Deep cleaning CS education in India

October 14, 2021

This is going to be my last year as an undergrad. Now that my course work is more or less done, and the last of my yearly fees goes into the void, I wanted to share my ideal vision for deep cleaning this mess we call higher education. What I shall describe is an unrealistic pipe dream with many holes, assumptions and conveniences. But it is full of heart. Do keep in mind that this article is worth goose egg because ideas are worthless and talk is cheap.

What this article will cover is mostly first order stuff, but to make this happen, you need a lot of changes in our culture, policies and attitudes. And we must really want this. We don't yet.

That said, I still want to at least consider some of the current constraints. The primary one being—this is about Computer Science education, the only type I am familiar with. Some other constraints:
  • Many students (anecdotally, roughly half) don't really enjoy Computer Science*. They are there because it's the McDonald's of career paths, along with Doctors and Lawyers, but arguably easier to actually obtain. It's the career of least resistance. In my opinion, this indifference at scale makes it easy for colleges to provide subpar education, and just do the bare minimum to get people placed.
  • Good faculty are rare. I wish I knew why. Maybe they are not paid enough. Maybe administrations kill the passion for teaching by dictating how everything should be taught and how courses should be administered. From my point of view, I struggled to sit through most classes because of how dispassionate most faculty were.
* Side thought: this is not an invitation to passion-gatekeep Computer Science, or any subject for that matter. We should instead focus on getting people to appreciate how awesome this field is, and eventually get them stoked about how awesome every field is.

The main vision is wrong

A lot of Computer Science schools, implicitly or explicitly, want to make people "industry-ready". I understand why this is often the vision. This is what our society wants—a nice cushy job.

Colleges are really terrible at making people industry ready, though. With knowledge from the best being accessible over the internet, they really don't stand a chance at teaching practical, up-to-date knowledge half as well. In practice, a lot of the courses in my college were a collage of better, freely available material found elsewhere.

The key to practical knowledge is learning by doing. Colleges don't make students do much for practical subjects. There is zero incentive for any student to go out of the way to make their side project, they better study for the next test where you write down multithreaded Python code on paper, or fill up the lab record for 10 marks.

The bigger problem for me though, is this is a bland vision of an unimaginative person. Universities need to embrace the fact that they will never be great at giving practical knowledge, and aim for something more noble. Higher education (and education in general) should aim to give people the skills to live a good life. And those are what essayist Yuval Noah Harari calls the four C's: Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity. Every course that is taught in college should really be a proxy to develop that. Even if I don't remember what I learned, I should have come out of a course stronger on those four qualities. A possible side effect of this would be that people will stop breaking their backs over getting employed and start thinking of ways to provide value to society through other means.

Give freedom to everyone involved

College micromanagements here love to get their stained, greasy fingers into what and how courses should be taught. This top-down planning kills the fun for faculty and students alike. Let faculty design and own their courses. Allow them to teach what they believe is important, and define their own criteria to measure how well students learnt from the course. Yes, let them decide how to test students as well. By making courses come from the faculty themselves, rather than some standardized playbook, they will teach it more passionately.

If we want great faculty, we need to make them rockstars, and make the job fun.

To complement this, let students choose whichever course they please, as long as they can fulfill their credit requirement. To help students make informed choices, compile directed graphs of course progressions that work well. The advantage of a system which gives such freedom is that it is self-correcting. Poorly designed courses (or courses where the faculty is an inconsiderate imbecile) will naturally get weeded out, because students will avoid them.

My biggest hope is that giving more choice and ownership to individuals will make them more interested, and they can discover how amazing these subjects are. Knowledge is inherently interesting, and you don't need to have "passion" for a field flowing in your veins to appreciate the curiosities of our world.

Measuring understanding

Testing has been demonstrated as an excellent tool for teaching, but in my opinion, it is misused as a tool for measuring the worth of students. Colleges should be a place that should encourage failure while it is still cheap, and learn from it. A possible way to go about this is to do frequent, low stakes testing, and measure the performance of the best N tests. We should test people with the intention of making them mess up (and thus making it absolutely okay to get poor results). Given the effectiveness of frequent testing in helping people learn, the final tests that do count should naturally go well. Again, the main point I am trying to make here is that tests should be a learning tool, not a tool to measure how good someone is, because they are awful at doing that.

De-emphasize classrooms

We need more dimensions of learning than the standard "classroom plus tests" combination. We make students spend way too many hours of their lives passively sitting in soulless classrooms, and magically expect the next Grace Hopper to come out the other side. Classroom hours need to be cut down. We need to reward independent exploration and letting students learn in ways beyond the classroom. It could be something along the lines of giving alternate credit-earning paths for starting a successful side project or venture (even better if collaborative), or learning a skill from elsewhere.

What about research?

I am not too chipper about academic research in this field, mostly because the incentive is to produce quantity. The result is that most research produced is junk. Research work based on pushing boundaries around an actual project is usually okay. It's great if students can do good academic research, but the incentives are so wrong that I don't think too highly of it.

Stop aping what top colleges do

Many courses already rip-off all of their course materials, but we don't bring the rigour with it. In general, it might be tempting to see what the best colleges are doing and imitate it. Doing that would be a lost opportunity to break the mould. Many people are realizing that you don't need college to actually get skills for employability. We need to tailor colleges to our environment, and focus them to be centers for innovation and critical thinking, two things that are severely lacking. Ideally we want a lot of risk takers and entrepreneurial people produced from these institutions as well, and the traditional classroom-based model won't cut it.

We need to not think about what skills are hot now. We need to think of how we can help people navigate the uncertainties of the future 20 years from now.