Why learn & understand when you can search?

A recently and widely (in my nerd circles) shared XKCD comic featured ineffective sorting techniques. The alt text (what you get when you hover over the comic) proposed an additional sort:

StackSort connects to StackOverflow, searches for 'sort a list', and downloads and runs code snippets until the list is sorted.

Internet nerdom being fairly OCD, someone (Gregory Koberger) of course went and implemented this, and it works!

As Gregory says, this is potentially a security nightmare waiting to happen, so it’s not clear that you should actually run his code. Being a brave and foolish (and somewhat careful) soul, however, I’ve fallen on this sword so that you don’t have to, and I can confirm that it works. After trying several dozen StackOverflow pages (most of which yielded either “Could not extract a function to run” or “Contained potentially bad code”), it stumbled across a working version of Quicksort in JavaScript.

Ta Da!

The success of this approach, however, does suggest interesting things about how people approach certain kinds of problem solving these days. Where “old people” like me would have bought a book to learn something new, my students are much more prone to assemble a patchwork understanding from tons of Googling. While I think this often leads to a quite fragile and incomplete understanding of the topic at hand, it is often sufficient to get them through what is assigned. In other words, they’re very skilled at answering the question that was posed, which was itself often somewhat shallow because that’s what we all have time for. So while faculty would like to think that we’re creating experts (whatever that means) in certain topics, we rarely have the time to give them assignments and tasks that require a deep level of expertise.

In the land and time of books, we might have believed that everyone read and understood the 8 assigned chapters, but the assignments almost certainly didn’t strictly require that. In fact I’m willing to bet a whole lot skimming actually went on that was not so different from the Googling that happens now. The difference is that when I skimmed a book, there was a reasonably coherent thread connecting the dots that were touched on. “Skimming” the Internet, however, is a much less coherent experience. The authors, examples, and assumptions aren’t the same from search result to search result. Worse (in computing) the versions aren’t necessarily the same, so we often end up with inconsistent and downright contradictory results! A few years ago I taught a class that used Python 3, and it turned out that almost all Googling pointed us at Python 2 examples and answers, which lead to all manner of confusion amongst my students.

So call me old-fashioned, but I still like a book, even if it’s an e-book, when I’m learning something conceptually new, as I do really appreciate a coherent voice and structure. If I need to remind myself of a library function or piece of syntax, it’s to the Googles. If I’m learning something that’s very similar to something I already know, then I’m happy with on-line docs if they’re well written. If, however, I’m expanding my horizons in more significant ways, a book is still the thing.

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What should a new UMM Director of Information Technology person do?

This is essentially a re-posting from the UMM CSci blog.

UMM has recently opened a position for a new Director of Information Technology. The full job description is attached, and the description and application page are on-line.

Some highlights from the “Purpose of the Position” section:

General priorities for the position include:

  • promoting a 21st century learning and teaching environment for an undergraduate focused residential campus;
  • supporting through technology and information resources the research endeavors of a highly qualified and active faculty; and
  • advancing the use of technology to engage a growing base of prospective students, donors, and alumni.

Specifically, the Director of Information Technology will:

  • Provide IT leadership to the Morris campus and in the broader University community.
  • Serve as a key member of the Morris campus and University of Minnesota technology leadership team, which formulates and implements local and institutional goals and initiatives.
  • Partner with the academic and administrative leadership across the Morris campus and university-wide to participate in the creation and implementation of strategic goals and IT initiatives.

I’m a member of the search committee, and I want to share this information here for two reasons.

First, if anyone reading this is interested, please consider applying!

Second, the search committee is gathering feedback from various stakeholders about what we want this person to be and do. Before we begin to look at applications, the committee would like to try to clarify as best we can what the campus wants and needs from someone in this position.

So, what do you think are the priorities for UMM’s Director of Information Technology? What do they need to do to support the teaching, research, and service missions of campus? Looking ahead 5 years, what issues do you feel that this person will need to address/get ahead of? On of my concerns in recent years has been that the campus has been far too reactive to technological change, and instead of being ahead of the ball we’re constantly scrambling to respond to events and put out fires. What skills and background does this person need to help us turn that around?

I’d be happy to discuss this at UMM CSci tea tomorrow afternoon (4-6ish in the lab), or hear from anyone by whatever other means work for you. If you have ideas or thoughts, however, please share promptly; we want to wrap up this fact finding process in the next two weeks (by the morning of Tuesday, 20 Apr).

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