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.

Post-GE13 Fatigue

Damn.

It’s practically a week since GE13 and I’m still tired and exhausted. To be fair, I’ve not had much rest since last Sunday. I had to welcome two new interns on Tuesday and catch up with a pile of work at the office over the week. Then, this weekend I have both Company and Criminal Law classes on both days.

I’ll be spending half of the next five weeks in Penang. I’ve still got a boat-load of work to do and I hope that I’ll be able to get some of it done while in Penang. Then, it’s cruch time for Law as revision week and exam season comes in Jun-Sept. I’ve got a lot of studying to catch up on too.

My new product is also on a tight schedule. It’s supposed to be built over Q2-Q3 this year. I’m targeting a Q4 release. It’s been delayed so long that if I delay it any further, it’s just going to die a natural death. I’ve got a team of 8 to manage closely for this product.

I need a break but I don’t think that I’ll be getting one until the end of the year.

Sigh.

Post-GE13 Thoughts

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It’s been three days after our 13th general elections (GE13).

While I do not claim to know what people think, I do know that Malaysians from all walks of life, across all racial groups, are coming together to express our distaste at how we have been denied the change that we sorely need and crave. The rakyat’s anger is very real and palpable. There are many people who know that they have been robbed of the government of their choice. Those who feel that GE13 was free of fraud, need only take a look at their left index finger.

For this alone the Elections Commission (EC) should resign en-bloc instead of saying that they will use a more long-lasting indelible ink for GE14. Honestly, I would not trust any of them with my poop, much less the sanctity and security of my vote. There are just so many voting irregularities reported across the nation. The one that stares everyone in the face is that of the less than indelible ink, which was supposed to stain for a week but was washable within minutes.

Once the world’s largest ethnically Chinese political party outside of China, the MCA is essentially a dead duck. It fared badly in GE13 with its top leaders scraping past their opponents with the narrowest of margins. The president chose to blame the Chinese for abandoning them instead of asking why. No amount of Viagra is going to help him rise up from this one. The knives are already out.

The fact that our dearest PM without a mandate, invented the term ‘Chinese Tsunami’ to blame the disastrous results on a particular racial group, would just quicken his political demise. Instead of being the leader of a nation divided, he chose to make irresponsible statements to stoke racial tensions. He continues to live in denial of the fact that it is impossible for a minority group to deny him a mandate.

His mentor – our ex-former PM Tun Dr Mahathir – blames pins the failings on both ‘ungrateful’ Chinese and ‘greedy’ Malays. At least he acknowledges that it takes more than just the Chinese minority, who only make up 25% of the population, to deny the BN the popular vote. But it’s not nice to label people as ungrateful and greedy just because they don’t like you.

As usual, in the discussion of national politics, the Indians and other ethnic minorities usually get left out. The MIC leader won with a razor thin margin of only merely 80 votes. I know that the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) would not have been able to make inroads into Sabah and Sarawak without the support of the natives there. So, it would seem that the majority of Malaysians have abandoned the BN regardless of race.

But amongst all this hate, I am glad for one thing – GE13 recorded a voter turnout of 85%. My fellow Malaysians have shown that while we may be tidak apa about a lot of things, we do care enough about the future of our country that we are willing to come out to make ourselves heard at the ballot box and boy, did we make a loud noise last weekend.

This gives me hope.

Finally, I ask – what’s up in Lahad Datu? I hope that they have not been forgotten in this mad scramble for power. I wonder if the ‘bad guys’ have been caught or are they still running around in the jungles of Sabah wreaking havoc.

Bad Computer Science Programmes

This article first appeared in DNA.

I sent drafts of my previous article to the Deans of several local Computer Science (CS) faculties for comment. One expressed reservation in labelling it bad CS programmes as they are all accredited by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA). Therefore, none of them are bad per se.

I would have to humbly disagree.

But first, I browsed through several documents – the Malaysian Qualifications Framework (MQF)i, Code of Practice for Institutional Audit (COPIA)ii, Code of Practice for Programme Accreditation(COPPA)iii and the Programme Standards for Computing (PSC)iv, to gain an insight into how programmes are accredited.

Briefly, the MQF provides the structural classification for all academic programmes in Malaysia such as the levels of qualifications from Certificate to Doctoral levels, with their associated learning outcomes, credit system and other criteria.

When the Code of Practice documents are read together, they constitute a check-list of items that must be furnished and questions that must be answered when preparing accreditation documents. They include standard forms that need to be submitted with guidelines for completing them.

The PSC specifies details for each course to fulfill these requirements. Among other things, it also suggests credit hours allocated to various compulsory, core and elective modules; and also lists down the core knowledge areas to be covered by the syllabus.

Taken together, these documents form a complete template for running quality academic programmes, except for one minor detail.

In my opinion, the trouble with accreditation is that the process of tertiary education is largely treated like a production process for manufacturing graduates. As a result, graduate quality becomes tied to process quality. A good programme is then one that has good processes in place.

Of the nine areas of programme quality, only one is concerned with curriculum. Rather, it is mainly concerned with the processes by which the curriculum is designed, monitored, modified, etc. The other area of student assessment suffers from a similar deficiency – being largely process focused.

The accreditation process itself is time and resource limited, often conducted by senior members of academia who are likely busy with many other commitments. With so many quality areas to cover, it comes as no surprise that curriculum content does not necessarily get the coverage that it deserves.

