Multiple Paths into Computer Science

This started out as a comment on Mark Guzdial’s blog post titled “Skip college to study computing?” but I decided to add a little and post it here as well.

I think there are multiple paths into computer science careers these days. For example I have been very impressed with students going through programming courses at career technical high schools of late. Note that they avoid the term computer science in part at least because of the vocational nature of these schools. While college prep high schools try to avoid the appearance of vocational training as if preparing one for a job is a bad thing, career tech high schools embrace the word as a part of their mission. More practical than theoretical these programs are sending students to college but they’re looking to prepare for industry not academia. The teachers come with some industry experience and supplement lectures with examples from the professional world. The APCS exam is usually not a focus but the senior level courses are generally large project based and involved a lot of complicated concepts tied together. Is one way better than another? Probably not better or worse just different.

Community colleges are also more vocational (get them a job) focused but there is a mixed bag there. Faculty usually tends to be good but the students are not always motivated to work and learn. Far too many of these students think, like the straw man in the Wizard of Oz, that the only difference between them and others is a diploma. Sorry not the case unless you really have learned the stuff outside of class. This is not to say that some of these programs are not turning out highly professional and qualified industry capable graduates – many are. But you have to look carefully at what you get.

Four year colleges tend to focus on theory rather than practice. I do believe that is usually great in the long run. It seems to have worked for me. These graduates may have a longer ramp up in industry than the community college/vocational program graduates but in the long run the theory will serve them well as the field changes. And it is going to change!

And then there is the totally internally motivated self-directed learner. Some of these people can hold their own with any tier I university graduate. And better than many of them. I’ve known several of these over the years and they are amazing. Bill Gates is one of these people – not that I claim to really know him. These people are on top of things. There are often holes in their knowledge of course. They don’t always know that they don’t know something. But point them in a direction and give them some resources and off they go.

We need several kinds of people in the field. To get there we need several types of programs. I don’t think there is a one size fits all learning program. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

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