Total Pageviews

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Outpost Bureaucracy: The Power of One is Strong

What's the longest journey you've ever taken through university bureaucracy? Mine is probably longer. After five months of appeals, I'm finally able to register at Concordia as a McGill student for an equivalent course. Just like the comic above - I was arbitrarily denied for no good reason after getting approval from six McGill and Concordia administrators. So like before, I employed a tactic to coerce this "outpost bureaucracy" which paid off! More on outpost bureaucracies later. Finally, while this is a story of eventual success, buckle down because I feel the comic above is no exaggeration.

I hope that by telling this embarrassing story university administrators will clear up some of their ludicrous and profoundly convoluted processes. I don't mean to unfairly target school administrators. But lets never forget that some of them are responsible for not fixing this mess. We need to complain more.

The Call to Adventure

In January 2015 I realized that if I schedule my classes right, I might be able to graduate as early as December 2015. Sweet! Lets make that happen! But I needed a diversity themed education course. Unfortunately, the only course overlapped by just 20 minutes and on only one day, with a computer science course I also absolutely needed.

Lets talk to the diversity professor, Donna-Lee Smith. Maybe she'll be understanding?

I spoke to Donna after class. I appealed alongside another student who commiserated with me because she too was experiencing how the education department and science department refused to cooperate with each other. Both me her promised to prioritize attendance in Donna's class. We could make this promise because lectures in science courses are typically optional, or recorded, or just terrible. We just needed some flexibility in case there was a test and we needed to arrive 20 minutes late maybe once a month.

Donna's answer? No. Absolutely no. 100% attendance every single day is non-negotiable. Donna seemed like a good professor from her first class, but this was inexcusably inflexible.

She clearly did not care about our schedules or our lives. If I had a test or exam conflict, she was going to be a problem, not a solution. Donna is not the final gatekeeper in my comic, by the way. We've hardly even gotten started.

Refusal of the Call

So I dropped the course. Next I asked advisers for an exemption or if I could substitute a course. I was denied.

One problem with pursuing a multi-disciplinary program is that no department feels you belong to them. I'm completing an arts degree (arts department) in computer science (science department) and education (education department). This is the only way at McGill to get a degree studying education and technology. Fun side note: my arts degree consists of zero arts credits.

So when I say "next I asked for an exemption and was denied" this wasn't a simple matter of meeting with my adviser. The arts adviser told me to see an education adviser, who told me to see a science adviser, who told me to see an arts adviser. I estimate I sent a dozen emails to a handful of people at this stage. I was eventually denied, since saying no is less work than saying yes. So I thought I'd make an appointment and explain my circumstances, since saying no to someone's face takes more work.

Meeting with the Oracle

In the summer the stakes got high. Some of you may know already that I'm extremely fortunate to teach technology topics in a high school during my studies. Since I want a career in education technology, this is fabulous work experience and it's easily more important than any one course I could take at McGill. Unfortunately, for my final fall semester I was left with just two choices:

Teach or graduate. I had to quit my job or take an extra semester for one course.

So I met with an adviser, Grace Wong-McAllister, again. I tried hard to offer alternatives:
  • Could my six extra credits in education technology replace the three diversity credits? No.
  • Is there any other course I could take instead of this one diversity course in the fall? No.
  • Is there a summer course I could take instead? No.
  • Could I get an exemption? No.
The last point is especially fun. She asked if I had previously done relevant course work that could exempt me from this course. I answered: "well, yes. I have a BA in English literature. Maybe half my essays were about race, gender, religion, or cultural diversity." She looked at me like I was a block of mouldy cheese that just spoke to her. "No no no... that won't do."

Crossing the Threshold

Here's some advice: don't give up. Just because nine people say no in twenty different ways doesn't mean it can't be done. I kept pressing Grace for options. Eventually she thought of something.

"It's a long shot, though."

An inter-university cooperation group called CREPUQ might let me take an equivalent course at Concordia while I'm a McGill student. Pretty soon this became my very last option. If I couldn't take this course at Concordia, I'd have to quit my fantastic teaching job or take an extra semester for one course. I'm still baffled by the incredible stupidity of this situation. All because of a 20 minute overlap on one day.

The Trials

Luckily, I had no problems checking Concordia's schedule because I remembered my old login credentials. The course existed! And it fit in my schedule! So I filled out several pages of awkward CREPUQ web forms. My program of study was not an option so I chose a generic option instead and left a note.

A day later: rejected. Invalid program of study.

Okay. I resubmitted. This time I just lied and said I was an education student.

I could see now that my request must pass through a gauntlet of administrators. The next one in line is only notified once the one above them approves my request:
  • 1st program adviser - McGill
  • 2nd program adviser - McGill
  • Registrar - McGill
  • Adviser - Concordia
  • Approval of Registrar - Concordia
  • Confirmation of Registrar - Concordia
That means if one administrator diddles, I'm stuck. Well that's exactly what happened. After McGill adviser #2 stalled for a month, I sent them an email. To their credit, they soon woke up and passed the torch.

Two months later, I got CREPUQ approval to register for the course! Victory..?

The Crisis

After re-activating my old Concordia account (not easy) I found that I could not enrol in any courses. I had to contact "enrolment services". They eventually removed that lock.

Next, I hit a "reserve capacity is met" lock. I contacted enrolment services again. They tell me to ask the department. Okay. Calling the department took a few days of trying because their office was moving during the summer. I spoke to an administrator we'll call "Sarah". Sarah is the mountain gatekeeper from the comic. She asked for details by email, I happily sent them. Her email reply, verbatim:

"i verified but unfortunately there are only spots for Concorida students."

Okay... I asked when the leftover slots would open for independent students. I gave my story and circumstances.

"sorry but the course will not open up,it is only for Concordia students"

I see. So I previously got a BA from Concordia, I'm a re-activated "independent" Concordia student, I'm probably doing a master's at Concordia soon, but I'm not enough of a Concordia student for Sarah?

Outpost Bureaucracies
I'd like to take a moment to explain my term "outpost bureaucracy". This is where a lower employee is assigned god-like responsibility over some very obscure task in a bureaucracy. The catch is that it's so obscure that nobody cares about it. For example, approving inter-university independent student requests in one department. It's an outpost, so it's very lonely and there's no prestige. But it's an outpost! So there's nobody around to criticize any decisions. When that lone adventurer comes to the mountain summit, what is the outpost sentry tempted to do? Justify their self-importance by harshly exercising their power with impunity.

The Ordeal

So I phone someone else in the department of education. I give my best performance explaining my circumstances and try to elicit sympathy. She sounds optimistic and suggests I send her an email with all the details. Thank you! I send the email. Nothing. Two weeks later I follow up: "Hey? Any news?" No response. It's been months now, still nothing. I phoned and left a message, nothing.

