Monday, October 14, 2013

Who controls what is taught- the dept or the students?

There is a debate about the questions:

To what extent do we give them what they NEED?  what they WANT?

These questions permeate many other discussions of education.

Rather than discuss this profound issue I will discuss a fictional example.

  1. A dept offers one section of Operating Systems (henceforth OS) in the fall and one section in the spring.
  2. The same dept also offers one section of AI (henceforth AI) in the fall and one section in the spring.
  3. They notice after a few years that the OS tends to underfill and the AI course tends to overfill.
  4. Hence they switch to offering OS in the Spring only, and  AI is offered two in the fall and one in the spring.
  5. Over time more students take AI and less take OS. Some of this is interest but some is that AI is easier to fit into a schedule since its always offered and has two sections in the spring.
  6.  All of the teachers are excellent (remember this is fictional) so the quality of teaching is not the issue. The courses are of equal difficulty so this is not the issue. The courses have the same prerequisites so this is no the issue.
  7. The next hiring season they decide to hire someone in AI since they need the teaching help.
The department DID NOT  mean to send the message:
AI is more important than OS.
NOR  did they mean to send the message
 We will let the students decide what is important.
  But the department ended up sending both messages. What should the dept have done? For one they should DECIDE if this is okay with them--- is AI more important than OS? Or more directly, is it okay that students graduate without having a course in OS as  long as they've had a course in AI? They may decide YES- and that would be fine. If they decide NO they could restructure the requirements OR have the advisers give that advice OR just offer less sections of AI.

Does your department fall into this trap--- ending up giving  student's opinions more sway then you intend? 


  1. They appear to have meant to send the message that students get to decide what is important. If not, they would not oversubscribe AI and more students would have taken OS.

    Of course, OS is harder than AI so the whole example is moot.

  2. YES that is the message they send, and I said so. The question is, SHOULD students get to decide whats important?

    The example is fictional-so the rel difficult of OS and AI is not an issue.

    1. You said they didn't mean to send the message. I would argue that they meant to send exactly that message.

  3. A department can force student take courses that they think are essential by making them required courses for a CS major. The truth is that almost no one uses more than 20% of the courses they are taught. CS is a huge area, so huge that we often don't have a clue what other groups (e.g. HCI) in our department are doing. The course structure should have enough flexibility to accommodate for student interests.

    Regarding ML and OS, I think students are following the forces in the job market.

  4. We hire faculty based in part on the quality of the PhD graduates available in those areas. The area choices of the strong grad students will have a significant impact on whom we hire, so in some sense student choices are determining whom we hire...

  5. a complex question. if the students entirely decide its "the inmates are running the asylum". if the teachers totally decide, it turns into an unchanging/inflexible soft totalitarianism.... notice how much various subjects have changed over the decades esp relating to computer science [it would be great if there was a good ref/survey for this]. the subject didnt even really much exist a few decades ago, and its introduction is not entirely due to the "establishment" recognizing its existence.... even your book suggests that AI may become much more significant in the future.... as the japanese say "the reverse side has a reverse side".... clearly its all an interplay of many factors that require a masterful balance...