Learning vs Graduating

In light of the decision by University of Malaya (UM) to warn, fine and suspend some of its students for organising and participating in an unapproved event, I felt that I needed to say a few things about this whole idea that undergrads should focus on studying and graduating.

As a former lecturer, this is the crux of the problem that results in our universities producing mediocre to downright unemployable graduates that are tidak boleh pakai in the real world.

Our education system is plagued with this sad mentality that is education is equivalent to certification, which it isn’t. Therefore, we have school students who are capable of scoring strings of A’s but are unable to actually understand what it is that they are supposed to have been taught in school, much less apply their knowledge.

This problem is exacerbated at universities, which are supposed to be institutions of higher learning but are relegated to extensions of high school tuition centres these days. The ideology behind tertiery education as expounded by our authorities is that the students should study first and graduate, then worry about the real world.

What is really needed is the ideology that university education isn’t about studying but rather learning, specifically self-learning. However, students these days are no longer capable of learning due to the policy in our education system.

If a lecturer goes to class and does not provide a set of prepared notes and slides, the students are at a loss. Some would whip out their smart-phones to record lectures and take pictures of the lecturer’s scratches on the board. That’ll help with studying, but not learning.

I once tried to encourage learning by providing a reading list instead of notes, and talking in class instead of writing on the board. The result was that half the class failed the course and signed a complaint letter to the dean.

They even fail when it comes to extra-curricular activities. Where in the past I raised RM10,000+ from external corporate sponsorship to run student activities, the students these days tend to rely almost completely on internal grants to run their activities.

The thing is, our graduates are useless because they have been treated like children for far too long. University should be a safe place for them to experiment and explore with independence. They need to be given the opportunity to learn for themselves and do things for themselves. In simple terms – to grow up.

This is why I think that the decision from UM to suspend students who show any sign of independence is downright stupid. Now, keep in mind that these students are not your typical mat rempit troublemakers. Most of them are what would be considered good students with good grades and strong extra-curricular activities. All future leaders.

However, the message that we are sending is that we’d like the students to limit their extra-curricular activities to only the approved list of cultural and recreational activities. Any sort of serious activities need to be organised with great caution.

The fact of the matter is that the university panicked. Anyone looking from the outside could immediately see that. Then, they victimised the students in order to cover up their sheer incompetence. That’s the way that I see it, at least.

Years of promoting mediocrity has resulted in the upper management of the university being manned by people who are unable to think outside the box in tackling the students. Therefore, they have had to resort to the only tool that they have at their disposal – oppression.

Undergraduates need to be given the room to explore and expand in all ways, which includes exploring sensitive issues. If they are not allowed to do it, their development would be stunted. A university should be a little petri dish, giving the students a way to safely try things out.

Now, our undergraduates have learned that the university will take a sledgehammer to force the dough through the cookie-cutter. What the university fails to realise is that the sledgehammer would damage the cookie-cutter when used this way.

Anyway, I’m just rambling now.

I hope that the students who have been suspended will take the opportunity to play a more active role in civil society and student activism. Honestly, they have plenty of spare time on their hands now. They could view this as a form of extended internship which would help the months to pass faster.

Bad Computer Science Students

computer science students at the airport
computer science students at the airport (Photo credit: stefanx80)

This article first appeared on DNA, here.

IT would not be fair to just rant about the education system and bad teaching quality, as in my previous columns, without pointing out problems with the most important component – students themselves.

I would say that of all the factors that affect Computer Science programmes, this is the most crucial.

While student selection is one of the areas accredited by the MQA (Malaysian Qualifications Agency), the criteria is largely concerned with fairness and preventing arbitrariness, and ensuring that students have the necessary entry qualifications. The assumption is that students will compete to enter a programme that they want and will therefore work for it.

However, if I were to walk into any Computer Science faculty in the country today and ask the students if they wanted to be a Computer Scientist after they graduated, I would be surprised if more than a handful says β€˜yes.’

If I were to ask the rest for the reason that they applied to study Computer Science, the answers would just sadden me.

As a result, there is very little passion among Computer Science students for their choice of study. While the exact relationship between passion and success is not entirely clear, every successful person attributes passion as key to their success.

That is all that I wish to say about passion as there are a lot of comments on this elsewhere.

What surprises me further is that many students do not seem to realise that they need to take ownership of their life. If they don’t care about their future, nobody else will. But most students seem happy to simply coast along with the aim of merely passing the course.

Again, this is a general issue that seems to plague the young, and I will not comment further on it.

What I wish to talk about are things that a student needs in order to take an active role in determining their own future.

Students need to realise that university curricula can barely keep up with the developments in the field as things move too quickly while accredited teaching processes do not. However, that is no excuse and it is still essential for a student to keep abreast with the latest happenings in the field.

Therefore, all Computer Science students need to be capable of independent learning, beyond the standard curriculum. While learning fundamentals is critical, it is not the only thing worth learning. Having depth of knowledge in a specific domain is also very useful.

