everything
2) You can teach yourself everything online
3) I don't use anything I learned at college

In regards to 1) and 2), from my own experience some students do think that: one comment on a course evaluation for the data processing course I taught in 2003 was along the lines of "this course doesn't teach anything that an enterprising student couldn't learn online". The counterpoint to that is that if they hadn't done my course, they wouldn't know what they would need to teach themselves. In other words, they wouldn't know that they didn't know.

In regards to number 3, people who say that probably just don't realise that they are using stuff they learned at university. In my own case, my undergraduate education is in software engineering and systems development, my PhD is in computational intelligence, and now I do research in ecological modelling. With every project I do in ecological modelling, I have been able to apply what I learned as either an undergrad or during my PhD.

I've spent my professional life working at universities, and I will be the first to admit that, like every human enterprise, they have their flaws: I've seen people promoted because of their political skill rather than their research, teaching skill, or managerial ability, only to have them run their departments into the ground. I've seen people build entire careers on a single piece of research, then spend the rest of their lives giving the same talk over and over again. But universities do far more useful things than bad things, so they are worth keeping around.


  1. I agree with these thoughts, but then what do we know about students who drop out/move on at various stages in a university course? Does academic failure mean that the amount learned, no matter how little, has no value for a student in their future life? Should the role of universities as social playgrounds for students be criticized or praised? Do alumni associations know enough about the general population of ex-students, including all those who do not go far in university?

  2. Peter, those are some very good questions. From my own experiences as a student and a teacher, I can offer some thoughts.

    Firstly, why do students drop out or fail? I managed to fail a couple of courses during my undergrad career. The reason I failed them is because I didn't work hard enough at them. And the main reason I didn't work hard at those courses, was because I'd lost interest in the subject (chemistry). At the same time, I was expanding my interest in computing, so it worked out fairly well in the end.

    From my experience teaching, I think there are two reasons people fail. The first is as I mentioned above, that people lose interest and don't want to put the work in to pass. The second is a lack of academic ability. This was especially apparent in the second year course I taught: there were several people in that course each year that really shouldn't have been at university.

    I'm ambivalent about the social aspect of university. I was never very sociable as an undergrad, but that has more to do with my personality than the environment. I did socialise a lot more as a postgrad, but not enough that it affected my work. I do think that students need stress relief, and the whole "social playground" aspect helps with that.

    My experience with alumni associations has been pretty unimpressive. I get sent a magazine by them every few months, and the occasional begging letter asking for donations. I really don't think they could tell anything useful about why people drop out - they're more interested in getting money out of alumni.


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