I called the graduate department to see if they can pull some strings for a future student. I spoke to a nice guy, but nope.

I called the Concordia CREPUQ coordinator. Also a nice guy, but nope.

Slaying the Dragon

What finally worked was a carefully crafted email. I employed several tactics:

  • I sent it to the Concordia registrar from my CREPUQ request instead of the advisers. I reasoned that registrars had more power because the advisers were serving as a spam filter. My first invalid request was denied by an adviser and never saw a registrar's inbox. People who are difficult to reach tend to have more power.
  • I quoted Sarah verbatim, including her tragic misspelling of "Concorida".
  • I mentioned that someone in the registrar's own department was not responding to phone calls.
  • I wasn't whining about my situation. Instead, my main request was for CREPUQ to remove this course from their list since Concordia is obviously not cooperating.
  • I said I wanted to help future students going through the system.
  • Finally, I requested that only available courses be listed on CREPUQ.
That last point is vital. I was asking the registrar to get involved in a long process and do a lot of work. Nobody wants to do work. Several days later I got a phone call... from Sarah! Sarah who previously denied me entry unconditionally. She was now remarkably kind and helpful. I'm thinking... maybe someone important came to the outpost?

For the sake of completeness, this wasn't the end, just nearly. Sarah said she unlocked the course. It didn't work. I call, no answer. I get an email saying she registered me herself! I check... oops! I'm registered in the wrong course. 445 instead of 454. Chronic dyslexia! Apparently her "director" gave her the wrong course number. Maybe we've identified my saviour.

Finally, I'm now registered for the right course and everything is dandy!

Return with the Elixir

So what did we learn on this hero's journey?

  • When you make offerings to many gods and your life takes a positive spin, it's hard to say who helped. I think it was the registrar email but really, who knows? Like the gods, the registrar never answered.
  • Emails tend to produce "no"s. Phone calls are more like long drawn out "no"s. But meet the Oracles in person and don't leave until your path is before you.
  • This journey had many characters. Mentors, shadows, tricksters, heralds, and shapeshifters. I estimate this whole process directly involved fourteen administrators (I left out details). FOURTEEN. Does that seem right to you?

Alternate Ending

Here's how we used to do course registrations:

Dear reader from 2015, does this look ridiculous to you? Well registering through CREPUQ (while it worked in the end) seems far more ridiculous to me than the picture above. Solving my scheduling problem required an estimated forty emails, one external organization, six phone calls, and three meetings in person. All spread out over five months and fourteen administrators.

So how should this have worked? How many people should have been involved in fixing my scheduling issue? How about zero.

Don't be a pessimist now! Do you think you could have told these registration administrators from the 1960s that they'd be replaced by a computer? The only difference between then and now, is they didn't have the technology we do.

Course Registrations Should be Provincial

Why the hell do different universities manage their own course registration platforms? It's like schools are paying software companies to make Microsoft Word two hundred times separately. It's like they're saying "but my documents are special because my university is special". Your university is not a special snowflake. Students register for courses in all universities in a fundamentally similar way.

This could be managed centrally by the highest branch of government in charge of education: the provinces. We can pay to get it right, make it flexible, and remove no autonomy from universities. Meanwhile there could be one way to register for university courses for each province. Every university can chip in and they'd save a ton of money by eventually cutting support staff. Here's what I want to see:
  • When I search for a course on McGill and it's not there, I'm shown a list of equivalent courses offered at other schools. I just click a "register" button, agree to some terms, and I'm done.
  • Schools can set their own limits on how many courses can be taken externally.
  • Schools choose which of their courses participate - just like now.
  • Schools set their own limits on how many external students are allowed in each course.
One day I might write a post on how to avoid blowing ludicrous sums of money on public software projects. But this post is already epic. Instead, I'll leave you with a comic that perfectly details why course registrations for universities are such a mess - why bureaucracies expand and don't contract. The problem is not technology or funding. We have the technology and working together saves money. The problem is politics:

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Guess Who's Still Teaching at McGill?

That's right, this guy:

A year ago I wrote a post called Nomination for Worst Professor. I highly recommend it if you're interested in how bad professors can possibly be. Here's a reminder if you need it though. First, the usual "merely bad professor" stuff:
  • His lectures were usually not specifically about the course.
  • He kept telling the class that the course is "boring" and "dry".
  • He liked to end class 30% early.
But here's the stuff that really makes him shine like a hunk of coal in a jewelry store:
  • When it was discovered that many of his students couldn't calculate an average, his reaction was "oh well!" and he never tested us on it (or really anything) even though he said he would.
  • He just about never referenced any research, ever, throughout the entire course.
  • He lied about who our TA was, then started ignoring my emails altogether. He gave me several bogus email addresses for our TA and I never found out who it was, or if they even existed.
  • I persisted, but it proved impossible to get any feedback on an essay worth 25% of our grade. I am nearly certain nobody read any of our essays and we all just got As.
He's Back: Proof the Department Doesn't Care

My comic above is not a joke. In some rare cases, I really do think offering a lecturer position to a randomly chosen graduate student would be a huge improvement for the course. Imagine how seriously a graduate student might take that opportunity? Clearly, improving this course is not McGill's priority.

Maybe hiring a replacement was too much work.

In my original post I did not identify the course, professor, or the department chair. I wanted to give the department a fair chance to do something about this. Now that he's teaching again there's no reason to maintain privacy. Gus Appignanesi is the professor and Jeff Derevensky is the department chair I complained to. I'm hoping Jeff was powerless here but it could have been a conflict of interest. Their research interests are conspicuously identical. They likely work together and know each other outside McGill. More on this in my original post.

By the way, I've still gotten zero feedback on my A grade essay. Or proof that anyone even read it. Why doesn't the department care about this, at all?

But Everyone Loves Gus!
That's right, Gus currently has a smooth 4.6 out of 5 rating on RateMyProfessors.

"Gus is a rare gem at McGill."

"Best professor at McGill"

Well, what did we expect? A professor ends class early, expects nothing, doesn't test you, doesn't challenge you with research, talks about irrelevant fun random topics, and hands out As without reading your paper. Of course students love him - especially those who write glowing reviews without punctuation on RateMyProfessors.

I can't think of a more perfect example of why you must use caution interpreting ratings on RateMyProfessors. It's up to the department to evaluate professors more objectively, and ignore high praise from student reviews in cases where a professor is seriously undermining the legitimacy of a department.

What Now?
Thank you for reading and sharing my posts. I've gotten far more readers than I ever imagined by talking about McGill. I really feel like together we're exposing how some McGill courses are the pinnacle of grade-inflated shams. Like "security theater" too many university courses are "education theater".

