Indian Computer Science (CS) & Information Technology (IT) Academic Reform Activism Consolidated Blog Document

US CS & IT Academia: Usually TAs/RAs Teach Programming

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US CS & IT Academia: Usually TAs/RAs Teach Programming

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This post captures a slightly edited email exchange with a friend on the "CS & IT Academia: Inform Students About Software Contribution Record of Faculty" post.

Friend wrote: I too felt exactly the same way as --- that while it seems to be reasonable to ask this of faculty, it would not pan out. Most people don't have such background (to the tune of ~90% or more; most prof/faculty dont write software, their students do). And, most top universities here in the US call themselves 'Research Univ', including MIT, Stanford etc. For them, R&D is distinctly different from producing software - they realize that writing production code is very hard - and so as long as they can prove conclusively what they propose, that is enough.

Eklavya Sai responded: Thanks for the input, especially your numbers take. The Profs. may not like it but they cannot dictate terms to society. If students, parents & employers who are the key customers/stakeholders of the educational system feel that this performance parameter of faculty must be shared with them, the academic administrative authorities should impose it. Those profs. who have no software contribution record can omit it, but those who would like to have one can create their software contribution record and possibly enjoy more student enrollment & career growth benefits from it.

Friend wrote: And in India, I doubt if there is any significant % of faculty that can actually write even basic programs.

Eklavya Sai responded: In India it is absolutely vital that this changes.

Friend wrote: Even in the US, labs classes are handled by TAs/RAs (Teaching Assistants/Research Assistants) and not by professors/faculty.

Eklavya Sai responded: So sad, isn't it? Imagine a surgeon-professor never demonstrating surgery to his/her students and delegating it to interns!!! And then further imagine a surgeon-professor who has never even done surgery!!! Terrible state of affairs man.

Friend responded: I don't think it is sad that Profs don't teach lab courses. Infact, I'd rather they NOT teach lab courses. Reason? Simple - TAs USUALLY have a lot more experience with programming than most professors have. So, students are better off learning programming from the better experienced of the two in this particular case.

In my opinion, at least here at (a US university), most TAs/RAs have at least interned over summers at companies. Also, they are the people who routinely write software (even if not production quality code) as part of their research -- so they have a fair amount of experience with code.

Eklavya Sai responded: It is good that in (a US university) students get the benefit of teaching assistants with good programming experience. ... It is very good that most TAs/RAs at (a US university) are far better skilled at programming than most junior teachers in Indian engg. colleges.

I should also add that I understand possible management/economic realities of US universities (or Indian universities for that matter) which cannot allow them to have highly paid Professors handling all work. Division of labour is required and the natural division is perhaps to delegate programming lab. work to less expensive TAs/RAs. That's acceptable, I guess.
But that should not result in professors not knowing programming or becoming completely distant from it. That will be like a surgery-teacher focusing only on biological detail in the classroom and staying away from practical surgery. IMHO, students learning from such a surgery-teacher may not become safe and competent surgeons.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

CS & IT Academia: Should 'Customize' Instead of 'Build' be Taught?

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Last Updated On December 28th 2011

This post captures a slightly edited email exchange with a friend on the "CS & IT Academia: Inform Students About Software Contribution Record of Faculty" post.

Friend wrote: I am not sure if I understood the problem definition and therefore the solution. But let me put it in my words and if it is not what you meant, then please ignore my email ...

This is what I think is the problem that you are describing:

1) Teachers in universities don't have enough expertise in software development and thus can't teach students well enough.

Eklavya Sai responded: They can't teach software development well enough but can teach theory & research oriented stuff in their area of expertise very well.

Friend wrote:
2) Students can't appreciate and learn software development skills no matter which university they approach.

Eklavya Sai responded: That's the case with most universities in India though not all.

Friend wrote:
3) Employers don't get to recruit skilled people.

Eklavya Sai responded: The employers that are looking for software development soldiers don't get to recruit the right people and so have to educate them by having in-house fresher training.

Friend wrote:
4) Result - we are all a bunch of losers!

Eklavya Sai responded: Students (& their parents) who want to learn software development skills by doing a CS / IT degree are losers. Students (& their parents) who want to become theory and research Generals are winners. Employers don't invest time & money like students and parents, and so they cannot complain about being losers. Though overall as a country we lose out as the educational system is a pipeline which feeds skilled manpower into the industrial economy.

Friend wrote: As I said before, if what I am saying does not correctly capture what you said, please ignore my email. But if it does say what you are thinking, then I have a slightly different take on software development needs of today's world - at least the business world as most of the software development that employers do is focused on achieving competitive advantage. 

