Thursday, June 23, 2011

What Is the Purpose of a University Education?

I just read an interesting New Yorker article about the history and future of the university education, particularly in America:

What I found most interesting about it were the three theories of education people have. Which one(s) do you prefer?

3. University is for job training.

This is the opinion of most university students, who are always asking about what jobs they can get with this or that major, and who ask questions like "why do I have to learn this?" What is interesting to me is that few people actually have jobs that are directly related to their majors, and people tend to switch jobs every two years. Needless to say, I'm not a fan of theory 3.

2. University is to give you the kind of education and general skills that you a) probably won't learn elsewhere, and b) are good for all people to have.

People vote, interact with other people, decide what products to buy, donate (or don't) to charities they think are valuable (or not), and raise children. To do these things well, they need certain mental capacities, especially of critical thinking, comprehension, and communication. Otherwise, we are unlikely to get the kind of society that we value. The hope is that university helps people with these skills. Whether or not they do is questionable (see the article). And it's certainly true that many students don't want these skills. People who like theory 2 (I'm one of them) think that we need to force students to learn certain things even though they don't want to. Yes, I'm saying that the establishment knows what students need more than students do.*

1. University is there to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Some students are alarmed to hear that some people, professors included, see university as a big mental competence test, designed to weed out the inferior students and reward the competent students with failing, grades, graduation, accolades, etc. According to this theory, university's job is to communicate to the outside world (primarily the workforce) student quality. I would hope that no professor believes only in theory 1, because it implies that it doesn't matter what tasks the students are given, so long as they differentiate the smart from the not smart. If this is the only thing university is for, there are much, much cheaper ways to do it.

Personally, I mostly believe in theory 2 and believe a bit in theory 3. I believe in theory 1 only for certain majors. As a teacher, the goals of 2 and 1 are sometimes in conflict. For example, I am happy to help students with difficult assignments or concepts, but if I'm holding their hand too much, perhaps they don't deserve the grade they get.

Note that this entry is all about the education part of university. The function of the university regarding the education/research balance is completely separate, and just as interesting. Stay tuned.

Pictured: Universit√† di Genova (facolt√† di Lettere) - foto realizzata da Utente Microsoikos. By Microsoikos at it.wikipedia (Transferred from it.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

* Some might counter that the students have a right to the kind of education they want, because they are paying for it. Most students are in public schools, however, and are actually paying only for a fraction of the cost to society to educate them. Thus, even by this reasoning, society has a say in what they are learning.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How Software Dies

It's possible for a book, or a film, or some other work of art to have little impact when it is released, but then get discovered later and capture the cultural imagination. This is possible because books printed long ago can still be read, and film and music created long ago can still be listened to. It's not the case with theater and staged dance. If it is not discovered during its run, it fades into obscurity.*

This is true for software as well. There is a great game that ran on my Tandy 1000 computer called "Blood Money" by a company called Psygnosis. To play this game now, you'd have to buy a very old computer, and find the software on ebay or something. You can experience a bit of the game by watching gameplay videos on Youtube. But watching a recording of someone playing a video game is to playing a video game like watching sports is like playing it. In the case of Blood Money, it's not such a gorgeous game to watch. What was good about it was actually playing it. Here is a gameplay video of Blood Money:

I'm not even sure these gameplay videos are legal. At some point there will be no more working Tandy 1000s, IBM PCs, and Commodore 64s, and then this lone video will be all we have. If a game is discovered soon enough, someone might make an emulator for it, or re-release it on a new platform.** But it has to be liked soon enough for this to happen.

This problem was brought to my attention with a review of what appears to be an amazing game, "Pathologic."
This review is a fascinating read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in computer gaming:

The problem is exacerbated by games that require social networking for the complete experience. I played "World of Warcraft" for about half an hour, and didn't care for it, but so many people love it that I feel that there's some experience there that I'm missing. And if I don't do it relatively soon, people might stop playing it (perhaps because people move on to another game), and then the experience won't be the same.

Today I came across a neat project description of a system called "Technosphere."
In it, you can create creatures and watch them try to survive in a virtual world. I would love to play around with this, but it was a museum installation that has now closed. There is nothing I can do to experience it now. I can't find youtube videos for it either.

This brings up a problem with academic funding and online computer projects. What probably happened with Technosphere was this: the authors had funding to do this project. They created the project. They published. The funding ran out. The project got terminated.

There are two problems. First, the funding models do not support long-term upkeep funds. That is, grants typically last for several years, but do not offer money to keep something online indefinitely. Online software requires hosting, at the very least, and possibly software maintenance as well. It's expensive.  The second problem is that the authors don't really have an incentive to keep it up. They published, and what more do they have to gain my keeping the site active? Aside from pride in the project, probably nothing.

Although code can be saved, and printed, there are other factors, such as the hardware the code runs on, and costs for keeping things online, that prohibit the longevity of the experiences they provide. This is a shame, making what should be a lasting artifact a bit more like ephemeral arts such as performances.

* You can document a staged performance, but much is lost.

** One of my favorite Playstation 2 discs is Midway Arcade Treasures.

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