TITLE: Problem-Based Universities and Other Radical Changes AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 05, 2009 3:37 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Last week, every administrator at my university seemed to be talking about Mark Taylor's End the University as We Know It. Like many other universities, we have been examining pretty much everything we do in light of significant changes in the economy (including, for public universities, drastic reductions in state funding) and demographics. Taylor, a department chair in a humanities department at Columbia University, starts with a critique of graduate programs, which he contends produce a product few need because they also provide an essential commodity for the modern university: cheap teaching labor that frees faculty to do research. From here, he asserts that American higher education should undergo a radical transformation and proposes six steps in the direction he thinks best. The second proposal caught my attention:
Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs.
In recent years I have developed a strong belief in the value of project-based education, especially in CS courses. I also have a fondness for the idea of problem-based learning which Owen Astrachan has been touting for some time now. I think of these as having at least one valuable attribute in common: students do something real in context where they have to make real decisions. Taylor proposes that we build the university of today not around permanent discipline-specific departments but evolving programs centered on "zones of inquiry", Big Problems that matter across disciplines. When I discussed this idea with my provost, I told him that I was fortunate: my discipline, Computer Science, will have a role to play in most every problem-focused program for the foreseeable future. Talk about job security! This idea may sound wonderful, but there are risks. As Michael Mitzenmacher points out, you still need discipline-specific expertise. Taylor's offers as an example a program built around pressing issues related to water, which would ...
... bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture.
To do that, you need people with expertise in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences, medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Where will these experts come from? Taylor doesn't say as much, but there is a hint in his article, and in others like it, that collaborative work on big problems is all that we need. But I wonder how such a university would prepare students who would become the next generation of experts in the arts, sciences, and professions, let alone the next generation of researchers who will discover the ideas and create the tools we need to solve the big problems. I don't suppose there is any reason in principle that a university in such way could not prepare experts, and my Inner Devil's Advocate is already working on ways that it might succeed swimmingly. But I get a little worried whenever I hear people talking about making radical changes to complex systems without having considered explicitly all of the story. This particular risk is at the front of my mind because we face the same risk, at a different scale, when we create problem- and project-focused curricula. There is a natural tension between depth in the discipline and working in the context of a specific application or other domain. If I build an intro programming course around, say, media computation or biology, will students learn all of the CS they should learn in that course? Some time will be spent on images and sounds, or on DNA and amino acid base pairs, and that is time not spent on procedures, arrays, pointers, and big-O analysis. I am well aware that adding more content to a course does not mean that everyone will get it all. But some do, and maybe those are the people who will be the experts of the future? We have used media computation as a theme in a few sections of our intro course over the last four years, and we observe this tension in the results. Some students get just what we want them to get out of the theme: motivation to dig deep, experiment, and discuss important ideas. Others don't connect with the theme, and they just end up knowing less CS-specific content. The prof who has taught this course most often is beginning to see ways in which he can trade back some of the context for opportunities to program in other contexts, which may hit a broader variety of students than a pure media comp course. When I think about how this trade-off would scale to the level of an entire university in programs that bring together eight, twelve, or twenty disciplines, I realize that we would need to think carefully before proceeding too far. Perhaps Taylor hopes that his article will cause faculty and administration to begin the process of thinking carefully. Some people have been thinking about these issues for a while and even put some of those thoughts into writing (PDF). The law of unintended consequences lurks in the darkness behind many suggestions of radical changes to complex systems. For example, Taylor suggests that universities abolish tenure. Many would agree. After being a department head for many years, I appreciate many of the advantages of this idea. But consider what might happen in disciplines whose faculty are in great demand in industry. Hmm, such as computer science. Without tenure and its concomitant security, I suspect that a fair number of CS faculty would find their way into industry. Right now, the allure of bigger paydays in industry are balanced against all sorts of risk. Universities offer a level of security in exchange for much lower salaries. Without that security, I might be better off out there in the real world writing programs, hoping that one turns out to be the next Twitter or the IDE that revolutionizes how we program in dynamic languages. I am not suggesting that we not think radical thoughts or consider how we might do things differently. In fact, I spend a large part of my administrative and academic lives doing just that. I do suggest that we not rush headlong into ideas before thinking them through, even when they seem tantalizingly right at first blush. As with so many articles of this sort, Taylor may hope simply to cause people to consider new ideas, not adopt the specific prescriptions he offers. Certainly, many schools are already experimenting with ideas such as greater collaboration across disciplines and institutions. As in the case of courses that are focused on problems or projects, the rub is in balancing the forces at play so that we achieve our goal of better helping students to learn. -----