A response to Markus's post "On Education"

I've been thinking about this post of Markus's recently, and about my own CS degree. It's about two and a half years since I graduated - though it took me about seven years to complete the degree, as I was working full time. My degree was a little different to the standard UK 3-year full-time on-campus BSc - for a start, I think it was the first degree course in the world resulting from a partnership between an employer, trade union, and university. As a result, a lot of applicants were union reps - which makes for great fellow students, as they're absolutely unafraid of asking difficult questions. (Hmm, now what other group has that trait? I wonder...)

I was also part of only the second cohort to join. We signed up on the understanding that this was a new venture for the company, the uni, and the union, and that there would undoubtedly be more than a few early problems to iron out. We were to think of ourselves as test pilots, and our feedback and help would make the course better for those coming after us. We would need to rely on each other for help and support - the saying "Each one, teach one" came up again and again, though at that time I wasn't aware of its long history. We both expected and demanded to be considered equal participants in our education - when the course later merged with the CS dept's full-time on-campus course, that attitude seemed to come as a bit of a surprise to those lecturers who hadn't previously encountered us. We were demanding, and bolshie, but in the nicest possible way - because we wanted to learn so much.

It was a fabulous learning community. I've long since lost access to the online discussion boards, but I can remember commenting once that I thought I'd learnt as much if not more from my fellow students as I had from the lecturers - and getting fervent agreement from other students. I won't deny that it was an extremely tough road to walk - for our students, coursework had to be fitted in somewhere, somehow after demands of family and work, and some also faced considerable hostility from co-workers, family, and even managers who couldn't see the value in doing the degree. Many people left during the course, especially in the early years (though the course was designed to have earlier exit routes if life meant that you didn't want to or couldn't go through to the full degree). I think that out of that first fifty, about five, possibly six of us finally graduated. I was in the second batch to graduate, and I have never felt so proud as I did when watching my fellow students walk across that stage to receive their degrees. Because the whole course had been such an intensely collaborative effort, it felt like a real shared success to me.

I learnt an awful lot from my degree course, and CS was actually the smaller part of it, now that I look back on it. I learnt a lot about how I learn - when I started, I thought my learning habits made me a "bad student", and that the course would teach me to be a good one. While I did get much better at learning, I also discovered that my idea of what makes a bad student was utterly wrong. I also learnt that, although I'd always thought of myself as a fairly solitary learner, I get a tremendous amount of energy out of learning with other people, and especially if I feel I'm making a contribution to a wider community with my learning.

I'm hoping that in the coming year, I'll be able to help to foster another great learning community. I'd really like to be part of that. I hope that I can contribute at least as much as I gain.

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Comment by Thomas Ponnet on December 24, 2009 at 10:46
Hi Anna,
just to clarify that I haven't called the course or people leaving early a failure. It might have come across like that, I mean to say that it looks like not financially viable - nothing to do with the quality or actual success of the course. I'm glad if that picked up in later years - good one, I missed that possibility, personal bias at work here ;-)

You wrote "I can now ask myself "am I smart enough to start this?" I'm happy enough with my own learning approach, but there's still plenty to steal in there..."
This one rang a bell with me as there is one thing that doesn't come out in the book very well - that you need a certain personality to go down the education rather than certification route. Not everyone has that. Just from my personal background I can say that I'm not afraid to go down the alternative route rather than follow the her, in fact I prefer it. But the question at the back of my head remains "Am I smart enough to do that?" or "Can I sell myself well enough to do that?". Different questions but similar underlying doubts.
What following that approach in practical terms means to me is that you almost certainly have to become a freelance consultant or be very, very lucky to find a company who values your skills AND alternative view on things - most big companies are out imo.

Would be interested to hear what you think about that, feel free to send me a direct message.

Comment by Anna Baik on December 22, 2009 at 23:59
Hi Thomas - thanks! Not rambling at all, thanks for your response.

Michael Bolton actually recommended the Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar later in that thread. Just realised I should have thanked him for the rec - I really enjoyed the book. I recognised some patterns, and also found some useful thoughts - I can now ask myself "am I smart enough to start this?" I'm happy enough with my own learning approach, but there's still plenty to steal in there...

Re: the completion rate - bear in mind this was for the first two 'experimental' cohorts, so the huge attrition rate there is perhaps not so surprising. I think later cohorts had rather more graduates. Also, if people leave at a point where they feel they've gained what they can at that time, then I wouldn't call that a failure. The course has, after a decade, now closed to new entrants, though there are still students finishing. I'm not entirely surprised - a full honours degree course, when done around a full time work commitment, is a very long time for a company. But I am sad. We made something really good there, for a while.
Comment by Thomas Ponnet on December 22, 2009 at 12:12
If no one has pointed it out, yet, your "bad student" approach is very similar to James Bach's Buccaneer scholar one. If you haven't read it I'd recommend you do, I found it enjoyable and helped me recognise some of my learning patterns.
For example, from early school days I couldn't learn what I wasn't interested in. If I found something boring it also became too hard to learn. I only ever got good ratings on thinks that I could identify with. I sort of forgot about this pattern in adult life until I read James' book so now I learn things if they interest me using a mixture of approaches you describe in your other post, just in time learning, internal preference, etc.
For example I started learning Ruby, then dropped it because I realised I really don't like programming. Doing a bit in javascript, using AutoHotKey to get something done is one thing, learning to code just isn't me. I know it would help me in my job but I still can't bring myself to do it, because I'm not interested.

You said "...but I can remember commenting once that I thought I'd learnt as much if not more from my fellow students as I had from the lecturers..."

Having peers with which to discuss your learning I find incredibly important. One of the reasons I go to testing conferences is not to hear someone talk (that's nice) or go to workshops (can be educational) but to talk to fellow testers and bounce experience and ideas off each other. The meeting in the pub after the conference can be more educational than all of the presentations combined. Sure, they tell me about the direction testing seems to be going, latest tools, some more horror stories, etc. But they won't give me what to change when I get back to the office on Monday morning. A talk in the corridor or in the pub is more likely to do that.

I'm surprised that the course you did is still going. If 5 out of 50 completed it, that's not a very good rate. I'm surprised the business people haven't shut it down, yet.

Enough rambling for now, thanks for the good post.



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