The Eclectic

Icon

A mature expression of freedom follows the discernment between desire and need. It follows then that liberty must follow education, not the other way around.

False Advertising in University Education

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.

Unconventional

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.

Innovative

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.

Collaborative

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.

Entrepreneurial

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.

//Mark

Category: Education

Tagged: , , , ,

4 Responses

  1. Jay says:

    Your argument has merit but the premise of “false advertising” is wrong when you properly look at what is being assessed when they say they are “innovative”, as well as the big picture.

    When Waterloo says that it is all that jazz, it is relative to the competition, i.e. the other Ontario universities, and perhaps Canadian universities as well. Are those exaggerated qualities? It depends. Not many schools can say they do what Waterloo does where it is focused. Waterloo is not an MBA school or a law school and so on. Its selling is in specific fields and specific programs and other resources. The community of people it brings together. Where it leads, it leads. The words are appropriate if you look at the big picture – much bigger than the day to day drudgery of lecture slides. There is a bigger picture than that. Existentially speaking Waterloo is all the qualities it says it is, in relation to the status quo. Much like Guelph is the best place to study agriculture and other schools have their niche.

    What you should have argued is that Waterloo is not any more of those qualities (innovative, entrepreneurial, etc.) than, say Brock University or Windsor or Western. That Waterloo’s superiority in Mathematics or engineering is a myth – that the quality is better at Toronto or McMaster, etc. That is an argument that I would like to see, but can’t really be made, yet. For example, when Rogers advertised that they were Canada’s fastest network or something along those lines, it was not true, at all, because Bell and Telus were even faster. That is a clear cut case of false advertising. In this situation, Waterloo is projecting that it is the most innovative, most entrepreneurial, etc. If you can disprove that position, if you can demonstrate that these qualities are not unique to Waterloo, and that other schools have matched or possibly exceeded Waterloo on its selling points, then you can argue that it is false advertising.

    Waterloo is on the right track. The new provost has stated many times that he wants to improve the undergraduate program. So expect to see some changes. It will never be perfect because that requires money. Considering how small Waterloo is and how young it is, it is doing quite alright. You will find that your problems are not a Waterloo problem, it is an institutional problem. The educational establishment has plenty to improve upon.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Jay. I would agree with most of what you have said. I’d like to point out that the “False Advertising” headline is just that–it’s a headline and it’s catchy. Perhaps using that as a defense is borderline ironic, but I think the body of the post conveys what I mean to say. I hope it’s clear from the post that I was asserting that Waterloo does not have these qualities within the scope of its quality of teaching. Certainly many achievements at Waterloo in other areas deserve to be applauded; what I was trying to emphasize was my firm belief that educational institutions like Waterloo should put education first, which (in the current system of education that we’re stuck with) starts in the classroom, not in the start-up business, and not in the research lab.

    I think there may be something to be said about the inflation of school reputations, like you mentioned. I would certainly encourage you to pursue the topic, research it, and write about it.

    Finally, I’m happy to echo your comment that many of the problems at Waterloo are systemic (institutional) and are probably shared by most universities in North America, if not in the world. My primary goal with this post was to begin exploring alternative ideas about education (please, be sure to read Dethe’s post on this). I chose to put Waterloo “in the cross-hair” so to speak because Waterloo is where I draw most of my experience from, and I find it particularly curious that Waterloo’s emphasis on leading edge innovation and experimentation is reflected well in some areas, but not in the classroom.

    Thanks again for your thoughts!

    //Mark

  3. Pierre says:

    If you do decide to “right” about this later, I hope it gets posted to the daily bulletin again, because I would certainly like to see more.

    I am not an engineering student, and engineering is the only faculty I have never taken a class in. I have had few of the experiences you have mentioned. Maybe engineering isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

  4. admin says:

    *fixes post*

    Thanks for the edit Pierre. I do hope to write about alternative education in the coming days… weeks… months… when I have time. To say that “engineering isn’t all it’s cracked up to be” I think would be only slightly off-base. Certainly in many faculties in many universities there are problems with teaching quality–higher education is still getting over “teaching as an afterthought” in hiring professors that both research and teach. I think it would be fair to say that I feel “Waterloo engineering isn’t the ‘awesome experience’ I hoped it would be in the classroom”. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had great profs–I certainly have–but it’s lamentable that they’re at best “as memorable as” (and often not as memorable as ) the terrible ones. Many experiences and opportunities I’ve had are in no small part thanks to Waterloo, Waterloo Engineering, and (perhaps more to the point) Waterloo’s reputation. Certainly they’ve been mixed with awful experiences, but there have been many excellent ones. I just wish more of them were “innovative learning experiences” in the classroom; I’ve instead felt that training engineers to be successful entrepreneurs and well-networked industry assets has come at the expense of teaching quality.

Leave a Reply