TITLE: Verdict Is In On One OOPSLA Submission AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 09, 2008 8:03 AM DESC: ----- BODY: The verdict is in on the paper we wrote at ChiliPLoP and submitted to Onward!: rejected. (We are still waiting to hear back on our Educators' Symposium submission.) The reviews of our Onward! paper were mostly on mark, both on surface features (e.g., our list of references was weak) and on the deeper ideas we offer (e.g., questions about the history of studio approaches, and questions about how the costs will scale). We knew that this submission was risky; our time was simply too short to afford enough iterations and legwork to produce a good enough paper for Onward!. I found it interesting that the most negative reviewer recommended the paper for acceptance. This reviewer was clearly engaged by the idea of our paper and ended up writing the most thorough, thoughtful review, challenging many of our assumptions along the way. I'd love to have the chance to engage this person in conversation at the conference. For now, I'll have to settle for pointing out some of the more colorful and interesting bits of the review. In at least one regard, this reviewer holds the traditional view about university education. When it comes to the "significant body of knowledge that is more or less standard and that everyone in the field should acquire at some point in time", "the current lecture plus problem sets approach is a substantially more efficient and thorough way to do this." Agreed. But isn't it more efficient to give the students a book to read? A full prof or even a TA standing in a big room is an expensive way to demonstrate standard bodies of knowledge. Lecture made more sense when books and other written material were scarce and expensive. Most evidence on learning is that lecture is actually much less effective than we professors (and the students who do well in lecture courses) tend to think. The reviewer does offer one alternative to lecture: "setting up a competition based on mastery of these skills". Actually, this approach is consistent with the spirit of our paper's studio-based, apprenticeship-based, and project-based. Small teams working to improve their skills in order to win a competition could well inhabit the studio. Our paper tended to overemphasize the softer collaboration of an idyllic large-scale team. This comment fascinated me:
Another issue is that this approach, in comparison with standard approaches, emphasizes work over thinking. In comparison with doing, for example, graph theory or computational complexity proofs, software development has a much lower ratio of thought to work. An undergraduate education should maximize this ratio.
Because I write a blog called Knowing and Doing, you might imagine that I think highly of the interplay between working and thinking. The reviewer has a point: an education centered on projects in a studio must be certain to engage students with the deep theoretical material of the discipline, because it is that material which provides the foundation for everything we do and which enables us to do and create new things. I am skeptical of the notion that an undergrad education should maximize the ratio of thinking to doing, because thinking unfettered by doing tends to drift off into an ether of unreality. However, I do agree that we must try to achieve an appropriate balance between thinking and doing, and that a project-based approach will tend to list toward doing. One comment by the reviewer reveals that he or she is a researcher, not a practitioner:
In my undergraduate education I tried to avoid any course that involved significant software development (once I had obtained a basic mastery of programming). I believe this is generally appropriate for undergraduates.
Imagine the product of an English department saying, "In my undergraduate education I tried to avoid any course that involved significant composition (once I had obtained a basic mastery of grammar and syntax). I believe this is generally appropriate for undergraduates." I doubt this person would make much of a writer. He or she might be well prepared, though, to teach lit-crit theory at a university. Most of my students go into industry, and I encourage them to take as many courses as they can in which they will build serious pieces of software with intellectual content. The mixture of thinking and doing stretches them and keeps them honest. An education system that produces both practitioners and theoreticians must walk a strange line. One of the goals of our paper was to argue that a studio approach could do a better job of producing both researchers and practitioners than our current system, which often seems to do only a middling job by trying to cater to both audiences. I agree wholeheartedly, though, with this observation:
A great strength of the American system is that it keeps people's options open until very late, maximizing the ability of society to recognize and obtain the benefits of placing able people in positions where they can be maximally productive. In my view this is worth the lack of focus.
My colleagues and I need to sharpen our focus so that we can communicate more effectively the notion that a system based on apprenticeship and projects in a studio can, in fact, help learners develop as researchers and as practitioners better than a traditional classroom approach. The reviewer's closing comment expresses rather starkly the challenge we face in advocating a new approach to undergraduate education:
In summary, the paper advocates a return to an archaic system that was abandoned in the sciences for good reason, namely the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the advocated system in transmitting the required basic foundational information to people entering the field. The write-up itself reflects naive assumptions about the group and individual dynamics that are required to make the approach succeed. I would support some of the proposed activities as part of an undergraduate education, but not as the primary approach.
The fact that so many university educators and graduates believe our current system exists in its current form because it is more efficient and effective than the alternatives -- and that it was designed intentionally for these reasons -- is a substantial cultural obstacle to any reform. Such is the challenge. We owe this reviewer our gratitude for laying out the issues so well. In closing, I can't resist quoting one last passage from this review, for my friends in the other sciences:
The problem with putting students with no mastery of the basics into an apprenticeship position is that, at least in computer science, they are largely useless. (This is less true in sciences such as biology and chemistry, which involve shallower ideas and more menial activities. But even in these sciences, it is more efficient to teach students the basics outside of an apprenticeship situation.)
The serious truth behind this comment is the one that explains why building an effective computer science research program around undergraduates can be so difficult. The jocular truth behind it is that, well, CS is just plain deeper and harder! (I'll duck now.) -----