Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The End of Summer Classes (Guest Post)

(Guest post by Sorelle Friedler. Companion post at her blog

This summer I taught the 400-level Algorithms class at the University of Maryland. Two summers ago I taught a 300-level programming languages class, and promised myself that I'd never teach another summer class. Apparently the lure of getting to teach Algorithms was just too much for me. I love teaching, and enjoyed teaching this summer, but summer classes are exhausting for students and teachers. I also believe that they're ill-advised for the students and think it's a problem that students are not warned against them. This, of course, is the true problem; I knew what I was getting into - they didn't.

While summer classes have the same amount of in-class time as regular semester classes, the out of class time is significantly less (the regular semester class takes 15 weeks, while the summer version takes 6). This satisfies the accountants, but doesn't give the students enough time to actually absorb the material. In addition, as Bill notes in the dual to this post, the students who take summer classes do not represent the standard distribution of ability. Specifically, there are more weak students - the students who could most use the extra time. In Computer Science, especially in programming classes, having enough time is critical.

And what about the strong students? They certainly still learned the material and did a great job on the homework. I decided to assign a somewhat open-ended programming project (a topic for a different post), and the strong students challenged themselves and did an amazing job. Yet with more time there would have been more opportunity for challenging problems and more advanced topics.

I admit, of course, that having summer classes makes logistical sense. It's a good chance for students to get ahead or just manage to graduate on time. Despite the problems, students learn something, pass, and get to move on. But if the goal is a deep understanding of the material or even an understanding equivalent to that achieved in a regular semester course, the summer just isn't good enough.


  1. When do SODA decisions come out?

  2. That's the main reason I've always shied away from summer courses. Given the choice between classes and working my web dev job this summer, I easily chose the latter. In hindsight, the experience and development skills I've gained by working (basically) fulltime far outweigh the value of squeezing in a few credits between spring and fall quarter.

  3. I taught a summer programming course once. One the first day I had around 55 students in the class. I announced that I taught the same course during the regular semesters and that I would be covering the same material and assigning projects of comparable detail. I mentioned this again on the second day. By the end of the week I had around 20 students drop the class. It seems that many summer classes are taught by people who are not regular faculty and/or who often make the course easier over the summer. The poor students hope for that.

  4. SODA decisions? Well, at UM it's Pepsi-only by contractual agreement.

  5. "it's a problem that students are not warned against them"

    They aren't? Really? I got the feeling that they were and didn't care because they knew better than the advising staff and heard from their friends that summer classes wimp out on the grading to avoid failing too many students.

  6. Sorelle Friedler raises some great issues!

    My UW engineering colleagues and I have been discussing the growing academic phenomenon of "quick" summer course credits, nontraditional distance learning, no-thesis professional master's degrees, etc.

    It is undeniable that these nontraditional academic programs are very popular with students, and that Chairs, Deans, and Provosts welcome the new revenue streams that nontraditional academic programs generate.

    In which regard, there was a thought-provoking Slashdot post today:

    I don't have a TV, I don't make or receive telephone calls, I don't go to the movies, I don't own a video game console, I don't buy music, I don't read newspapers and I don't buy pornos because the Internet superseded all of that. Not only that, but I owe my practically flawless English (I'm French) to chatting with Americans on AIM ever since I was 15, I also learnt my job mostly on the Internet (I'm a mostly self-taught DSP dev), and to top it all off I'm a self-employed software dev who makes all of his income from software sales from all around the world. That didn't affect just "us", my uncle after being divorced fell in love with a woman in South America (not Mark Sanford) he "met" on MSN, and now he lives with her there. The Internet made him move to Colombia and marry a woman he never met before, out of the blue.

    If you still fail to see how personal computers/the Internet have revolutionised things you're just blind.

    The above post is by a creative person who has established a technical career by a route completely outside of traditional academia ... and it is pretty clear that there is a large and growing cohort of people like him/her.

    In the "Golden Era" of traditional academic life---which perhaps never existed in fact, but is a cherished ideal---academic degrees were the domain of exceptionally talented people, who learned creative academic skills immersively, by living, for several years, a traditional on-campus academic life.

    Thanks to free resources of the Internet, and of the open-source enterprises that have colonised the Internet, has that academic tradition become inverted? Nowadays, are traditional on-campus courses mainly for people who are too dull to educate themselves? Are mid-range universities at-risk of evolving into the academic equivalent of "puppy mills" and "lowest-cost medical service providers"? Are the market forces that are pushing universities in this direction irresistible?

    These are mighty tough questions ... it's far from clear (for example) whether we should hope that the answer is "yes" or "no".

    There's little doubt that the diversity of the academic ecosystem is increasing rapidly ... IMHO this is a good thing overall ... but doesn't an increased evolution rate led also to an increased extinction rate? ... thus some academic traditions are necessarily going to be marginalized and/or become extinct ... and these trends are (obviously) irreversibly underway.