onsdag 13 mars 2013

The future of the Media Technology Program

We had a workshop last week (under the auspices of our new full professor Haibo Li) about the future of the engineering program in Media Technology the we (KTH) offer. Ten persons - mostly senior teachers - showed up. This was the first meeting about the future of the five-year long engineering program we offer. The very first students started already back in 1999 (years before I  started to work at KTH), and the original work on planning the engineering program was thus done some 15 years ago. Although there have been changes since then, much of what we do today is still predicated on decision that were taken 15 years ago. It might be time to think about the education and the program we offer today and what we want to make of out it in the future. What do our students need in order to be gainfully employed in the future, say, five or ten year from now (2018-2028)?

I won't go into details about what specific persons said at the workshop - the plentiful notes that I wrote down are best to be regarded as "internal work documentation" at this point, but I will still sum up some points that I personally thought were interesting and that I think are ok for "public consumption".

Due to the results of recent evaluations (the Education Assessment Exercise in 2010, the evaluation of our education that we ourselves wrote for The Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (HSV) at the end of 2012 as well as a relatively recent student survey), there are reasons for us to take a step back and reflect on how we should think about some of the critique that has been raised against our program. As to what we need/should do, the answer is however sometimes "nothing" - since critique at times can be misguided and/or irrelevant. People who do fly-by evaluations don't always know enough and can just plainly draw the wrong conclusions based on relatively superficial impressions. It is easy to misunderstand or get the wrong impression if time is limited and the clock is ticking.

There should thus be a healthy "discounting" of others' opinions in comparison to our own (admittedly also less-than-totally-comprehensive) knowledge about our own education. I myself know a lot about the specific courses I am involved in (around half a dozen), but I know less about some other courses in our program and we all know less-than-might-be-wished-for about courses that our students take that are offered by other departments. Still, me and my colleagues work with these courses and meet our students every single day, so it is not very strange that we sometimes can disregard the opinions of others whose knowledge (as it is) mainly comes from interviewing the teachers, i.e. us. Another important thing to keep in mind is that external evaluations partly can be based on "beauty contests", i.e. when we get to write a text about our own education, we will naturally tend to stress the things we are happy about and gloss over or leave out things we are less satisfied with... Looking at it from that perspective, it is strange that not more evaluation is done on as local a level as possible, but with the help of (and perhaps mediated through workshops etc. by) external agencies - instead of them trying to poke us and evaluate us "from the outside" so to speak.

Another source of information is of course the students themselves. While I think their opinions should sometimes be taken with a grain of salt, I still think it is sensible to listen more closely to their opinions than to those of outside agencies with limited insights into the educational program.

However, it is time not just to "fix" a few problems that have been identified by teachers, students or outside agencies, but rather to think about the direction in which we want to develop our educational program during the next couple of years. Where do we as a department want to go and where do we want to be five years down the road? How do we get there? What should we start doing this or next year in order to reach our goal five years down the road? As it is, we don't really have a vision of exactly where we want to be five years from now, so there is a need to start by developing such a vision and the workshop was the first occasion for initiating that task.

I realize I have to navigate carefully in this blog post, because it is at occasions such as these that differences in opinion about what different persons think really is important comes to the forefront. People who accept each other('s work) and cooperate on a daily basis (or to be honest, don't care too much about each other's work and don't meet or interact on a daily basis) might have varying opinions when it comes to developing a vision about "where we should go" in the future. This very first workshop was more a beginning - a meeting of minds and an exchange of information and opinions rather than the endgame. Here are a few things that were said and that I think is of interest:

  • We wish we knew more about other educational programs in Media Technology (in Sweden, Scandinavia and Europe). What do they have that we don't? What do we have that they don't? What could we "borrow" or be inspired by, and what should we stay away from (not interesting for us, or they do it better than we ever could)? How can we develop a profile and work towards being best in these areas? My personal suggestions is that we send a delegation (perhaps two persons) on an educational journey through Europe. Björn should be one of these two persons. Speaking for myself, I think it would be a great idea to claim/specialize in ICT/media technology and sustainability/sustainable development. We have already started that work by forming a team around these topics at my department!
  • The research base for the education is (apparently) sometimes weak (according to outside agencies). This problem is hard to fix. One fix could involve recruiting new faculty, "developing" current faculty or developing our courses. Another problem is that students themselves might not always see this as a desirable goal, especially when (if) it comes into conflict with hands-on knowledge that increases their employability in the short run. But, we shouldn't educate our student with the goal of short-term employability in mind, but rather with long-term employability in mind! What do students need to get from the university experience that will make them employable a decade (or two) from now? Any current fad/hype when it comes to systems and concrete tools is not the answer (even if the students often think so).
  • Students are sometimes dissatisfied. I'm personally not sure exactly what they are dissatisfied with because some students will always be dissatisfied with things that other students like fine thank-you-very-much - and vice versa. Some students want more hard (engineering) emphasis/topics in our education, others prefer the soft (aesthetic, social science) topics. The best-case would be for students to appreciate both "sides" and then make the best of the overlap - and this really is (or should be) an area where we could excel! What are all or most students dissatisfied with? I don't have a clear picture of this. I personally prefer to listen more to what (most) students dislike than to listen to what their (partial, probably varying) suggestions or proposed solutions are. Students oftentimes just don't have "the larger picture" (as seen from "above" and that I and fellow teachers can have - especially if we talk with each other and compare notes). 
  • Another problem is that if/when we develop a vision and a roadmap, there are though, gluey structures to navigate at a university to get from here to there. The administration involved in trying to make changes and to change course should not be trifled with unnecessarily... Also, we might have great ideas for the best possible education, but these ideas have to to be economically viable within the funny-mirror-system of financing higher education (university courses and educational programs). How do our potentially high-flying visions work within the framework of the concrete economics of giving university courses? These are the nitty-gritty details of getting from here to there that are best forgotten at banquet speeches, but that incessantly pops up when the agenda is the real work of making change happen. 
  • I believe we kind-of agreed that incremental change can be fine at times. We might for example not always have to develop new courses, but could instead update or more radically change the way we teach our current courses. We could for example "re-possess" courses that have been outsourced to other departments. My own course on "Media Technology and Sustainability" is an example of this. Other computer science educations have outsourced their ICT+Sustainability courses, but we opted for keeping this course in-house/to ourselves, and it is now very clear (to me) that this was a very good move. With the course as a base, we can develop our own competence in this area and I also arrogantly believe that we, with our superior knowledge of our own students, can create and deliver a much better course than another department ever could. This could be a model for other courses and other topics in our education...
  • Another issue is how we should navigate in relation to "industry needs". What needs? What industries in the first place (since our alumni get jobs "all over the place")? And how much should we listen to the needs and wants of industry in relation to our own visions about the education?
Here is a selection of some additional personal thoughts of mine:
  • Top-down visionary change is fine and even necessary, but we live in the real world where what we do is (over-)regulated. Revolutionary change is thus out of the question and we have to work more with evolutionary/incremental change - incremental improvements based on practice and on our experiences.
  • We should use the MID teams (like for example the MID sustainability team) better, also in terms of education. Sustainability shouldn't be about me personally, it should be about the MID sustainability team. Things change, people are busy or can move on to elsewhere. We shouldn't make ourselves overly dependent on specific persons, but the team should be responsible for (for example) courses.
  • Also, there should never be teachers who teach courses all by themselves - there should instead always be side-kicks (assistant teachers - could be ph.d. students). This also makes specific courses less vulnerable and makes it much easier should someone else have to take over a course.
  • We shouldn't necessarily listen to students and "give them what they want". Who really knows what they want - perhaps even they themselves don't (not even alumni really know in retrospect what their education "should have been like"). We should instead strive to give students something that is really good and that surpasses their expectations. 
  • We should work more (and more informally) with the students/alumni. Björn apparently already has such contacts on a regular basis, but I didn't even know about it so he has obviously not disseminated his findings to his colleagues in a good way.
  • We can recruit people who are both good researchers and good pedagogues, but "what you are" is not set in stone! So how can we develop the personnel we already have? How can we work towards creating a better faculty based on who we are and the people we already have? In my own experiences, the students who take one of my courses (Future of Media) have steadily become better each year. But is that because progressively better students take the course every year - or because I am better at setting their expectations and giving them clear instructions each year? If the answer is the latter (which it of course is), then how can the same kind of reasoning be applied to the faculty? How can MID work better and more effectively with incentives to create the faculty we want/need/should be(come)? What is desirable behavior in teachers? Should for example presence/involvement in departmental matters be encouraged/rewarded? Some teachers do it and others shirk (it's not formally in their set of responsibilities to be "accessible" and show up at department coffee/information meetings - but a lot of issues can be handled informally around the coffee table!)? The answer is of course "yes, these behaviors should be encourages/rewarded". But are they? I would say not really. A more detailed discussion on this topic has to wait for another day and another blog post...
  • One idea is to use the courses where teachers naturally work close together (for example our program-integrating course and the bachelor's thesis course) as templates for how to get people to work more together, share experiences and develop channels for lateral communication between teachers. Also on that note, there should be a program-integrating course (or a continuation of the current course) for our 4th and 5th year students. That course is really great both for students and teachers and constitutes an invaluable backchannel for informal feedback about courses, about the program and about the students' experiences of studying at KTH.
  • I personally like low-admin actions/drives. I liked the CSC school call for internal pedagogical developmental projects last year as well as the CSC school current call for small visionary projects with a one-page limit for applications! More bang for the buck = "more action and less administration"!

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