Go with a smile!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Changing face of the University

One of the most interesting books I’ve read over the last few years (OK I’ve not been reading as many books as, say 2005-2010) is “The Social Life of Information” by John Seely Brown. John Seely Brown is apparently a big shot at Xerox PARC and is one of the advisors at SMU so he’s a tua bai foreign talent.

It was written 10 years ago, and this collection of essays tries to make the case, among other points raised, that information and knowledge are not the same thing. Just because information is more readily available all across the world because of the internet, it doesn’t always translate automatically to knowledge. Transforming information to knowledge, from “know what” to “know how” is really difficult.

What is certain is that the internet is changing society in very deep and profound ways that we can scarcely imagine. Many futuristic novels that were written in the 20th century centred on advances in transportation technology. What happened if people were fitted with jetpacks and could fly anywhere they wanted. What happened if people could set up colonies on the moon. What happened if people could just teleport. But not that many people thought very much about advances in information technology and communications. Because these advances are less tangible and harder to understand.

But these advances are more profound, more far reaching. Probably they are more significant, because the information technology revolution is about to continue, even as the transportation technology revolution is grinding to a halt. Because there are limitations to what we can do with our physical bodies, but there are no limitations to what we can do with information and knowledge. Also because intelligence is a more important thing that how fast you can move a human body around: human beings rule the world because they are the smartest animal. The strongest, fiercest or fastest animals are no match for us. For a long time, until he started giving away a lot of his money, the richest man in the world was a nerd, not a jock.

Anyway, enough digression on the big meaning of the information revolution. This article is about the changing fate of the university.

There is this great university system that hasn’t changed for a few hundred years. People went to professors. They went to lectures. They read from books. They housed themselves in compounds where they learnt from each other.

But there were many aspects of university education which portend that some changes may be needed for the current university model.

1. Elitism / selectivity

It used to be that university education was something that was only available to the elites of a cohort. These days, almost half of the people will get a degree. Degrees these days aren’t worth very much, unless they come from elite universities. In the old days, the bargain was that you gave 4 years of your life to earning a degree, and because it opened so many doors, those 4 years were worth it. But these days, you are giving a lot of hope to a lot of people, but they might not find that hope fulfilled.

There was this cultural shock when I spoke to people of my parents’ generation. They still treated university education as a big thing, and in a way it is a strange thing. The first person in my father’s family to attend university went to an Ivy League one: that’s how strange it is, from nothing to the Ivy League.

Attending university is not an elite thing, even though the Ivy League is still elite enough. NUS is becoming pretty elite these days. But going to a university – well, let’s say at least 95% of my friends on facebook attended university. It’s nothing special at all.

2. Cost
These days you have the spiralling cost of spending 4 good years of your youth pursuing academic knowledge. Tuition fees are going up, possibly because the cost of running a university is going up. A lot of resources are going into research. Research – you know, is like climbing a mountain. The further up you go, the harder it gets. Professors are no longer the authoritative bastions of society that they used to be, they are no longer as protected as they used to be.

There were many fat years for being a university. Go to a top university, and the facilities are top rate. And I’m not talking about the toilets. Many sports facilities and dormitories are fairly luxurious, and fairly underused. Libraries are full of books that will, if they are lucky, be read once or twice.

Those costs were probably justifiable, if at least tolerated, if being in a university conferred upon you as many advantages as it used to in the good old days. Now, I don’t really think so.

3. Accessibility of knowledge
It used to be that university was the great gateway to knowledge. Make no mistake, universities are still great repositories of knowledge. But these days, a lot of stuff is available on the internet. You can learn a lot of stuff on MIT’s open courseware, and while that will not be as rigorous as attending MIT and doing homework and getting tested, there’s a lot that you can learn from that.

The cost of getting a private audience with a professor is also high. Many professors will – with good reason – not bother with students who don’t pull their weight in acquiring knowledge. It’s not just the school fees. If you just want information without that much substantial depth, then professors may not be the ones who are best to give it to you. For example, how does a computer program compile, what’s wrong with the one that you have written, where are the bugs?

I knew people who skipped a lot of lectures, essentially turning his uni education into a correspondence course. But he still did well for his exams.