If you want a profoundly easy course that does not challenge you, taught by a professor who says and proves he does not care, then take Measurement and Evaluation with Gus this coming semester.

Finally, awhile ago I found a website called Degrading McGill written by a McGill professor. If you're interested in what value McGill is giving you in exchange for your time and money, I highly recommend it.

If you care, complain.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Don't Ban Killer Robot Research. Just Ban Killer Robots.

There's a lot of serious and legitimate concern lately about the development of autonomous weapons.

The Basic Idea
Humanity nearly has the technology to mass produce machines which can target and choose to kill humans, all without human intervention. So a factory worker turns on a machine, and then it goes out into the world and finds terrorists or protesters and kills them. The machine does this all by itself without any human controller actually making that final decision. In case you haven't been following the latest advances in robots and machine learning, we are nearly there.

I agree with the campaign to stop killer robots that we need to ban killer robots. But they also advocate banning research. Instead, we must only ban their manufacturing and activation, because banning research on killer robots is not only totally ineffective, but unwise.

This is Scarier than Nuclear Weapons
Nations have some control over nuclear weapons. The recent deal with Iran for example greatly restricts their ability to make nuclear weapons in exchange for improving their economy. That's because obtaining nuclear materials, refining them, and building facilities to make nuclear weapons requires a major industrial effort. Furthermore, nations that do so have trouble hiding it.

Automated weapons are especially frightening because none of these restrictions apply. In the video above, a mere hobbyist strapped a handgun to a quadcopter. All it's missing is a camera and the right software to be an automated weapon.

Why Ban Any Research?
We must ban some research - like trying to clone a half-human half-animal. A pig-man is unethical to create, even if it only happens in a lab. Does a pig-man have human rights? Did we force them to suffer pain their whole life with their hybrid physiology? Answering these questions reveals that the process itself and the product of the experiments are unethical.

However the process and results of researching automated weapons in a lab are not so clearly unethical. No one is being harmed by the research directly and it could have many benevolent uses - like non-lethal law enforcement, or wild animal control, or domestic robots, or even robots that disable other automated weapons. Similarly there's a reason organizations like the Centre for Disease Control hold on to the worst strands of Ebola and Anthrax. It's because there is, or there may be, some benevolent use of that type of research.

Criminalizing Science
We should never criminalize knowledge or the people seeking knowledge. In the past, subjects that were taboo were the ones we most desperately needed to research! Sex, astronomy, and human biology were all forbidden research in the past.

The only reasonable times to criminalize science are from science fiction with world ending inventions like Ice-nine. With Ice-nine a crazy person with no resources could end the world. But even with technology as frightening as automated killing machines, we are not nearly there yet.

Banning Research Won't Work Anyway
We can't ban general research into robotics, computer vision, robot tool manipulation, etc, because this field involves far more than just killer robots. But breakthroughs in all these fields combined will eventually give us the ability to make killer robots whether we research it specifically or not. The designers of handguns and quadcopters probably didn't have this combination in mind, but once both were invented a hobbyist easily combined them. So if there's some magical ban on research, any interested nation will just direct their military to research each field individually.

Let's Ban The Manufacturing and Activation of Automated Weapons
This all comes down to human responsibility. Let's consider an example where a machine is designed, built, and activated. Then it decides by itself to go to some location and then decides to kill. Who is responsible for the murder?

  1. The researcher who designed the robot hand.
  2. The factory worker who builds generic robot parts like servo motors.
  3. The factory worker who can clearly see that the final product is an automated weapon.
  4. The software engineer who copies the killer robot software onto the robot.
  5. The factory manager who delivers the machine to customers.
  6. The owner or politician who activates the machine.
What do you think? I think people 1 and 2 are totally excused from the murder. As we progress into 3, 4, 5 and 6, the people become more and more responsible. Let's not ban research or the generic construction of robots (1 and 2). Instead let's ban the production and activation of automated weapons.

If you're interested in reading more, Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla), Stephen Hawking, and thousands of AI researchers recently signed this open letter on the subject.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

These McGill Survey Results Will Make You Giggle

Prepare to be amused and blown away. If you're a university student you may think your department is bad, but McGill's education department is worse. For several years now McGill education students report having the most boring, most random, most tuition-wasting, and most impossible-to-fail courses. This makes me really sad because I care about education a lot. I hope this post helps make things better.

To be clear: this isn't just a bunch of students complaining. This is an entire department of students consistently ranking their courses as the worst. I will present the data, then some solutions. Lets begin!

The Source
A previous post of mine got a shocking amount of traffic and generated a lot of discussion. One benefit of all this exposure is that Mike Shortt, who used to work for the undergraduate society (SSMU), reached out to me and gave me a bunch of documents:

An Evaluation of Undergraduate Education Quality at McGill University 2006-2007.pdf
An Evaluation of Undergraduate Education Quality at McGill University 2007-2008.pdf
An Evaluation of Undergraduate Education Quality at McGill University 2008-2009.pdf
An Evaluation of Undergraduate Education Quality at McGill University 2009-2010.pdf
An Evaluation of Undergraduate Education Quality at McGill University 2010-2011.pdf

If you plan on criticizing the data, I've written a boring methodology summary here.

“There are a variety of interesting courses available in my major.”
McGill students consistently agreed to this statement about 75% of the time. But education students agreed the least at 54%. Education courses are the most boring.

“As I progress through my major, I feel that courses are related and build upon each other in a logical manner.”
Education students scored lowest at 10%, compared to McGill's average of 18%. Education courses are the most random and jumbled.

"Is it possible to get a decent mark in your major through guessing or inventing answers to questions?"
Education students rated by far the worst here. Only 12% disagreed. This was followed by Management at 31% and Arts at 33%. Predictably, science scored high at 56% and so did Engineering at 58%.

Even if I spent the rest of this post trying, I couldn't even begin to convince you how easy it is to guess answers to some education assignments and tests.

Impossible to Fail
“It is very difficult to fail some courses in my major.”
Education students consistently scored by far the lowest here. From 2008 to 2011, only 7%, 5%, 3%, and 8% disagreed with this statement. That is compared to 25% to 68% in other majors.

Education courses are not only difficult to fail, they are by far the most difficult to fail.

"Professors are easily accessible outside of class time”
Education scored the lowest here, at 10% in agreement. This one surprised me at first, but then I thought back to this story where the professor ignored me repeatedly and still refuses to give me feedback on my essay (note: getting some feedback is supposed to be a student's right).

"Professors usually understand student questions and their replies provide the needed clarification”
Again, education scored lowest at 17% in agreement.