Let me tell you a very short true story. Recently a retailer was facing tough competition in the market (and continues to do so today). It was closing store after store. One particular store was in the red for a few months and was facing the possibility of being shut down. But just ten days before the month ended, they went live with a supply chain initiative that enabled the store to fulfill parcel shipments and came out a winner. Essentially, it got business that it could not have got otherwise. Such was the power of the supply chain improvement. 

Now that supply chain improvement initiative involved customizing a packaged solution and not building a software from scratch. The reason why I am emphasizing this is because the people who were required to or asked to "build" the software were mainly required to be able to "configure" the software rather than build it. Along the way they were required to be able to "figure" out what custom code needs to be built and build just that little code here and little code there. Employers prefer solutions to be built to deploy today rather than designed with zero defect for tomorrow.

Eklavya Sai responded: I think this has been the reality of the business app. world for at least a decade. Maybe it has become more prevalent now.

Academia has Component Based Development courses which I feel should handle such 'customize' solutions rather than reinvent the wheel, and live with 'acceptable quality' today rather than 'perfect quality' tomorrow. I recently taught an Open Source Web Development course using Joomla, Moodle, Al Fresco, MySQL, Apache ... and a software developed by a major IT firm of India using these tools.

Most students loved the power of component based development which allows you to produce solutions at unbelievable speed.

So what I am saying is that 'customize' as against 'build from scratch' can also be taught in a university.

Friend wrote: One can question such practices but businesses are run for customers of today who can walk out on you if they find solutions elsewhere even if those solutions have defects. Loss of customer can imply going out of business to employers. A software consultant who ignores such business priorities will get thrown out of business. So essentially, employers are looking for software consultants who understand their pains and provide pills for now rather than later.

Eklavya Sai responded: And students have to be trained with skill sets that match the needs of employers. As most students desire such job-oriented skill sets.

Friend wrote: Universities can teach algorithms and languages and even business processes. But real-world exposure has no substitute. 

Eklavya Sai responded: Sure, real-world exposure has no substitute. But universities can prepare students for the real-world to the extent they can.

Friend wrote: One may be very good in algorithms but have no desire to understand the business priorities and you might find school drop-outs who have an unusually good understanding of the market as a whole and can drive the solution the market needs. 

Eklavya Sai responded: Sure. But why can't a university IT graduate also excel at understanding business priorities? Of course he can. He simply has to be taught properly in university.

Friend wrote: My point is that businesses demand clear deliverables from software companies. Software companies in turn rationalize this into the 80-20 rule and hire people who can deliver the goods (an acceptable quality software). ...

Friend wrote: We might then think that perhaps it is not the business world that students should concentrate on. But is it [business world] really that bad? Innovations normally lead commercialization. But once you champion the commerce part of it, it fuels further innovation. Logistics at one time was thought to be an integral part of the army. But now it has taken a whole new dimension and not only new business models have come up but also it is being outsourced from army to businesses. If space exploration is to be left only to academic oriented organizations, innovative and cheaper solutions for space flight would not be available as some of the businesses are trying to achieve. If CROs had not rolled up their sleeves, drug discovery would continue to be indefinitely slow to achieve by universities and hospitals.

Eklavya Sai responded: I feel IT students can certainly concentrate on the "business world" software solutions.


Friend wrote: Have fun with what you do!

Eklavya Sai responded: What I am learning is that even "peaceful & amicable activism" can generate a lot of unwanted heat. I mean there is always resistance to change - and I am questioning the big Profs - they don't like such questions. So this is not really a 'fun' thing :(. But I feel I must do it as I have seen so many students & parents suffer from this mostly dysfunctional CS & IT academic teaching system in India.

Research vs. Teaching

My Viewpoints/Articles

Improving Indian Academic Research and Teaching: Have Separate Research-Intensive Universities and Teaching-Intensive Universities, February 2014

Is Academic Research Grant Money Corrupting Academic Teaching Ideals?, April 2013

CS & IT Academia: Is Teaching Excellence Important?, January 2012 

Is a PhD in CS/IT Necessarily a Good Teacher?, October 2011 

Discussion/Informative Posts Involving Others' Articles/Views, Media reports and Some Comments from me

Suggestion of Separate University Rankings for Research Excellence and Teaching Excellence, December 2013

CS & IT Academia: Research vs. Teaching, September 2011 

A Defense of The CS/IT PhD Teacher, October 2011 

Nature and Science 2011 Articles on Lack of Importance Given to Teaching Nowadays, April 2013

Suggestion of Separate Tracks for Teaching and Research by US Academics, October 2012

India (and Other Emerging/Developing Countries) Should Not Obsess about Higher Education Rankings, April 2013

Friday, February 7, 2014

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