4. Type of knowledge
The question is: what can universities teach you that you can’t really learn for yourself these days? Answer: not as much as it used to.

The thing that universities used to excel in is teaching ideas and knowledge to people. Now, with the internet, these are things that people can learn for themselves, albeit with more difficulty than if there were a professor standing in front of you and pumping you the greatest hits of his hard won wisdom. But it is possible.

Some of the most compelling uses of a university education are for disciplines like medicine, law and engineering. The university presents you with a course of study that combines book knowledge with some real life examples of what a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer might encounter in real life. Probably some practical wisdom. These forms of knowledge are best suited for a university education, and I don’t see these schools under threat.

You can get legal advice over the internet, and you can get medical advice. But there is no way you can become a doctor or a lawyer without a university education, and then passing a professional exam. 1 year ago, I took the GRE subject test in computer science, which is one of the closest things there is to a professional exam in computer science. In terms of scope and what I had to study for that exam, it was the most difficult exam I ever took.

There is also the ideal of a liberal arts education. This is a very uniquely American way of teaching people and seldom been replicated around the world, although now that Yale is tying up with NUS, we’ll see how Singaporeans grapple with it. A liberal education mixes and matches knowledge from many diverse sources. But it is a very dangerous course to take, because it is hard to quantify that something tangible has been achieved by taking this course of action. The road I took is the closest to this form of education, even though I did take a few engineering modules. I might not have dared to take liberal arts, but I had 2 sources of protection: being from a prestigious university and having secured a job offer.

Liberal arts is very difficult and dangerous because it is a course that gives you very few constraints. You need to take a course of study that is broad enough in both history and geography to give you a range of knowledge. You could study many things from a wide variety of cultural contexts, and it could give you a very deep understanding and knowledge of – well a lot of things under the sun. Being immersed in many different forms of knowledge can help complement each other. You will see how a political scientist critiques a sociologist, how a psychologist critiques a historian.

But you could end up studying a lot of junk that is useless. You could study the life of some obscure nobleman from the 16th century and in the end you might wonder, what have I learnt? And realise that there’s very little that’s applicable in real life. I have picked up a lot of useless knowledge about groups and rings. Knowledge that might be useful to somebody somewhere else but not me. Worst of all is post-modernism. By itself it is a very useful reality check, because it delineates the limits of what knowledge can do, what is knowable, and what are just labels we put on things and people in order to reinforce our hidden biases. But taken to its extreme (and this happens all the time in universities, unfortunately) it can convince you that there is no such thing as knowledge, no such thing as reality, no such thing as right and wrong. Which, as I have learnt, is rubbish.

The biggest argument against liberal arts education is that people can simply pick it up on their own by reading enough books and study guides. The university is mainly there to make sure that the students understand correctly what they are reading.

It is the case that the liberal arts needs students more than the students need liberal arts. A society will still need humanities scholars at the highest levels of knowledge. And they need to be funded. So why not put up a university system that combines the two needs, and get the students to pay for it?

5. Connection between research and the prestige of the university
Now, the “best” universities in the world are usually ranked based on their research. Universities are generally dual purpose – to educate and to push the frontiers of knowledge. But they are usually ranked in terms of their research quality. And they are ranked in terms of proxies, because research quality is hard to quantify.

Now I have heard that in the US, there are universities called Liberal Arts universities, which are dedicated towards teaching, rather than research. So these universities may be short on world class research facilities, but they are good at devoting a lot of their resources towards teaching students. Students get more personalised attention from the professors, which is great if you like having teachers around. (I don’t). So they are ranked separately. And since the class sizes are small, they are also pretty selective, but pretty good value for money compared to a big government university where everybody’s focused on research and has no time to teach you.

The problem of equating a university’s quality to research is that the universities end up giving an education that is more like their research, and the pursuit of academic excellence is given precedence over some more important aspects of training. What people are assessed for in universities does not have that much resemblance to real life. Of course, we can’t be so “practical” that we end up teaching the dark arts of sucking up to people, shoving your co-workers aside, and screwing around tree huggers so that they don’t interfere with your running of a business. But we ought to be assigning people more practical tasks like how to meet or interview people, how to set up and run a small business, how to fix a circuit board.

