Moving to

I'm moving to Mostly.

I plan to use that site as a "self-marketing website" of sorts and to manage content in a way that I would otherwise not be able to do on blogger alone.

This blog will stay, ostensibly for more provisional ideas prior to refinement. I'll be gradually moving content (I still like) over to the other website. =)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Adverse Incentives in Universities and the Impact on our National Competency Build Up

Today, I was at lunch with an older gentleman. Older in the sense of, was-sent-off-to-NS-in-a-3-tonner and ate-food-cooked-by-fellow-NSFs. He mentioned that he took an AI course at NUS Computer Science and had an extremely negative experience where lecturers did not care about students and were unable to express ideas well. He contrasted this with the good treatment he received at NUS's Institute of Systems Science (a centre for professional learning) where the instructors "want you to succeed".

He surmised that the failings of the former were due to the overriding importance placed on publishing, and that teaching was seen as a chore to be quickly finished so one might get back to doing things that affect their KPIs.

Now, in the course of that interaction, he came across as a knowledgeable and experienced IT professional with a very balanced personality, so I am inclined towards the view that he arrived at his position on his AI lecturer(s) at NUS Computer Science in a fair and balanced manner.

It is thus disturbing that professionals seeking to extend their skill sets can come away with little or nothing after a few days away from work and having their employers pay a pretty penny (a neat double whammy). This is not to say that all university instructors for professional development courses are unable to help their students extend their knowledge and skills. The point is that we should be seeking guarantees for a minimum service level for professional development. Otherwise, any initiatives with the objective of "raising productivity" through professional education will inherit the lack of a "minimum service level".

The incentives in universities that place little value on teaching are well known. Unfortunately, they are tremendously damaging. The question that tax payers should be asking themselves is what exactly they are funding. If the role of Singapore's universities is to break new ground in the physical sciences, medicine, technology and social sciences, can we say we are succeeding? If the role of Singapore's universities is to impart knowledge and skills to students prior to their entry to the workforce, are we succeeding? On both counts, we are not very successful.

One of the most cynical views I have come across is that a small number of exceptional individuals around the world appear to be justifying the contemplative life for many others. There is some truth to it. Some people do love to learn, but are not as keen on the grind of breaking new ground. These people tend to love to teach, but there is no suitable incentive scheme that enables them to build a rewarding career (those few new "teaching schemes" considered).

The trouble with adjusting the incentive framework for university faculty is that it will put us out of joint with international practice, possibly making Singapore an unattractive place to be a faculty member unless one does not want to ever work at a university outside of Singapore.

However, without effective incentives, we have to rely on the "milk of human goodness: to generate good professional development results, and history has shown us that said milk is not exactly reliable.

It is necessary to take a "calibrated" approach to incentives in university faculty. Ground breaking research is great to have, but unless we are in a technological arms race, it has the lowest priority among the three major roles of university faculty which are, highest priority first, (i) imparting knowledge and skills effectively, (ii) inspiring students, and (iii) doing high quality research.


7-8 said...

I've also done an AI course at NUS and I can second that impression that the teaching quality is not that fantastic. But sometimes that is due to the lecturers having to cover a large amount of ground in relatively little time.

Developing competency in AI is more than just going to school and getting taught. It is more important that you have a community of practitioners. An analogy is that you don't ever learn how to drive by being lectured to.

Good teachers in AI are a dime a dozen. Stanford has an online learning course. Sooner or later, anybody who doesn't like his own teacher can go onto the web and find a better one. So while good research is crucial and can't be replicated, good teaching is more common.

This raises another question: just what do you need a university degree for, then? The state of the university is in a flux right now and that question is an open one.

convexset said...

That's very true on the role of the university. As such, really, there has to be some value over and above the content, which is readily available for free or available at non-expensive prices. The classroom has the potential to become a community of practitioners or to be a gateway to an existing community. This applies to AI and a host of other disciplines...