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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.