6. Flexibility / relevance.
There’s that word again. When I was studying things in the university, I was fairly amazed that I was sometimes studying a curriculum that was set 20 years earlier, like in the 80s. Turns out that a lot of the professors had been around at my university for a long time, did a lot of early good work, and then gained their tenures, and ended up being really comfortable with life, that they were content to teach the same things over and over again. Now I was studying pure maths, so it’s not such a bad thing.

But I was amazed that my university had one of the best regarded computer science departments in the country, and they didn’t even have one course on software engineering. I supposed they were pretty caught up in advancing their research, and teaching a lot of high falutin ideas, to the extent that they just felt that more flaky stuff like software engineering could be picked up on their own.

Anyway it’s fine if you are teaching arts and social sciences or history, you can teach the same stuff year in year out. Just introduce all the ideas. Some of them will come into fashion, some will go out of fashion. Just teach the classics and you’ll be fine. Even for pure maths, the theories do not change.

Computer science, the programming paradigms change every year with every software upgrade. It used to be called “object oriented programming”. Then it used to be called “Component object model”. Now we have .NET. How are people going to keep up? There’s a great surge in demand for programming on mobile devices, and for cloud computing. But can the professors keep ahead of the curve? Or are they going to teach stuff that’s fashionable 10 years ago?

They used to tell me, knowledge learnt in books is “dead”, whereas the street knowledge is “alive”.

More students in Universities in Singapore?

One of the big announcements that PM Lee had for the universities were that they were capping foreigner enrolment in the universities. I think that raises very interesting questions. I don’t mind there being foreigners in Singapore but I think it’s a policy that has gotten out of control. There are too many foreigners in Singapore, introduced over a too short span of time, and we’ll have problems if they don’t integrate properly. Of course, whether a person is a foreigner is something that is on a continuum. Take a person like Shingot: he’s studied in Singapore since primary 1. Do you really believe that he’s 100% Malaysian? Neither do I. Then there are those who come in after reaching adulthood. Some integrate very well, others don’t.

The other issue is that they are wrecking the curve. Well we had that issue in Snowy Hill university, where our Singaporeans would flood the engineering department, take courses together, copy homework from each other, set up their own support groups, and have a decisive advantage over Americans who don’t do the same. In the end, we also have people from the PRC who do exactly the same thing to use in NUS. So it’s kinda ironic really.

I’m thinking about one of the most admired public university systems in the world, in California. We have the elite University of California system, where world class research is being undertaken. If you believe all the rankings, NUS is somewhere between LA and San Diego, behind Berkeley, and ahead of all the rest of the U of Cs. Then they have the State Universities, where the stated aim is to provide university education to all the less elite students. And then we have community colleges.

Now when we are talking about the much praised USA system of education, we have to remember that it is mainly the elite USA universities that are very much admired. What the US does for the less elite universities may leave much to be desired. So we can imagine that NUS is trying to be like Berkeley, which is good.

I’m just wondering – why didn’t the ministry of Education try to open a middle tier university? Yes, we have all the private education centres that provide degrees from less prestigious unis like James Cook uni. But they are all profit making centres that bilk you of money and I don’t know how well run those things are. I’ve heard enough stories about degree mills and scammed students. Maybe the government thinks that second tier universities are a very dodgy state of affairs. I never thought of going to a university that was not one of the best. What’s the purpose in that, anyhow?

One thing that Singapore is trying to do is to provide a very interesting alternative to universities. The thing is that universities cater to a certain type of person (I am that type) whose brains have a predilection for academic knowledge. They are also trying to cater to those people whose brains are wired differently. So those people are sent to polytechnics where practical skills are more at a premium. Or ITEs too. The problem with those places is the prevailing mindset that being in those places means that you are less capable.

But we are starting to set up good quality arts schools, vocational schools that teach a more design-oriented model of learning. We even got MIT as a partner. It has the potential to be a player in the big debates about university educations in the future.

Another book I’ve read recently is “Push”, also by John Seely Brown. He has been looking closely at the forces unleashed by the internet, and how it has empowered people to form self-help communities that push themselves towards excellence, using much fewer resources than it used to do. I had 2 people expressing surprise at what small companies are capable of. They were both colleagues at my workplace. (OK, one of them is my boss.)