Tuition Satisfaction
 “Overall, I am receiving good value for my tuition fees.”
Education students are wise to score poorly on this metric. Only 14% strongly agreed, compared to 31% to 38% in other faculties. The next year only 10% strongly agreed.

Why This Matters
So what if education courses are boring, jumbled, pointless, and damn easy? Well, I've known some students who would have made fantastic high school teachers but they were disgusted with the program and left.

Imagine this scenario. In order to become a certified teacher, one must sit in an empty room five hours a day. And You can't do anything at all: you just have to sit there. For four years. What kind of people would we expect to become certified teachers? Would ambitious, exciting, intelligent people tend to go through that process? No (generally). Obviously, the bachelor of education program at McGill is not nearly that bad. But it is bad, and in much the same way.

And certainly some students in the education program are ambitious, exciting, and intelligent. But I believe these bad courses hurt them the most.

Education Theatre
Much like security theatre, education theatre is when schools provide the feeling that students are getting educated, but without actually educating them. Everyone can be tricked: students, professors, tax payers, even nations. But when 95% of students say their courses are "very difficult to fail" and only 12% disagree that you can easily guess correct answers on tests... it means McGill is generally failing to educate its future teachers. It's providing education theatre.

Again - I am generalizing. Some education courses at McGill have truly been worthwhile. But not nearly enough of them. Education students agree here.

As always, it's important to offer solutions to this ludicrous situation.

Experimental Student Courses
I'm not a qualified university lecturer, but I could design an awesome course on using 3D game programming to teach math and science. I'm sure there are more people like me and people pursuing higher degrees who also have great ideas. Why not allow anyone to propose experimental courses or workshops? These could be supervised and approved by a professor and worth a credit or two. Aren't we all supposed to be educators in the education department?

I've noticed that education students are at their best when they're giving a presentation they really believe in. Send me a message if you have an idea you'd like to teach.

The Should-Fail Test
Consider again how easy it can be to guess or invent "correct" answers on tests. We can see from the survey data that education students believe their department is the worst here. But what about measuring more than just opinion? I've thought of a new way to objectively measure this: the Should-Fail Test.

Lets have students take the final exams of random courses:
  • Students have no idea which exam they'll get. They just have to take it and try their best.
  • The graders won't know which students are real and which "should fail".
  • Offer some incentive if students perform above average compared to other should-fail students.
I can say from experience that the results would be damning for some education courses I've taken.

I believe that students should usually fail final exams on university material they've never learned. There will be some exceptions, but they should fail on average. If should-fail students do well, then the test is broken or the course is "education theatre".

This test may be a great way for McGill or the ministry to audit courses and programs. And now I'm dreaming, but maybe schools and programs all across Canada could have a "should-fail" rating associated with them?

Revive this Survey
“Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”
- Anton Chekhov

Unfortunately, the documents I reference are hard to find and according to Mike Shortt the project was discontinued: "Due to the terrible continuity problems that afflicts all student organizations, SSMU stopped doing these [reports] once I graduated."

I think this project is one of the most important services SSMU can possibly offer. The undergraduate society should endeavor to do a survey of this scale every year.

I think these numbers really give a lot of legitimacy to student complaints - maybe that's why it lost support. I've already written about how McGill's administrators ignore feedback. This survey must have made that harder to do. We need a strong student government to bring it back.

The Future
Mike: "The main thing that [the reports] show is (1) most stereotypes about the various faculties are true; (2) things don't really change much at McGill."

Many of my stereotypes were confirmed. And yes, there is little sign of change. But reversals are possible. Take this for example: “I am proud of my accomplishments at this university.”

While McGill students on average agreed only 25% of the time, education students agreed 40%! But this wasn't always the case. Before 2011, education students actually scored the worst here, not the best. So what happened? I don't know, but reversals are possible. 40% is still a long ways off from good, but it's a huge improvement.

Thanks for reading. And as always: if you care, complain.

Concordia Graduate Symposium
On Saturday I'm presenting at Concordia's Graduate Symposium on Education! Whoa! I'll be talking about my experiences teaching high school math and science through 3D game design this past year. Just for 15 minutes though. But still!

It's a free event at Concordia in Montreal. It's all day Saturday and I'm presenting from 3-320. If you're interested you should probably register:


Mike Shortt Reports: Methodology

This post gives more details on the surveys and methodology, if you're interested. I decided it was too boring for a general audience so I cut it out of my original post. But you are an eager beaver! So here you go. And feel free to send me a message if you want your own copies of the pdfs. You can find my contact info at my website.

Mike tells me they got "between 700 and 1300 students over the years". The results were from all faculties, and efforts were made to select a representative sample. They claim they succeeded in this.

Often there were five possible responses to the questions. It's the standard strongly agree/disagree, somewhat agree/disagree, and neutral.

Depending on the question, when the study reports "only 10% agreed" this could mean only 10% strongly agreed, or only 10% strongly/somewhat agreed. They make it clear which they chose, and the strategy depends on the question. This doesn't matter to us though because usually I just compare the scores between departments.

Changes Over Time
Even though the reports cover various years, usually each new report references the same two surveys done once each. However I make it clear when this is not the case, and when we can talk about trends.

Cherry Picking
These surveys measured a lot of metrics, and I am of course cherry picking bad results to support my previous criticisms of McGill's education department. So where did education score best?

Compared to other departments the language skills among TAs is great, our library space and study spaces are great, and library staff are especially helpful. But of course, those are not the things I've been criticizing! In addition to scanning the 100+ pages of reports, I searched for "education". I can say that most of the times education was mentioned in a paragraph or table, it scored the worst.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Dean of Education's Response to my Feedback and Blog

I recently got an email from the dean of education. Essentially he says that I'm annoying:

Dear Mr. Spencer

 It has come to my attention that you have written repeatedly to our Associate Dean, among others across the university, about technology issues in the Faculty of Education, and also about your own blog.  Please note that, while we recognize the importance of technology in contemporary society,  we do not share your views, and have no comments to add to your discussion.

Best regards

Dilson E. Rassier, Ph.D.
Professor and Dean, Faculty of Education
McGill University

Yes, I have been emailing the department. But he makes it sound like I've been acting inappropriately. You decide:
  • I emailed the same feedback to nine administrators individually, and a month later I called them out on the fact that every single one of them ignored me. I didn't even get a "thanks for your feedback" from anyone.
  • I emailed a professor about his textbook and got a response.
  • After Elizabeth Wood was delegated the task of responding to me, I emailed her about the popularity of one of my new posts, hoping she would take me more seriously.
Too much? No. I'm just a student trying to start a dialogue with a public institution. That must seem unusual to them.

