YU Needs to Reboot Computer Science to Programming Bootcamps
While many areas of the job market languish, computer programming continues to grow at an ever-increasing rate. As human resources shift, jobs that once required human capital can now be completed by computer program, catalyzing the industry’s growth.
A recent article in The New York Times offers a salient example of this industry-wide shift. Cutting-edge algorithms can now analyze complex texts for law firms, actually reducing the need for human lawyers. This trend will continue across various industries. Looking far into the future, some programmers believe that computer programs will one day drive America’s fleet of trucks, forcing an entire industry out of work. As the tech investor Marc Andreessen said in a 2011 article in The Wall Street Journal, "software is eating the world.”
One would expect colleges to expand and update their computer science departments as demand for programming grows, and many have. But over the years, Yeshiva University has downsized its computer science department and subsumed it into the Math department.
Students are avoiding YU’s weak computer science department, perpetuating the department’s meager offerings. I know from personal experience that a number of students interested in computer programming from my year at YU transferred to other universities for more robust educations. And who knows how many computer science-inclined students avoided YU in the first place?
A robust computer science program would attract many talented Jewish students back to YU. As the founders of Google, Facebook and Oracle demonstrate, there’s no lack of successful Jewish programmers in the world. Future students (and future donors!) are will depend on how much YU will invest in their computer science department. I believe, however, that my alma matter should consider a more bold solution than simply hiring more professors.
From my experience, I’ve found that most computer science students do not get much out of their lectures. The best students usually read or program on their computers during class instead of paying attention - not because of a boring lecture, but rather because lectures themselves are not the best way to teach programming. To learn a topic like programming one needs to actively practice it, not passively listen to a lecture. The ‘lecture’ has managed to survive the invention of writing and printing, but the internet will consume traditional lectures just as it has changed other areas. At the very least, software will play a greater role in education going forward.
Jews are familiar with a different approach to learning than lectures - learning with a chavrusa, or study partner. It is hard to study complex subjects on one’s own, so it often helps to work with a peer. A pair studying alone may also find it difficult to stay focused, which can be solved by joining a group that provides the right environment, structure, and support. Colleges think that students learn in traditional lectures, but modern technology requires modern pedagogy. Environment and structure are the key to learning; the lecture, too often is a distraction.
Recently, some have successfully adopted a “chavruta”-style approach to teaching programming. ‘Programming Bootcamps’, such as DevBootcamp or AppAcademy, have popped up all over the country to teach web development in two to three months. Students in these programs often learn more practical programming skills there than they would in 3 years at many colleges. Lectures play a very small role in these programs. Instead, they gather bright students together to code for most of the day, while instructors provide them with structure and help. Students quickly churn through online tutorials and then spend most of the time actively practicing coding. When they need help or feedback, they have other students or mentors to turn to. This approach has been very successful, and many students have been able to land full-time jobs after graduating from their brief yet packed program.
When academics hear of such schemes, most will no doubt snort. “A college is not a trade school,” they will likely retort. “we’re not here to teach practical skills!” While the sentiment has its purpose, if you ask most students why they’re attending college, studies indicate they will most likely cite employment as the number one reason. Students aren’t taking out loans just to be well-rounded or to learn to think critically. If Yeshiva University wants its education to remain relevant in the modern era, it will need to adjust their offerings to match what their customers want.
In theory, YU could learn from the bootcamps and offer its own lucrative “programming bootcamp” for students. The bootcamp could be a block set aside during the day where students code for a few hours straight. Mentors would be present to provide structure and feedback for the students. Motivated students could learn a huge amount in such a structure.
This could transform YU’s lackluster computer science program into one of the most cutting edge and innovative collegiate programs at which to study programming. The bootcamp could start as an experiment and eventually become a real academic choice, with the option to earn credits and satisfy requirements. In fact, this model could be adopted by other departments within the university to cut cost and teach students practical skills under guided mentorship.
Ariel Krakowski graduated Magna Cum Laude from Yeshiva College in May 2012 with a B.A. in Computer Science. He is the founder of Learneroo.com, a site to teach programming and other topics online. Learneroo will be creating an online Java programming bootcamp this January. Ariel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.