The curriculum itself often has minimal industry input, often only via a small advisory panel meeting annually. The PSC document itself was largely authored by academics. We cannot expect lecturers, who often have limited to no industry experience, to comprehend the needs of the industry.

Unfortunately, some schools make the other mistake of tailoring their curriculum to fit specific industry needs, producing job ready candidates that often focus on tools rather than fundamentals. These graduates will make perfect hires for one, and one job only.

Furthermore, accreditation cycles occur every few years. In an industry where the life-cycle of a technology could be mere months, we cannot expect traditional academic programmes to keep up. By the time a new syllabus clears the necessary hurdles, it’s already out of date.

Curriculum is the core input to the whole process – garbage-in, garbage-out.

As a result, we have universities running high quality programmes with efficient processes that churn out garbage. While I may have singled out MQA in this column, it’s by no means the only culprit in the system. If it is blame that we want to assign, there is more than enough of it to go around.

One may argue that having an accreditation process in place, flawed as it may be, is far better than a free-for-all where any college can offer bogus degrees. The flip-side to this is that a flawed accreditation process risks giving a false sense of security to students who sign up for the programme.

However, my concern is with the curriculum, not the accreditation process.

In the spirit of peer-to-peer, I would suggest that we flip the whole curriculum equation from one where the academics decide on content based on stake-holder input, often leaving out the largest group of stake-holders in the process, to one where the students get to decide what they want to learn.

Instead of a model where a fixed curriculum is shoved down our collective throats, let us turn our universities into places where students can directly take part in the continuous evolution of the syllabus and have the freedom to tailor their learning based on individual needs.

This shifts the burden to the undergraduates themselves in the hope that instead of being mere passive receivers of knowledge, they would take responsibility for their own education, becoming active learners, and be forced to think about and chart their own course.

A silly idea, perhaps. However, it is the future of education today.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of some close friends and former colleagues, I will talk about the people who teach undergraduate programmes in my next column.

One Too Many Computer Science Programmes?

This article first appeared on Digital News Asia here.

I started writing this article, wondering if there were one too many Computer Science (CS) degree programmes in Malaysia. My gut feel was that there were definitely too many CS programmes in Malaysia but I needed to get my facts straight first.

Looking up the institutions listed in the latest MQA Rating System for Higher Education Institutions in Malaysia for 2011 (SETARA’11) ratings, I found that the vast majority had actual CS degree programmes advertised on their websites while others had CS-related ones (e.g. Computing, Computer Engineering, etc) with the exception of a few specialist universities such as medical and teaching ones.

So, it is safe to say that almost every university and university college in Malaysia has one. This does not surprise me as CS is a relatively cheaper course to run, with less capital expenditure needed for physical infrastructure, unlike some other engineering or science programmes that need expensive lab facilities.

While there is certainly no lack of choice for anyone interested in earning a CS/CS-related degree in Malaysia, I asked myself whether these programmes were meeting market demand. If there were too many CS programmes, one would imagine that there would be a large number of unemployed CS graduates as supply exceeds demand.

Based on the results of the Graduates Tracer Study for 2011 released by the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE), ICT graduates were no more employable nor unemployable than their peers from other fields. Out of every four ICT graduates, one remained unemployed after graduation while two others were fully employed within a 3-4 month period.

According to the ICT Job Market Outlook report released by the National ICT Association of Malaysia (PIKOM) in 2012, the future for ICT graduates seems exceedingly bright. The average salaries for ICT professionals have been steadily rising and that, overall, only the oil & gas sector pays more on average.

One would think that people should be clamouring for places due to the above average pay and the growing job market. Therefore, it did not make any sense that there were still so many who remained unemployed after graduation. Also, according to the same report, ICT job numbers grew at an average of about 27,000 a year over the 2005-2011 period. Something must be amiss.

However, the report also claimed that the quantity of graduates is declining with just under 75,000 enrolments in 2011. With about 27,000 jobs being created each year, there are only enough vacancies to employ less than half of those graduating. Therefore, it is natural that most of those graduating will not be able to find employment in the industry.

Furthermore, the report suggested that not all these graduates end up working in the computing line as there are surely those who end up joining other industries. However, the fact that a full quarter of ICT graduates had difficulty securing employment was a rather alarming figure to me.

While there may not be enough jobs locally, our graduates could surely gain employment elsewhere. In fact, some of these graduates do eventually leave our country for better opportunities elsewhere and the ones who leave are also inadvertently more fluent in English, as is highlighted by the report.

The said report also highlighted that the quality of graduates is declining, and the MSC Malaysia Talent Supply-Demand Study 2010 – 2013 said that less than 30% of employers believe that their fresh hires are of good quality. While our job market may be growing, our graduates are less capable of meeting the requirements of the job. As a result, they are fast becoming unemployable.

From both the studies and the report, I have to say that we have an acute problem. While it is not difficult to hire people, it is very difficult to hire good people, which is corroborated with the situation on the ground. What the entire industry sorely needs is brains, but what we get are mostly bodies. For some reason, our universities are not graduating the right kind of people.

I have to also point out that it is not the duty of a university to produce job-ready products for the market but to nurture critical thinkers and creative doers. Unfortunately, the same report mentions that our graduates are lacking such traits amongst other things, and recommends that our government review the entire education system.

Therefore, the real problem is that we have one too many bad CS programmes in our country.

Naturally, after confirming that a problem exists, the next question that I’d ask myself is this: whose fault is it anyway? In my next column, I intend to look at where the faults lie – systemic flaws, teachers’ failures, student apathy, and the role of parents and industry in all of this.