We Do Not Share Your Views
Here are some of my views:
So how is it possible that the dean of education "does not share my views"? Really? None of them? Here's what's really happening here:
  • Obviously, the dean shares some of my views.
  • He has hardly read anything I've written.
  • Elizabeth Wood and Dilson Rassier are tired of me and wish I'd go away.
I don't mean to be immodest, but this post got 40,000 views in a couple days. And education is admittedly not the internet's sexiest topic. So I think this many views is a big deal! Hundreds (thousands?) of people joined my discussion about McGill by writing comments (like here and here and elsewhere).

What Should Happen
A responsible dean should jump on the chance to engage this many people. Instead he cut me off because he thinks he can get away with it. Dr Rassier: please spend an hour, read what we're saying, find out why it's so damn popular, craft a decent response, and take action. Anything less proves that either:
  • You don't care about the world's perception of McGill. Or:
  • You don't grasp the scale of social media.
What Next?
The tone of Dilson Rassier's email was not lost on me. I won't be reaching out to the education department any more. But what about you? If you care, complain. It can be as easy as sending an email (use your school email to guarantee it gets past their spam filter).
  • Is your professor really terrible? Send an email complaint to the head of the department. The evaluations students diligently fill out are likely ignored, but a personal email merits a response.
  • Do you live in Quebec? How's your written French? Mine is horrendous. Please write to the ministry of education about the poor standards in McGill's education department. Tell me about the results!
  • Did you get ignored? Don't give up. Make it a game - see how ludicrously far you must go to get a basic student right upheld. I'm still playing that game.
  • Are you a McGill education student with your own stories? Do me a favour and complain in my place. Be polite and professional. But also demand some kind of concrete action. Ask when you can expect results.
Nobody wants their inbox filled with complaints. If you have a complaint, make the department at least pay the small price of having to read your story.

There are plenty of good people working at McGill. Perhaps if we express our dissatisfaction, it will give them the ammunition they need to enact positive change. If even 1% of my readers emailed their university, that would be quite the tsunami of complaints! Some of the issues I've raised are just abysmal, and I'm sure you have your own stories to tell.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Why Do For-Profit Companies Give Software to Schools?

Have you ever noticed that for-profit companies often advertise free or cheap software licenses to students, teachers, and schools? Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, and countless others all offer deals on their software and services to schools. Why do they do that?

This post is written for educators, not tech experts or computer programmers. If you think I oversimplified something, try to read this from another perspective.


It's not outrageous to claim that companies want to support education and do some public good. For example the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shows us that the founder of Microsoft genuinely wants to support education. So the answer to our question today includes real generosity. But I think another factor plays a larger role, and teachers are rarely aware of it.

But to really understand this issue, you're going to need to understand the two different types of software. One type lets us learn how the software works, and the other does not.

Open Source and Closed Source

Have you ever seen computer code? Glance at this for a couple seconds. This text is part of a computer program:

Maybe you noticed some English words like "Destroy" and "MakeStructure"? Even if you're not a programmer, you can half understand the words in this code because it's my code and I'm giving it to you. It's open source. You are looking at the source code.

If a student wants to study this computer program, they can just read it. If a programmer wants to make changes, they can just copy it and change the text. That's what open source means: anyone can take the computer program and learn from it, change it, and understand it.

When software is closed source, we only get to see this:

Ahhh! What's going on? Hard to say. Even worse: a large project might be millions of lines of gibberish like this. Computers can read this. But for most people it's impossible. It's even a lot of work for expert programmers. Closed source software ensures that students and teachers are doomed to ignorance.

Software companies always make their own human readable code first, like the first example. But they keep it a secret. Then they use a computer program to turn their human readable code into the unreadable machine code. This is how they lock their software - by keeping the human readable code a secret.

Software companies keep their readable code a secret so their competitors can't copy them. But this also means nobody can learn from their code, even students.

Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman is a digital rights activist and computer programmer. Like a vegetarian during a famine, his views can be hard to digest. But when it comes to proprietary software and education he really gets it right:

"[Software companies] want the schools to make the children dependent. And then, when they graduate, they're still dependent and, you know, the company is not going to offer them gratis copies. And some of them get jobs and go to work for companies. Not many of them anymore, but some of them. And those companies are not going to be offered gratis copies. Oh no! The idea is: if the school directs the students down the path of permanent dependence, they can drag the rest of society with them into dependence. That's the plan!"

"You see, some people have a talent for programming. At ten to thirteen years old, typically, they're fascinated, and if they use a program, they want to know: “How does it do this?” But when they ask the teacher, if it's proprietary, the teacher has to say: “I'm sorry, it's a secret, we can't find out.” Which means education is forbidden."

"But if the program is free, the teacher can explain what he knows, and then give out copies of the source code, saying: “Read it and you'll understand everything.” And those who are really fascinated, they will read it!"

Zero Tolerance?

I mentioned that Stallman's views are challenging. He takes a zero tolerance approach to proprietary software in schools:

"A proprietary program is the enemy of the spirit of education. It's knowledge withheld, so it should not be tolerated in a school."

I've struggled to reconcile my beliefs on this. While I agree in spirit, in practice I've had to stray from this zero tolerance approach.


As you may know, I try to popularize the idea that 3D game design in schools helps teach math and science. So far, this involves using a 3D game making tool called Unity3D, which is closed source software. Students love it. They don't even know they're learning "boring" math, it's great. Unfortunately, if a student in my programming class asks me how Unity3D works, I cannot give them the answer they deserve.

Despite it being closed source, I bring Unity3D into my class for these reasons:

  • Gratis license. Even when my students leave high school, Unity3D costs nothing. You can even sell your game made with Unity3D and pay nothing, so long as you earn less than 100,000$ a year.
  • As far as I know, there are no decent open source alternatives yet. But I'm always looking.
  • I need all the help I can get. Unity3D is convenient and I'm not paid enough to have the time to struggle with its alternatives.
  • The Unity3D community is extremely welcoming.
The important thing is that I am making an informed decision when I introduce my students to Unity3D. And if an open source tool comes along with the same instructional benefits, it's my responsibility as an educator to make the right changes.

There are still ways schools can get closer to Stallman's ideal though. Take the new Microsoft Office for example. Naturally, Microsoft is offering a deal to students.

LibreOffice is a great open source alternative to Microsoft Office. There are however a number of features in Microsoft Office that are lacking in LibreOffice. But if you don't know what these differences are, then you probably have no business using Microsoft Office instead of LibreOffice in your school! If the Open Document Format is good enough for the European Union, then it's good enough for you.

By the way, Microsoft vehemently opposed the decision for the European Union to switch to this free and open document format. Software companies fight to ensure that their software is the industry standard.

