Tuesday, March 25, 2008

University - context free zone

About 15 years ago, I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Computing Science. I remember feeling like it was largely a gross waste of time, but I had come this far, so I should finish to get the piece of paper. Furthermore, upon finishing my degree I vowed not to do any more programming! Somewhat ironic since I now run a software company.

Fast forward to the present day and I have just started the first subject of a Masters. This subject is an undergrad course on Discrete Mathematics, which I am really enjoying. So, why the difference between these two university experiences?

I am postulating it is because I see the relevance of the topic to my own context. I am able to apply what I am learning in some meaningful way. There is a reason for learning this stuff!

Note the university has helped very little here. They no longer have a program containing significant theoretical computer science. So I am investigating courses offered in the school of Mathematics and selecting them best I can.

Back to my undergraduate degree. I chose Computing Science because I had an aptitude for computers. I had already learnt simple imperative programming and relational databases at high school and in my own time. So listening to a lecturer read the database textbook was pretty boring and why was I doing a compulsory accounting subject when I had enrolled in computing, not business?

As far as I can remember, the University did little to give me a reason as to why I was studying the subjects I was, or to draw me in and engage me on the topics at hand (apart from a crypto subject in final year, run by the Dean at the time). I went straight from high school to uni and had never worked on a significant software project, so I certainly didn't have the context to find relevance myself.

Now I look around at the first year students, many straight out of high school, doing the maths subject with me. I wonder how many of them will probably grow to dislike this subject, as they struggle with the formality of the content for the first time. How many will study for the exam and then promptly forget most of what they learned. What a waste of time, effort and money!

If my conjecture about context and relevance is correct, would it be better to study programming as an apprenticeship - where there are periods of practical work in industry, separated by periods of classroom time? Or should Universities simply do a much better job?

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