Lifelong Learning and the Computer Science Curriculum at Virginia Tech

This is an article that I submitted to the Computer Science department in March 2012, just before graduation, for an assignment asking about the department’s preparation of students for lifelong learning. The post below is completely unchanged from what I submitted.

Transferring to Virginia Tech is the best decision I have ever made, and I largely have the Computer Science department to thank, which has made it possible for me to pursue what I am truly passionate about, get involved in many different projects, and work alongside the most brilliant and inspiring people I have ever met. My following comments should not be taken out of this context, and these comments should not lessen the extent to which I profess my excitement about the success of the Computer Science department and its involvement in shaping my future.

I do feel that many of my peers and I are prepared, equipped, and motivated to pursue lifelong learning as computer scientists, however I do not feel fully that the curriculum is to credit, and I do feel that our degree can be cheapened by those who have not taken it upon themselves to prepare and equip themselves for lifelong learning. I have long felt that this is one area in which the department could further strengthen itself and, by extension, those that it honors with a degree. Please note that these comments were not improvised simply for this assignment, but that these thoughts, reactions, and ideas have been formulating and maturing through the duration of my time here.

Lifelong learning doesn’t happen inside a classroom, yet the curriculum doesn’t require any learning that happens outside the classroom (or any that isn’t tied to a class in some capacity). Opportunities to extend learning outside of the classroom are available within the department, and some of the brightest minds and most exciting people to meet in the department are those that take advantage of such opportunities. Yet none of these are formalized as a part of the curriculum in any way.

If ensuring lifelong learning skills across the board for all graduates is a goal, I believe that formalizing learning that happens outside the classroom is key. This encourages learning that lets students express their proficiency in learning new things on their own, in following through with long-term projects, and in applying themselves to meaningful advances in our field. I believe a great way to do this would be to require and / or assess credit for a combination of the following objectives:

Students could, out of class, learn a new language, technology stack, framework, etc., using resources found and chosen on their own. They could set up an appointment to take a department-provided or department-recognized test on the topic, and earn a credit. This rewards students who demonstrate an ability to learn new skills on their own, and this encourages students to learn how to learn outside of a classroom, preparing them better for lifelong learning in a more applied and deliberate manner. Another great benefit of this approach is that these assessments can be created with much less effort than it takes to incorporate these topics as courses, so newer technologies and languages could be adopted very quickly. Further, this would help show interest and demand in emerging fields and technologies, serving as great analytics for future curriculum planning. Other logistics would need to be in place, such as a limit on the number of credits attained this way. Alternatively, one test date could be offered for all students each semester, allowing each student only one use of this credit per semester.

Requiring at least a semester of either undergraduate research or in a co-op before the end of a student’s sophomore year (or junior year for junior transfers) would help students get valuable experience earlier on in their college career, and open them up to the possibilities that they can find in pursuing these long-term projects further. Undergraduate research was by far one of the most rewarding educational experiences of which I’ve ever been a part, and I’ve heard others speak similarly of their co-ops. If a research opportunity also has a budget attached that allows it to pay students, allowing both pay and fulfillment of this credit or requirement would be a beneficial way to help Computer Science students strapped for cash discontinue their employment at the on-campus dining facilities, and spend more time on projects about which they are passionate, helping advance Virginia Tech’s Computer Science research.

To help students build a portfolio, and to further emphasize the objectives outlined above, requiring students to complete a long-term self-study project would be very beneficial to the curriculum and its graduates. At the end of their sophomore year, or at the beginning of their junior year, students could pitch their long-term self-study project idea to the department or a board for approval, having to prove its worthiness as a project that is meaningful or remarkable for society or our field of work. Armed with their project approval, which, depending on implementation, could be done in a pair or individually, students could set out to start their project and see it through to an objectified, pre-determined completion over the next two years. A presentation could be required during a student’s senior year, delivered to a required one or more members of the faculty for adjudication. Choice of faculty members could be based on their relevancy to the project or experience in the project’s sub-field.

A long-term project requirement such as this has a long list of benefits, notably encouragement for students to see a project through and to demonstrate their ability to ideate, initiate, grow, lead, and complete a long-term project. They would be encouraged to demonstrate their resourcefulness in learning what technologies are needed to make the project possible, and adapt their plans and development to emerging technologies and ongoing maturation of their project’s needed resources.

A presentation of this work would help students to reflect and debrief on the process, culminating all of the successes, failures, and trials from the project into an incredible amount of fodder from which students can draw upon, making this project a key proponent for discussion in job interviews or for further growth as a part-time or full-time business endeavor after graduation. This would grow students’ understanding of long-term projects, and the different things that have an impact on them. It would become some of the student’s own strongest prior experience.

Further, delivering the presentation to interested faculty would provide any students looking for a future in similar work or looking to grow the project further with conversations with those who have the experience and connections necessary to make strong recommendations and any needed introductions. The projects, presentations, and any distributable results would be fantastic pieces of work to publish for the student, the department, and the University.