Are you thinking of trying out LibreOffice? Why are you so stuck on using Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint anyway? I'll tell you why. You got used to using those products in high school and college.

Now You Know

Now that you know a little bit about open source software, closed source software, and dependence, you're in a better position to make informed choices about the software in your school(s).

Businesses are sometimes generous to schools, but they're always businesses. Nothing they provide is truly free. Now you know what one of those costs are. Are you okay with your students becoming a little more dependent on a for-profit company? What are your students getting in return?

The next time a for-profit company offers cheap software, ask yourself why. And are there free and open source alternatives? Ask your IT department about open source software alternatives - you'll impress them! Remember: open source software has no marketing team. It's just free.

You can read more about this here.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Nomination for Worst Professor

In my previous post I talked about the McGill education students that cannot calculate an average, but I glossed over talking about the lecturer for that course. We've all heard about bad professors, but I have proof this professor was beyond merely bad. This story also includes what happened when I complained to the head of the department and what should happen instead.

But first, who am I to judge the merits of a professor?

Lord of Undergraduate Credits
Over the years I've taken about fifty university courses from three universities and from over a dozen departments in arts, sciences, and education. Don't ask me to explain why! I also tend to go to lectures (because that's how I learn best). So I have a lot to compare this professor to.

Merely Bad
Lets get the usual "bad professor" stuff out of the way first.
  • His lectures were usually not specifically about the course.
  • He kept telling the class that the course is "boring" and "dry".
  • He liked to end class 30% early.
But if you've ever taken university courses then none of this sounds particularly bad.

Beyond Merely Bad
"Oh well!"
I asked the professor about what he thought when his students couldn't calculate an average in class. Note: math was directly related to the course objectives. His reply:

Knowledge varies considerably from student o student and from faculty to faculty.....the rest???  Oh well!

Oh well! He also told the class he was going to test us on calculating an average but he never did. Oh well!

I'm pretty sure only one study was referenced throughout the entire course. If I'm wrong then it's close to one. So I'd describe the material we studied as "la dee da". Oh well! But the worst problem was with our essay.

Essay Feedback
When we had a research essay worth 25% of our grade, I took advantage of that freedom and wrote what I consider to be a great essay on assessment software. I figured maybe I could get some good feedback from the professor or the TA and actually learn something from the course.

Nope! I got a letter grade and it's been impossible to get any feedback. By the way, McGill students have a right (5.3) to get feedback from their professor. I asked in person. I asked three times by email. Finally, the professor gave me a wrong email for the TA. Oops:

Hey there,
I'm not the TA. He must have sent you the wrong name.

Nice. My fourth email:

Hey. Turns out she is not the TA... What is going on here! :P
Who is the TA that graded my paper..?

The professor's last reply:

relax.....its [email address]

Relax..? Someone is certainly relaxing. I tried the second email but it was rejected - it's not a valid email. By now classes were over, and the professor was ignoring my emails. To this day I have no reply.

I still don't know who our TA was, or if they even existed. There's no evidence anyone read any of our class essays. And according to the professor, we all got As in the course.

Okay, so that's not proof nobody read them. But it's close enough I think.

Complaining to the Department
While I'm still concerned enough to write this post, the head of the department was admirably responsive and professional. He took my complaint seriously and he says he read the student evaluations and made an appointment to speak with the professor. He even took the initiative to keep me updated on the situation!

Please note I spoke with [him] and anticipate that this issue will be resolved in the future. Thanks for alerting me to the issues.

While I appreciate this, I doubt we agree on how to resolve this issue. We have a professor who:
  • Says he doesn't care about the course.
  • Proves he doesn't care about the course.
  • Refuses to accommodate student rights.
  • Doesn't use research to teach his course.
  • Ignores course objectives.
Even after a stern warning, we know this professor is never going to be a model teacher. There's only one reasonable thing for a department head to do: confirm these allegations and dismiss him. Unfortunately I sense this is not going to happen.

Why Does He Have the Job?
You could pick a graduate student from a lottery and almost certainly get a better lecturer. There's also a surplus of candidates with doctorates and masters degrees who can't find enough work in academia (1 2 3). So why not pick someone else? I've thought of a few possible reasons:
  • Research and prestige is enough to protect even the worst teachers at McGill.
  • Age and experience is far more important than teaching ability and caring.
  • Candidates with certifications "lower" than the professor are not being considered.
  • Students in the education program have been giving him amazing reviews because many students like getting an easy A and leaving class early. So maybe the department didn't know?
  • To maintain the legitimacy of the program, McGill hires lecturers that sound the best on paper. Nobody seriously investigates legitimacy beyond that.
  • The professor has friends in the right places. I regret saying this because the head of the department has been very nice, but I couldn't help but notice that the two of them share extremely similar research interests.
In this case I don't really have a clue which combinations of factors is fact, but it can't be good. Why do you think he has the job?

For now, I've decided to keep names to myself. I'm curious to see what is going to happen in September - will the professor be teaching more, less, or not all? I want to give the department a chance to improve themselves.

Why is this Important?
Professors like this are the reason I can write "True Story" at the bottom of this comic.

I'm sure that student will make a fine addition to the surplus of certified teachers one day. Dedicated educators get to compete at job interviews with this guy. Lets hope he's not a charmer.

As usual I'll offer solutions instead of just complaining.

I understand that hiring professors requires balancing a number of factors: research for the department, funding, politics, prestige, teaching ability, etc. McGill desperately needs to adjust this balance in favor of teaching before losing more of its legitimacy. The value of McGill's business product - degrees - is going to continue to decline unless undergraduate courses only have professors that care.

Where's my Feedback?
To be fair, I did admit to the head that I didn't expect useful feedback by forcing it out of the professor. But why not show some initiative, prove me wrong, and get the professor to give me my feedback? It should be obvious that I genuinely want it.

It's great that the professor was spoken to about this, but given the circumstances is that really enough? If this professor can't or won't give me my feedback, shouldn't the administration step up and find someone who can? Their own policy says I must get professor feedback on written assignments.

Hiring Policy
I suspect McGill is strongly in favor of hiring the candidate with the most credentials. If McGill instead hires a candidate with lesser credentials, they are making a strong statement about the market value of higher education. Since degrees are the product that McGill sells, this would be devaluing their product.

I think hiring a candidate with lesser credentials but with more gusto and innovation makes a positive statement about a school, not a negative one.

Stepping Stone
Finally, this professor has professional experience that applies to the department, but not to the course whatsoever! I get the feeling that a low level undergraduate course is just a stepping stone for some faculty. But certainly there are some candidates with very relevant masters degrees out there? I bet there are people in Montreal who wrote a thesis on the course material. Next time, hire them.

