Bad Computer Science Lecturers

This article first appeared in DNA here.

IN my previous column, I asserted that our local Computer Science (CS) programmes were efficient generators of garbage. Lecturers are a critical part of the process and are also one of the nine areas of programme quality monitored by the accreditation process.

Academic staff quality is accredited in various terms such as staff-to-student ratio, staff development programmes, staff balance, merit recognition, equitable workload distribution, appraisals and awards, etc. All these human resource matters leave much to be desired and do not address real staff quality.

Technically speaking, the role of a lecturer in tertiary education is actually quite limited. University education is about independent learning and the job of a lecturer is not to teach but to facilitate learning and more importantly, to inspire students.

Here, things fall short again.

Many lecturers have little to no industrial experience, often joining the profession right out of school and earning their graduate degrees along the way. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. But these lecturers rarely inspire as they have neither war stories to share nor battle scars to show.

More importantly, they fail to bridge abstract theory with real-world practice. Someone without any experience working in a software team on a product would have trouble instilling good development practices as they would have difficulty communicating the complexities involved.

There is a saying that goes: “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

There are some who belief that modern Computer Science graduates should focus on and work at a higher level of abstraction that is closer to the problem. However, I feel that fundamental knowledge about the inner workings of technologies will ultimately result in a better grasp of the higher level problems.

Unfortunately, lecturers with weak fundamentals cannot help unravel the deep complexities of modern technology. They lack the capacity to facilitate learning and are unable to impart knowledge. These lecturers often read directly from books or slides as they have little knowledge of their own.

This becomes a vicious cycle with each subsequent generation of graduates knowing less than their predecessors, while having to handle increasingly complex problems. This is ultimately not sustainable. To cope, graduates must think fast on their feet and learn on the job, which require thinking skills.

However, many do little to promote higher order thinking. Some pay lip service to Bloom’s taxonomy by setting exam questions in a certain way, using certain terms, to get students to think different. But this actually discourages thinking as students simply evolve better pattern-matching skills.

Students are rarely encouraged to challenge the lecturer during lectures, tutorials are reduced to tuition classes for tackling exam questions, and lab sessions turn into a set of procedures to be rigidly followed. University becomes a mere extension of high school.

I am not even going to go into the culture of giving ‘tips’. Examination tips seem to have become de rigeur in lecturer-student relations at universities. Some lecturers are guilty of giving tips and some students are equally guilty of being dependent on tips.

That said, modern-day lecturers are caught between a rock and a hard place. There is a lot of pressure being placed on them as they are sandwiched between the students and the university management. In order to satisfy both sides, academic quality is often sacrificed.

On one hand, university management needs to maintain student numbers and increase profits. While this is primarily an issue in private universities, public universities are also being encouraged to increase revenue generation, to become self-sufficient and to reduce their dependency on public funds.

On the other hand, students want to get by with as little effort as possible, preferably without having to go the extra mile to learn. While it is only human to choose the path of least resistance, years of rote learning in schools and instant gratification in their lives have made things worse.

Woe upon the lecturer who challenges and fails an entire class. Very few students would want to attend a university that is infamous for failing students. Lecturers are asked to justify high failure rates and stand to lose their jobs if their programmes are cut due to insufficient student numbers.

Hence, the safest way to satisfy everyone would be to allow students to coast through the course with the barest minimum of ‘standards’. Ensuring a high pass rate would keep both students and university management happy, and lecturers get a sense of job security.

I’d like to suggest that we reduce pure academics at universities and recruit more people with real-world jobs who have a passion to teach. These people can bridge theory with practice and are less concerned with job security and tenure. I would even go further to suggest the recruitment of candidates outside of traditional Computer Science backgrounds to further enrich the programme.

I know that this is a problem within the Malaysian framework but it is something worth looking into. For starters, it might be useful to get these people in as tutors first – to run tutorials and lab sessions in their individual ways.

It would be a win for everyone involved – tutor, lecturer, student, university and the nation.

Published by

Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

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