Usefulness of a University

Apr 08, 2013 by Andy R. Terrel

The post reiterating that the biggest problem in teaching software carpentry (SWC) is installation, got me all in a tissy. I even signed up for their mailing list!

My first impression with SWC was a wonderful community that in encouraging folks to learn computing skills. After witnessing the TeachScheme movement, I was skeptical that two day bootcamps could really have any impact, but then again I'm usually wrong. Now coming off two and a half years of supporting users on supercomputers, I too see the frustration that started SWC in the first place. Scientists waste quite a lot of time not using the tools effectively, but then again I waste too much time futzing with tools. The current frustration is over the view of what education of these tools actually is.

What is a university education?

Some of my best friends in life were made in the classrooms of my university education. While learning the essence of science, math and philosophy, something else was happening as well. I was participating in a community of learning. These friends were the ones who helped me struggle through problems, understand new topics, and motivate my continued education.

While one can go through Bloom's Taxonomy and be as theoretical as one likes, I have yet to see many people actually discuss the building of a community around your classroom. For most open source developers, this is the major draw, to work on hard problems with a set of intellectually challenging peers. I will say that some tools are being developed to help this, such as Piazza. At the end of the day, MOOCs, bootcamps, and plain-ol-lectures that don't give students the ability to actively engage an topic on their own terms isn't worth its salt. Developing communities around learning is another method for continuing the education process.

Perhaps the only thing that a University is providing that other methods of teaching hasn't touched is this community of learning. To me that's the biggest problem in alternative university education, there is no community of learning after the day ends.

(On that note I have an unfunded grant proposal to turn textbooks into community initiators. Perhaps I'll get my act together and pursue it again.)