Employing this professor proves there is tremendous bias in the hiring process. How can the public hold McGill accountable for this?

Response from the Department Head
I sent a draft of this post to the department head before posting so he would have a chance to respond. I also mentioned the popularity of my last post so that he'd take me more seriously (45,000 views in two days is alot for an education blog). I was profusely polite.

I got a response, but it was short and didn't demonstrate that he read any of this.

The department chair took no action. Here's my next post: Guess Who's Still Teaching at McGill?

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Many McGill Education Students Cannot Calculate an Average

This is a story about McGill education students that cannot calculate an average, and the professor who admitted he didn't care. Finally, I explain why this is important.

I hope that by telling this embarrassing story I will contribute to raising the standards at McGill and for Quebec teacher certification. I don't mean to unfairly target education students and I'm not calling anyone dumb. Some are just uneducated. But as a public institution McGill has a responsibility to fail these very weak students. Instead, in this case McGill handed out As.

The Story
The professor of an education course began one class explaining how to calculate a mean (average), median, and mode. I was surprised this was necessary, because according to the Quebec education plan, it's a basic concept learned in secondary cycle two (grade 8):

Feeling more like an anthropologist than a student, I sat back in my chair and observed. After twenty minutes (yes, twenty minutes) of decent explanations from the professor, he asked us a simple question: what is the average of these numbers:

One 100 and nine 20s. Or:
100, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20
(I'll save you some trouble if your mental math isn't snappy: the answer is 28)

What do you think happened in a class of 40 students? Did they hesitate? Maybe they got it right?

Nope! Six students in the class volunteered six different wrong answers before the professor stepped in. A reminder: Quebec teaches this to thirteen year old kids. It gets worse. I noticed several things:
  • Some of their answers, like 16 and 18, were lower than any value in our sample. This is like saying "all of my students scored higher than 60% on the exam, but my class average is a failing 42%! What's going on‽"
  • Some of their answers, like 120, were higher than any value in our sample. This is like saying "the class average on this exam is 132%, but I never gave bonus marks! What's going on‽"
  • Was it student tricksters? No. The answers seemed genuine, and the students who answered were not sitting together.
  • And the worst thing of all: this deluge of very wrong answers surprised no one.
Not a Smirk nor a Snicker
When a wrong answer was volunteered, each more wrong than the last, I never heard a snicker or saw a single smirk. If you're an optimist you may think that the students who knew better kept their mouths shut to encourage the learning of others. How nice! Except it's simply not the case. Compared to others, education students are far chattier during a professor's lectures and generally less respectful. Tact was not holding them back from snickering or mumbling.

I leave it to you to find irony in the fact that education students are disrespectful during a professor's lectures.

Anyway, had the bulk of students recognized how bad these answers were, nothing was holding them back from cracking a smile, given their usual behaviour. But as I said, no smirks and no chuckles. We can therefore conclude:
  • Many McGill education students cannot calculate an average. Or:
  • It surprises no one that some McGill education students cannot calculate an average.
I'm not sure which is worse.

The professor said we'd be tested on calculating an average and we never were.

Why this is Important
There are at least three major reasons why teachers should not be math illiterate.

Teachers Teach Everything
In their careers, Canadian teachers will teach many different subjects. The reasons for this are complex, but an English/History teacher typically must teach many subjects like Spanish, ethics, math, dance, and technology while climbing the seniority ladder. However being math illiterate means teachers would hopelessly fail high school tests on math and science. Yet sometimes they must teach the subject!

Understanding Education Research
In John Allen Paulos' fabulous book A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, he shows us how math illiteracy is harmful and disrupts our perception of the world. How can we expect teachers to understand pedagogical research if they are math illiterate? They can't even "read the newspaper".

At McGill, education courses often ask students to read education research. These papers talk about significant figures, regressions, standard deviations... yet a student who has yet to grasp the concept of an average has no hope of critically reading any new research. The result is that a lot of education students get good at pretending they understand things that they do not. They may even convince themselves that they do understand the research. And so they reject and accept research on personal whim.

Too much school and not enough learning makes people confident despite their ignorance.

Interdisciplinary Lessons
We know that a great way to inspire students is to combine subjects in exciting ways. Sometimes chemistry can be taught in English class, or dance taught in math class. It's true! We have trouble believing this though because the teachers we had didn't know a diversity of subjects. Math illiteracy in teachers means there are fewer subjects we can combine. So math class remains boring math class, and nothing else.

As usual, instead of just complaining I'm also going to propose solutions.


Maybe the education program should have a mandatory mathematics course, like statistics? Or maybe not. But if education students can't calculate an average, then don't ask them to analyse articles with heavy statistics in them. Let's stop pretending education students understand these articles. Let's be consistent.

Everyone I know in the program skips the methodology and data analysis sections of their readings. They don't understand it! And then in class we criticize the articles like we know what we're talking about.

Too Many Teachers
It's not like there's some national emergency where we don't have enough teachers. There's a huge surplus of teachers in Quebec and all over Canada. This is a wonderful opportunity to raise certification standards. Lets start failing students who are math illiterate, tech illiterate, and humanities illiterate. But how will we know who to fail?

Teachers Must Pass All High School Exams
How about future teachers must take the provincial exams designed for high school students. If they fail even one, no certification. Try again! Why should someone be a high school teacher if they can no longer pass high school? These exams should be pass or fail, because there's no shame in a history teacher scoring 71% in math. That's adequate I think.

To some (and we can hope, most) bachelor of education students, these exams will be a joke. To others... they will be a crippling blow to their ego. Hurt feelings are unfortunate, but education is too important to let weak teachers get certified.

From what I've seen in my two years taking education courses... Yes, some McGill students would fail high school exams.

Tips for Employers
This advice is for employers who are not seeking certified classroom teachers.

Do not hire someone just because they have a bachelor of education degree. Instead, have a look at their portfolio (if they have one), their work experience, or their other degrees. If all someone has on their resume is a bachelor of education degree, I would view it as a net negative.

I plan on starting a business making education software. Presuming I'm one of the lucky few that succeed, I would never hire a bachelor of education graduate - unless they've accomplished a lot outside of school. I hope education start ups can take my advice so they have a better chance at succeeding. Or, maybe McGill and the ministry can raise the standards for teacher certification.

If you're a university student and you feel this way... please contact your professor, department chair, dean, whatever, about this problem. If you care, complain.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Proof that McGill Administrators Ignore Feedback

There were some concerns about my aggressive approach in my post where I complain about how poor the education technology courses are at McGill university. Before making noise, did I talk to my professors? What about the department, or the dean?

Well that's exactly what I did for two years before finally resorting to public rants. So get ready for a story that ends in a big email to senior administrators and a trick that must have embarrassed them.