The fact that computers are in every aspect of our lives just makes this much easier for Computer Science. All a student needs to do is to pick something that interests him or her personally and to keep track of the latest developments in that area. This is also a great way to instil passion.

For students who love biology but ended up in Computer Science, take a look at developments in genetics and computational biology. For those who like cars, it might be useful to learn about 3D dashboards and self-driving cars. If a student likes fashion, it might be fun to learn about augmented reality and body area networks. The list goes on.

While future employers do not expect students to be experts in the domain, being in touch with them demonstrates that the student has an interest in it.

Then comes the learning. The best way to learn any skill is to put it into practice. Just choose something interesting and start tinkering.

While this is nearly impossible and possibly illegal in many other professions, it is highly encouraged in Computer Science. There is no excuse for not being involved in some personal project or open-source project – big or small. Facebook started as a personal project.

While not everyone is destined to be Mark Zuckerberg, such projects help build up core analytical and thinking skills plus language expertise and development process experience. These are all important skills that help guarantee future success.

One can often learn more in a failed project than by merely reading a textbook.

In fact, I will go so far as to suggest that all students should publicly publish their work for review and critique. This may be difficult in certain fields but a github account is all that is needed for the modern Computer Science student to do so. Soliciting honest criticism is the best way to improve ourselves.

Unfortunately, our students are usually too ‘shy’ to show off their work and learn less in the process.

Computer Science is not just about data structures and algorithms. It is not about Java or C/C++ either. The good news for all those students who have no interest in the field is this: It is important to realise that Computer Science is not all about programming and abstractions. Those are just tools.

Computers have a very real presence in our daily lives and are becoming more important by the day. It is just as crucial to learn how to use the correct tools to solve specific human problems in different domains.

Computers are present in every domain of human endeavour and a Computer Science student can be useful everywhere.

So, instead of just coasting along and hoping for the best, students should take a pro-active role and take charge of their lives. Computer Science gives students unprecedented freedom to experience and experiment with the real-world, unavailable in any other field.

Carpe diem.

Questionable SETARA 2011

Malaysian Qualifications Agency
Malaysian Qualifications Agency (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our local Malaysian ranking for undergrad teaching quality of local universities, SETARA, was recently released. I thought that it would be fun to check it out to see how things have changed since the last ranking exercise.

Some universities that improved tremendously from SETARA09 to SETARA11 are:

  • Binary University of Management and Entrepreneurship – vaulted from Tier 3 (Good) in to Tier 5 (Excellent).
  • Wawasan Open University, Open University Malaysia, SEGi University – parachuted in at Tier 5 (Excellent) from being previously unranked.
  • TATi University College, University Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia, Universiti Malaysia Kelantan – moved into Tier 4 (Very Good) from being previously unranked.

Needless to say, I was shocked.

I don’t know the detailed criteria nor methodology that was used during the survey but it shocked me that some of the universities that made it to Tier 5 (Excellent) were not what I would have expected. Granted, I am no expert in local universities nor their standards but some of the results just beggar belief.

I’m not trying to single anyone out but, two of these Tier 5 universities are classified as open and distance learning institutions. I do not understand how they could achieve excellent teaching quality when the students are not even in the same room as the lecturer. I know that internet based learning is all the craze these days but even places like MIT do not consider their open learning systems at par with their in-house teaching, yet.

Some of the other Tier 5 universities are virtual unknowns. Again, I do not claim to know all the universities in Malaysia (there are just too many to keep track of these days) but some of them are total unknowns. Some are even the butt of many jokes on education quality in Malaysia, the kind of university that you would not want people to know that your child was attending.

Furthermore, more than half of the universities ranked are of Tier 5 level while there is only one university at Tier 3 (Good). I would have expected something like this to be more normally distributed as it was in SETARA09. When I see such heavily skewed results, I tend to question the accuracy of the study. Something just does not smell right to me, statistically speaking. It’s highly improbable that the majority of institutions is Excellent.

Brings to mind an XKCD comic:

My personal opinion of this is that some of these Tier 5 universities must have gamed the system. I do not blame them for doing that though, as the SETARA rankings affect many aspects of a university including fees. Nobody would want to pay top dollar to study in a Tier 4 university when they can study in a Tier 5 one for cheap. So, I expect some of these virtual unknowns to raise their fees next year!

I hope that the MQA would take the effort to toughen and tighten the criteria for ranking in the next exercise. We need a ranking system that truly reflects the teaching quality of local universities. It would serve as a useful guide to parents, only if they actually trust the accuracy of the exercise. I don’t think that any parent would agree that more than half our local universities are Excellent!

I think that a lot of people who see the list would think and start to question the SETARA rankings and methodology. While I agree that there are always flaws within any sort of ranking system, when this happens, it will become more fodder for local coffee shop talk. We know that some of these Tier 5 universities deserve to be there while others are downright questionable.

Personally, I’m not going to even bother with SETARA11. I’ll stick to the more normally distributed SETARA09 rankings for now.