Jun 24, 2010 4
Unconventional. Innovative. Collaborative. Entrepreneurial.
If you go to uwaterloo.ca right now these are the words the University of Waterloo will use to describe itself. However, like so many marketed things in the world the University of Waterloo, I would argue, describes itself inaccurately. My observations in this regard are largely inspired by recent discussions and readings I’ve encountered regarding the university and alternative education, including Rajesh’s insights about Waterloo’s message and Dethe’s well-linked entry about Schools of the Future. Let me begin by considering each of these words individually, specifically with respect to the University of Waterloo’s delivery of education–the primary function of any institution for higher education.
During my limited experience with the university, its Faculty of Engineering, and its Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering this could not be further from the truth. Every course I have take in E&CE was of a traditional style for the field: three hours of lecture a week (always lecture, not seminar, not discussion; lecture), one hour of tutorial per week, either a lab every week-to-two-weeks or one or more projects. The same thing delivered the same way for every course. Very conventional, and oftetn very boring.
This point was underscored by another Waterloo student during a fireside at my home on Baha’i perspectives on education. After reading a cursory overview of the Ruhi Institute’s methods and philosophy of education, my friend exclaimed (forgive slight paraphrasing) “what I find most frustrating is that these–with no offence intended–‘amateur’ educators have developed such an engaging and effective system for education, while education ‘professionals’ offer such a terrible system instead.” At the same fireside another friend pointed out universities’ knack for selling programs they don’t even have the resources to properly provide; I feel this observation applies to Waterloo’s habit of inventing a new discipline of engineering every few months before promptly massacring the first class to study in their “emerging field” in pursuit of accreditation, but I won’t go into that here.
In short, if Waterloo classrooms and administration are any indication, its methods are conventional. Outdated-ly so, and painfully so.
My case against this system is essentially “refer to the previous section”. If, in the area of education, its primary focus, the university wished to be innovated I would expect to see a high degree of experimentation in its curriculum and the curriculum’s delivery. In my experience such experimentation is almost completely absent with the exception of conservative inroads toward online course offerings and discussion-based courses I experienced in the Society, Technology, and Values (STV) course offerings. Furthermore, I would like to point out that the really bad professors I’ve worked with over the years at Waterloo–a minority, though a substantial number–make the dated mode of teaching all the more painful as such lecturers tend to have dismal presentation skills and even worse intuition on how students learn.
Definitely not. I have never been in a system where competition is more fierce and interdepartmental collaboration was more poorly executed. Waterloo Engineering’s reputation attracts some of the most ambitious (and, sometimes, self-centered) personalities around. Of course, it also attracts lots of bright and altruistic people too, but there are several systemic vices that breed competition at Waterloo, at the very least, in E&CE.
The first example is the co-op system. I’ll admit that, at some level, this is the “worst example” of the ones I will give because any system that’s built on the Western notion of a “job market” is typically very difficult to craft in a way that suppresses competition rather than encouraging it; certainly I have no simple solution to that problem. Nevertheless, putting students in the adversarial climate of competing for job placements as early as four months into their degree program is hardly a collaborative environment.
Next, the examples of interdepartmental “collaboration” I’ve experienced at Waterloo have been almost without exception bureaucratic nightmares. As the academic representative I have witnessed a lot of attempts at (or apathetic tolerances of) interdepartmental collaboration. I would like to provide a concrete example here, but I already deleted one after writing it to respect the confidentiality expected of department meetings. Trust me, it’s bureaucratic, it’s painful, it’s bad.
Finally, for all the aid that students are provided to succeed in their courses–and to their credit, there is a lot at Waterloo–none of it, that I know of, is designed with the aim of fostering collaboration. Support is provided top-down through tutoring from older, more experienced students that train undergrads to not only focus their energies on getting a good grade (which is bad enough when students could be focusing on what they’re actually learning) but also with the attitude, implicit or explicit, that in order to for students to succeed they need to focus on their time, their work, their grade, ignoring any “distractions” like helping other students. It turns out that I created a collaborative environment by staying away from these tutoring sessions during first year (except for group extra help sessions) and doing my homework in groups of other students that were just as confused as me; it took longer, but we all learned together.
Yes. A ton of entrepreneurs come out of Waterloo. Perhaps too many. One out of four isn’t bad.
In light of these observations I would like to make an open appeal to the university to live up to these marketing slogans in their teaching. I recognize that some of the things going at Waterloo do in fact embody these slogans; after all, there are tangible examples provided with each slogan on their webpage. I further recognize that the university “does other things than teach/educate”. I personally want to go into research, but that doesn’t mean that I devalue education; on the contrary I look forward to continuing my contribution to education after I graduate. Nevertheless, I find it troubling that an institution with a primary purpose to educate and a vision so progressive is so far behind in exploring more engaging alternative modes of education that, I would argue, could prove to be more effective. I could provide a myriad examples of what I mean by alternative education, and I may write about it later, but for now any interested readers should read Dethe’s post and follow any of the excellent links provided there; I don’t agree with all of Dethe’s observations but I certainly like most of them. The university can start by hiring into teaching positions only those with both the competency and the passion that teaching demands. Perhaps even more troubling than the current state of undergraduate education is the university’s recent plan to focus more on graduate education and research. To this shift in priorities I have only one thing to say…
Please Waterloo, fix your undergraduate programs before you go pouring money into the same mistakes at the graduate and post-graduate levels.