Before I start I'd like to say that I'm not targeting McGill's education program. You see, when I searched across Canada for "education software development"-like programs I was hugely disappointed. For this reason and many others, I think these problems are much larger than a single school. I'm hoping we can work together to tackle this monster.

The process of studying education technology at McGill is severely crippled. Here are some things I tried before rocking the boat.

Level 1: Advisers
I feel like half the advisers at McGill must know me by now. I wonder if they have notes on my file as "that guy". To their credit, nearly every adviser has expressed support for what I'm trying to do. And many said they would look into different opportunities for me. Here are some opportunities that tantalized me, but have since receded into the void:
  • Creating an "ad hoc program" that combines computer science and education.
  • Finding professors that are sympathetic to combining computer programming with education.
  • Allowing me to get computer science credits for an education software project.
  • Getting back to me after a phone conversation about internship options (this is with another university).
More adviser fails? You betcha! I've been super fortunate to teach the technology program at Heritage Regional High School since January 2014. I've taught my own classroom of students by myself. This is 200+ hours of class time, not including all the time spent designing my own lessons and grading assignments.

Can this contribute towards my field experience? Of course not. My problem here is that when I asked, the adviser just said no. She didn't appear to contact anyone about this absurdity, or tell me who I could contact. We're left with two options:
  • The adviser doesn't care, or more likely:
  • The adviser knows she's powerless.
I've worked in plenty of customer service jobs. At this point I've learned that advisers have no power and merely serve as front-line customer service representatives. They buffer senior administration from the hordes of whiny students (I'm sure they feel I am yet another whiny student). Allowing a student to contact their superiors is not going to happen because their job description is to prevent exactly that.

Level 2: Professors
I've introduced myself to most of my professors to see if they're interested in education software. There is notably one professor who offered me an individual research course for three credits, but it turned out that credits in their department are neither computer science or education. I nearly signed up anyway, but dropped the course in the last minute when it became clear that the professor wasn't going to offer me any real guidance or support.

I'm still looking for full professors at McGill who care about making education software and understand computers at least as well as the high school students I teach. I've perhaps found one so far, but not really. If that sounds like you, then I promise I am less abrasive in person.

Level 3: Course Evaluations
I always write detailed and constructive evaluations. Sometimes I include serious complaints! But I always wonder if anyone even reads them. Perhaps course evaluations are just a mechanism to make students feel like they have a say, but really nobody important is listening.

This is a well documented strategy to manipulate people. If you want to make an unfavorable change, first ask everyone for their opinion on it. Then ignore their opinions and implement the change. People will be upset with the change, but will complain less because they appreciate that someone sought out their opinion.

Course evaluations may have been implemented with the best of intentions, but I can't help but think that this is the largest effect they have on the university as a community. Course evaluations funnel student complaints into the void.

Level 4: Everyone
On September 15th I sent a long email to nine senior administrators including deans, department heads, and associate deans. Its content was a shorter and more polite version of this post. But here's the problem I faced: I suspected nobody would read it or even reply to me. What can you do pre-emptively when you suspect administrators do not care enough about student feedback?

My plan was this: to blind carbon copy everyone. What this means is nobody knew I sent my email to nine people. To everyone it looked like only they received it and so did the dean. I waited three weeks and as I feared would happen, I didn't get a single reply. All nine of them got this individual email and independently decided "nah, I don't feel like replying to this". Sooooo... next I sent this gem. This time I sent it so that everyone could see the list of recipients. I don't think I am making friends at this point:


On September 15 I sent an email to a number of McGill administrators. In it I outlined some profound issues with the education department's courses on technology and I proposed some solutions.

Sadly, I received no response from any of you... Not even a "thanks for your input". This has greatly shaped my impression of McGill. I would still be happy to discuss the education issues I raised with anyone who cares.


It's sad that a stunt like that was necessary to get any reply, but that's the reality we live in. My manoeuvre earned me a reply from Elizabeth Wood, the "Associate Dean of Academic Programs for the Faculty of Education".

The Response
(and what we can learn from it)
To summarize what Elizabeth said, she was asked by Dilson Rassier, the dean of education, to respond. So she wrote a vague paragraph to me about how "the world today is complex". Absolutely nothing I said was explored, criticized, or even mentioned. I have no reason to believe she did anything more than skim my letter because she was told to. She was however very professional and kind, wishing me "the very best with your studies, and all success with your professional aspirations". So that's nice.

One twist: this email was sent from the dean of education's McGill email address, except it was signed by Elizabeth. So she knows his password and regularly uses it to send email. The only explanation I can think of is the dean does not check his own email, but has someone do it for him. Well... I know he must get a lot of emails but... isn't that his job as an administrator? I'm very confused. I guess there's no way for McGill's education students to directly contact their dean.

Elizabeth says courses are reviewed yearly and my feedback will contribute to that. Which part of my feedback specifically..? I said a lot of shit! Is anyone even going to remember my letter in a year? Aren't they just going to go ahead and do whatever they feel like?

How To Not Win Friends or Influence People
I am honestly being an asshole at this point, but I'm just too frustrated with McGill. In case you haven't read it, there's a ton of snark in the post I link:

Hello again Elizabeth!

I thought you should know that I've been writing about my negative experiences with McGill's education program. To my surprise, this post has over 3000 hits and a lot of people are saying they sympathize with me:

Unfortunately, your response didn't address anything specific that I said. I don't know which of my concerns are being considered, or criticized, or ignored. So I can't help but feel that my letter to McGill administration fell into the void, and no improvements are being made :/

I'd be very interested to be kept up to date on specific progress that is being made here.

I think I'm going to keep writing about my negative experiences with the McGill education program, since at this point I feel it is the only thing I can do to help. I'm sorry if I'm making your job more difficult, but I'm frustrated almost daily with how little progress I feel is being made. I hope my writing can contribute to meaningful improvements at McGill.

Thanks for your time.

I'm waiting for the #mcgilldrama or /r/mcgilldrama jokes to pour in...

What the hell am I doing? Am I burning bridges? Why am I deliberately annoying deans? Well, I'm just really tired of everything I've gone through. If you thought this post was long, consider that it's just the beginning of what I've been through. Trying to study education software at McGill has been really horrible. The worst part is I don't think other schools would be any better.

At McGill I've enjoyed most computer science courses, and I've enjoyed some of the education courses. But know this: do not come to McGill if you want to study education technology.

Finally, I think I'm in a unique situation compared to other undergraduates. I already have another degree, and I know that my programming portfolio is good enough to get me full time employment (because it has, a few times). So why not rock the boat? What's the worst that could happen? We do what we must because we can.

If you care, complain.