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.

Published by

Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered/Professional Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

One thought on “Bad Computer Science Programmes”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s