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Planting Seeds in the Field of Knowledge

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Microsoft Research Director Daniel Reed

In these challenging economic times, U.S. universities are under great stresseconomically, politically, and socially. Cash-strapped states are reducing appropriations for public universities, and those private universities fortunate enough to possess substantial endowments are managing them with a frugal eye on an uncertain economy.  To compensate, tuition is rising rapidly, and the chase for already constrained federal research funding is increasingly frenetic.

Unfortunately, increasing numbers of students are leaving (degreed or not) with substantial loan debt andin this economywith rather bleak employment prospects.  The rising cost of higher education, coupled with uncertain employment options, is deeply troubling to parents and students, as well as faculty members and university leaders.

What does all this mean? Public and private institutions alike are now caught between their straitened economics and their historical roles. In a rapidly shifting knowledge economy, it has never been more important to educate a new generation of students, advance the frontiers of knowledge, foster economic development, and facilitate debate on important societal issues. 

Computing Responsibility

It is tempting for those of us in computing to ignore these issues. After all, our field is booming, with stunning advances in both computing theory and practice. We face a shortfall of qualified graduates, the competition for experienced and qualified practitioners is intense, and there are many interesting and well-remunerated jobs.  (For detailed data, see the Computing Research Association [CRA] workforce data analysis.)

Yes, we should celebrate these happy facts, but I believe we must also consider our social obligation to help address today’s university challenges, for we are the beneficiaries of past actions. In that spirit, it is worthwhile to consider another time when American society renegotiated its compact with higher education, triggered by social and economic upheaval.

The Morrill Act of 1862 granted each state 30,000 acres of public land. Proceeds from the land sales were to be invested in an endowment to support colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts in each of the states.  For the first time, practical training became a major focus of U.S. higher education.  

These “land grant” institutions brought modern engineering and agricultural methods to a still largely rural and agrarian, though rapidly industrializing society. Nor were they simply outposts of erudition, with agricultural experiment stations and extension services; they quite literally took new ideas and technology to the farmer’s field.

Planting Seeds

What are the “agricultural and mechanical” arts of the 21st century knowledge economy?  What transformative force is driving economic and social change? The answer to both questions seems rather obviousit is computing, both its enabling technology and its myriad applications.   

Our universities are struggling to respond and adapt to a rapidly shifting environment, with new social demands and heightened economic pressures. How do we help them respond more nimbly to societal needs for education and skills, economic development and job creation? How can we best use computing to expand access to higher education? How can we reduce costs and provide just-in-time lifelong education when the inevitable technical dislocation and job losses occur? How can we accelerate discovery and innovation?

I do not know the answers, or even all the questions. However, like agriculture and engineering before us, computing has a social responsibility to be an active and enthusiastic partner in helping chart the nature of higher education and its evolving compact with society. It is, I believe, a responsibility we have not fully shouldered to this point.

We have the skills, insights, and expertise. We can plant the seeds of the future.



Universities need to stop treating education as a business and understand that the reason most students are in college is to get a degree, which in this day and age, hopefully will get them a job. Therein lies the problem. Take for example personal hobbies. People don't master a hobby because they have to, they do it because they want to. Students obviously don't want to go to school, they do it because they have been told, or because they have come to understand that's the only way to get ahead in this world. Make them WANT it! Let education become a hobby, not a job. I am all for the saying, "If it's not broken, don't fix it." But this does not imply that something cannot be better. Remove the traditional sit in a lecture and listen to someone talk. The idea that listening to someone talk is beneficial to one's learning is absurd. In regards to accelerating education, stop using ancient ideas such as, "don't use a calculator". When you develop a tool, use it. Use that tool to learn how it works, and then build new tools with that tool. Don't throw it to the side and ignore it. It is my belief that there will come a time when the knowledge required to make advancements in a field such as computer science, will require more time than an individual has to live. This is an obvious problem. A solution is to kill two birds with one stone. Take for example physics, math, and computer programming. Why no learn all three at the same time? Teach math by programming math. Teach physics by creating 3D games. Vary the difficulty of the learning based on each student, not a set curriculum. Also, teachers need to be more like managers while the students teach each other. You will always have bright students, and bright students who take longer to understand. Pair them together and let the learning begin. The teacher can then utilize their time to check each students understanding individually and provide feedback as to what the student is doing well and what needs more attention. It is ridiculous that people would even think or consider allowing one individual to try and teach 10, 20, 50, 800 students at one time. Let 800 students teach 800 students. Some serious rethinking needs to take place with the world and the education system for humanity to make it further than previous world civilizations.

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