You don’t need a lot of money to accomplish miracles these days. You need a few people, a few computers, and those people need to have brains. (Which means some of the bosses at my company don’t qualify.)

It’s no longer that big companies have the sole monopoly on big ideas. There is a big ecosystem at work. In a natural ecosystem, the biggest players are the bacteria. I think in the future, smaller companies will have more power. This is because they are more flexible, are able to change direction more quickly.

When I read about this, I realised that what we have here, in terms of being able to innovate and create new products and services for the market place, in terms of being able to create new projects by NGOs, this is something that is, if not new, then at least a force that is gaining a lot of power.

We had at least 3 stages of the internet revolution. First is the widespread popularisation of the world wide web, which is web 1.0 which culminated in the tech stock boom and bust. And there was web 2.0 which rose up in spite of the ill informed naysayers who thought that the tech stock bust proved that there was nothing to the internet after all (how stupid huh). And now there is the rise of Facebook / social networking / mobile devices.

Now this third stage is causing a lot of havoc in the world. It has put a lot of power into a few enable individuals. The wikileaks scandal, one of the biggest leakage of secret cables on the US government was perpetrated by a very small group of people, including Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. It has enabled people to take down governments in the Middle East, where before it seemed destined that those dictatorships would go on forever.

Another book I’ve read of late is “Advantage” by Adam Segal. It seems to be a very pro-USA take on how research and development is so much better in the US than in the rest of the world – at least for now. He does make a few salient points. First of all, it doesn’t really matter that China and India are pumping in a lot of money for their R+D. They still don’t have the right culture to turn research and development into real innovation and real products. Which may well be true. But it just means that it would take a little longer for the current lead that the US enjoys on the rest of the world to be whittled away.

He does have a point that success in R+D in the US is very much a matter of culture. Often, it is the culture that is more open, more willing to share information, and more tolerant of failure, that succeeds better. This was shown in Anna Lee Saxenian’s classic work “Regional Advantage” that showed that a high tech cluster in the US Northeast failed to keep up with Silicon Valley, even though both of them were around the same level in the late 70s.

So I can believe that the Chinese can grow the greatest manufacturing centre in the world. The Japanese and the Koreans have already shown that us Asians are experts at building and running factories. Keep your head down, be disciplined, incremental improvement, good scientific knowledge. As for whether they can lead the world in knowledge and R+D, that is something where I’ll have to see it to believe it.

My own experience in dealing with academics who are keen to work with us on our problems is that we have a lot of obstacles in our path. First, our corporation is one that guards its knowledge very closely and jealously. In fact, I have heard members of senior management go on tirades about how and why corporate information is leaked out to the public. I have worked with 1 international consulting firm for a project and I was put in charge of making them jump through the hoops just so that they can complete the project without our exposing to them the contents of our black box.

Other people seem to have tied up with newest research with academia in more interesting ways, although they are sceptical about their ability to push radically new systems through the bureaucracy.

One of the impressions I get when we have academicians coming to us to introduce their projects to us is that they don’t really know the ground. We don’t have a very good history of working with academicians and there are a lot of misunderstandings to be cleared up on. I find that the intentions of academia and our corporation are often at cross purposes with each other. We want to solve a real life problem and we want to solve it as cheaply and cleanly as we can. They want to publish papers and get ahead in the fucking rankings. And there’s not very much about our company that we want published. So we haven’t really put up a modus operandi of how we want to do things.

I thought that if I stayed at my workplace, it would be possible for me to grow into a role where I could become a middle man. I’m not very near that at the moment. I don’t know if other interesting stuff is happening elsewhere, if corporations in Singapore / Government agencies in Singapore have created a good modus Vivendi by which academia and industry can work hand in hand. I haven’t seen it myself yet.

Anyway, in that book, it was mentioned as an aside that the biotech research hub being set up near the MOE HQ has a 50% chance of success. Nearly made my eyes pop out. Furthermore you can see for yourself some of the comments that are being posted here about many researchers kao-pehing about the way that research in Singapore is being managed:


Not long after, 2 significantly high profile researchers decided to leave Singapore.


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