Letters to the editor

Predicting Failure of the University

  1. Introduction
  2. Author Responds:
  3. Gender 'Equity' in Computer Science
  4. Author Responds:
  5. Get Serious About Social Responsibility
  6. Why Voting in Secret Stays Secret
  7. Dismayed by Raised Fist on Cover
  8. Not Based on Linux
  9. References
  10. Footnotes
Letters to the Editor, illustration

Henry C. Lucas, Jr.'s Viewpoint "Technology and the Failure of the University" (Jan. 2018) was a tour de force of unfounded assertions, beginning with a prediction that 50% of U.S. universities will fail in the next 15 years, justified by two articles posted on the blogs http://www.futuristspeaker.com/ and https://www.zero-hedge.com/. (The latter is described by RationalWiki as "apocalypse porn" that has "accurately predicted 200 of the last 2 recessions.") Lucas asserted "… technology-enhanced teaching and learning can dramatically improve the quality and success of higher education …" His Figure 1 and Figure 2, in outlining traditional versus technology-enhanced courses, suggested traditional teaching methods deliver a low-quality result, while professional (Hollywood) production methods deliver a high-quality result, with, again, no evidence provided.

The idea of universities as "content producers" giving students "content" consisting of "course materials and exercises" gave me an analogous idea. Families give food and clothing to their children, but families are inefficient and can involve bloated administrations (parents). Just as parents do more than feed (they try to create an environment where their children can develop and thrive), universities likewise try to create a learning environment for students. Indispensable elements include laboratory work, fieldwork, real essays marked by real scholars (not against a list of bullet points), and project work. And that is only the strictly academic side. Also indispensable are cultural and social events and pastoral care. A lot of these things are not easily delivered through a mobile device.

We should be willing to embrace new technology but must remember technology is not always beneficial. For example, during the 1990s, PowerPoint was touted as an efficient means of delivering content, but, alas, PowerPoint turned out to be soporific. The content was delivered, but the consumers were half asleep.

Lucas's section labeled "Threats to Technology" included a helpful list of practices that "create a huge barrier to adopting new technologies for education," including assistant professors "publishing scholarly articles and books" (the horror!), tenured faculty who can largely do what they want (news to me), and "faculty governance" (another horror—democracy). What we need apparently is "a fearless dean" (perhaps a fan of zerohedge.com) to impose unwanted technology on the faculty and expect them to embrace it with enthusiasm.

The funny thing is, you might think new technology would cut costs; the cost of higher education has reached alarming levels. But, Lucas said, "… it requires substantial resources invested in the technology." It seems that Hollywood production methods must actually be paid for.

Lawrence C. Paulson, Cambridge, England

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Author Responds:

I do not believe 50% of universities will fail but do expect a number will. The figures referred only to technology-enhanced courses and should not be interpreted as suggesting traditional teaching methods are inferior. Viewpoints present an author's opinions; in my case, the evidence behind mine was mainly from my personal experience teaching a variety of courses. Universities are tradition-bound, and a number of cultural factors make it difficult to bring about change, no matter how enlightened. Technology can enhance educational offerings and create a more active learning environment. But schools unable or unwilling to embrace technology-enhanced teaching and learning face an uncertain future.

Henry C. Lucas, College Park, MD, USA

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Gender 'Equity' in Computer Science

As a scientist in Silicon Valley and longtime member of ACM, I am inspired by the growing representation of women in science and engineering. (Incidentally, my only daughter has a degree in electrical engineering and is gainfully employed in artificial intelligence and robotics.) I support increased efforts to teach coding to girls (and boys) and eliminate gender bias (such as in grant and paper reviewing). I thus read Jodi L. Tims's "From the Chair of ACM-W" column "Achieving Gender Equity: ACM-W Can't Do It Alone" (Feb. 2018) with great interest, especially when she said, "… a nagging question that many of us who work so hard in the space of gender equity in computing have. Why, with so much sustained effort by so many individuals and organizations, is progress toward gender equity so slow?" My concern is that neither the column nor its cited works defined the "equity" mentioned in its headline. Is the only possible definition 50%/50% representation at every level of expertise? Or could it be, say, 56%/44% women/men—the percentages of all students in U.S. public colleges? Conversely, are the numerous professional disciplines where women outnumber or out-earn men manifestly "iniquitous" according to the column's assumed definition?

We STEM professionals and educators, and the public more generally, would gain clarity, and hence be better able to take enlightened action, if the goal were first made explicit and justified, then accepted by stakeholders.

David G. Stork, Portola Valley, CA, USA

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Author Responds:

In working toward systemic change, we find it difficult to choose the appropriate gender-equity measure. Should we strive to be reflective of the college population, the workforce, or the overall population? Should the target vary by country or be culturally blind? Unfortunately, women account for only 26% of the technology workforce and less than 20% of undergraduate computing majors. Neither is close to being a useful definition of gender equity.

Jodi L. Tims, Berea, OH, USA

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Get Serious About Social Responsibility

As a longtime activist in and former board member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility,1 I was heartened by Moshe Y. Vardi's call in his "Vardi's Insights" column "Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility" (Jan. 2018) for greater focus on professional responsibilities in today's increasingly technology-driven era. I agree with Vardi that it should include new activity on the part of ACM, including critical introspection. I worry that while digital systems are being incorporated into every facet of modern life, many problems associated with these systems, including device addiction, surveillance, data harvesting, fake news, and worse, could be threatening, even as our collective ability to address them is diminishing.

While ACM could face significant structural barriers trying to address this need, including the potential for conflicts of interest, I hope it faces up to the challenge. At the very least, I suggest a basic goal should be to provide robust opportunities for open public discussion of the issues and related critiques concerning computers and society.

Ideally, computer scientists working with people from all elements of society would be able to help shape our future technology-using society, supporting the common good, not just the needs of corporations and governmental agencies. Uppermost would be to reduce inequality, improve educational opportunities for all, strengthen collective problem solving, and protect the natural environment, at least what is left of it. Sadly, it is not at all clear that the trajectory within the computer science community (or society in general) is today heading in this direction.

Douglas Schuler, Seattle, WA, USA

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Why Voting in Secret Stays Secret

In his news item "Sharing Secrets (Without Giving Them Away)" (Jan. 2018), Arnout Jaspers aimed to describe a protocol created by Ronald Cramer, a cryptographer at the Dutch Centrum voor Wiskunde en Informatics research center, whereby three people are able to vote so the overall vote is known but individual votes are not disclosed. Cramer et al.2 described the protocol, in essence, like this: Each voter selects two random numbers and computes the third one so the sum of all three is equal to the voter's own vote (1 if yes, 0 if no). To every voter (including him/herself) the voter then sends two of the three numbers, a different pair for each receiver. Each voter then adds all the numbers received from the other voters and from him/herself, and makes this sum public. The sum of all three public sums is thus twice the number of yes-votes.

Vladik Kreinovich, El Paso, TX, USA

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Dismayed by Raised Fist on Cover

I am a lifetime subscriber to Communications and ACM and was dismayed by the cover of the Feb. 2018 issue. The raised, clenched fist is inextricably associated with leftist political movements. Please do not mix politics with hard science.

James Reynolds, Richardson, TX, USA

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Not Based on Linux

In his news story "Going Serverless" (Feb. 2018), Neil Savage identified Kubernetes as "an open source container system based on Linux." Kubernetes is not based on Linux but rather is an open source container-management system based on Google's experience with Borg.—The Editors

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