New CS curriculum marginalizes street cred of geeks

When Tech’s College of Computing (CoC) rolled out its new Threads program in fall 2006, they actively publicized and promoted the new curriculum structure. Indeed, the program brought national attention to the Computer Science (CS) department, particularly when it was recognized by Thomas Friedman in his book, The World Is Flat.

The core function of the threads curriculum, according to the website, is that it “replaces the generalized curriculum with an intense four-year program tailored to a student’s interests and aimed at real-world computing opportunities.” It involves radically increased customizability for the degree: Students are able to replace classes focused on more theoretical and “impractical” computing concepts with ones focused on the practical skills students will need when they leave school.

Sounds great, right? Big names like Thomas Friedman are saying that Tech “gets it,” and will better prepare its students for the emerging “flat world.” The public mentions of Tech in association with Friedman’s bestselling book have surely done a lot for the Institute’s reputation.

Ultimately, though, what exactly makes Thomas Friedman an expert on computer science and what makes a good CS graduate? And while Tech graduates, particularly in CS, are not often hard up for jobs, is this really setting current students up for success in the new, “flat” world?

Perhaps, along with the reputational boost that comes from mass media mentions, we should consider what prominent people in the software field are saying. And while I have (unfortunately) not seen feedback on the program from the experts in the field, I wonder if their feelings would match Friedman’s unbridled positivity.

Joel Spolsky, a notable author who writes the blog JoelOnSoftware.com, wrote an article in 2005 called “The Perils of JavaSchools,” about universities that teach classes solely on the Java programming language and the low quality of programmers they churn out as a result. The gist of Spolsky’s concern is that these JavaSchools don’t teach the parts of computer science that are actually difficult.

This perspective has been seconded by a number of others, and an article by Robert Dewar and Edmond Schonberg, posed the question, “Where Are the Software Engineers of Tomorrow?” According to them, most of today’s CS programs are not sufficiently rigorous and universities are dumbing down the requirements in order to boost flagging enrollment.

The incentive for departments to boost enrollment is clear: more students bring more money. But when enrollment in CS plummeted after the dot-com crash, departments which had previously been experiencing record numbers found themselves scrambling to justify their sizes. Many programmers and professors now believe that the drop in “difficult” requirements will lead to U.S. schools “training easily replaceable professionals.”

The question for Tech and the CoC, then, is whether Threads is truly a smarter approach, or whether it is simply a way for the department to appeal to more students at the expense of offering each one a truly quality CS education.

The answers to that question, sadly, won’t become apparent for years. In the meantime, administrators should make sure that the computing professionals who have “geek street cred,” like Spolsky, are on board with the sort of graduates Tech is producing.