Wednesday, April 4, 2012

On Educational Philosophy and Cheeseburgers

Recently, I found myself at a conceptual singularity during a visit and presentation to a prominent university. An accomplished professor presented some very insightful though contrarian points to our proposal and in the end, basically challenged the foundational framework of what we were presenting. It was like showing up to a pot-luck party at a vegan friend’s house with a plate of cheeseburgers.

When one works for a vibrant, innovative technology company, it’s very easy to get caught up in our strategic vision and forget the fact that the societal context that we work in is quite complex and is not quite as concise or clean as one would wish it to be. The great irony is that if people like me do our day jobs well, then the great complexities of human existence get boiled down into very succinct, high impact, bullet points that crisply describe how our offerings improve our customers’ work and indeed their lives.
Quanser engineer Peter Martin goes for a test drive...
not realizing he's headed for a philosophical singularity.
That’s great business but it’s not without its pitfalls. We at Quanser feed into the education system. Education is something that is universally acknowledged as the foundation of a stable, dynamic, modern society. The opinions on how best to deliver education, however, is one of the most complex, multifaceted debates that society engages in.

The Nature of Motivation
The philosophical question embodied in this discourse was “What is the nature of motivation?”. The debate erupted when Quanser engineer Peter Martin and I were presenting some of our recent lab concepts and, in particular, the notion of mapping a strong application framework around the fundamental control concepts. The new Quanser Driving Simulator is an example. The benefits bullet points are pretty simple:
  • increase motivation among students with an engaging, familiar visual environment
  • better connect theoretical concepts to real applications
  • introduce students to modern analytical techniques that are used in industry
As it turns out not everyone viewed it as that simple. The rhetorical polka went something like this:
Yours truly: … so as you can see, this technique represents a fresh approach to a critical problem of motivation in the curriculum …

Passionate and highly accomplished professor: … I don’t think that’s at all motivating …

Yours truly: … what do you mean?

Passionate and highly accomplished professor: … the DC motor is too abstract. It looks nothing like a real car. How could the student connect that to reality?!

Yours truly: … [to self] how did I miss this?

How much abstraction can a student handle before losing motivation for his subject?
This question can lead to a lively and valuable debate.
The Balance Between Representation and Abstraction
By necessity, educators must provide some representation or abstraction of the real world in their teaching. Otherwise we’d be forced to supply every student with a BMW and a Boeing 787. The heated debates often center on the level of abstraction. In this particular incident, the professor was fundamentally opposed to the concept of using visualization to inject realism onto an arguably abstract DC Motor. Consequently, a lab dealing with automotive techniques should literally have a physical vehicle of some sort moving around. Any evidence we presented on our choice of visualization over a simplified physical vehicle in the end got the discussion to a stalemate.

The Challenge of Curriculum Modernization
Curriculum modernization, indeed, is one of those really wicked problems that society is currently dealing with. The historical pedagogy in engineering education pegs the abstraction balance point at the very theoretical extreme – i.e. mathematical models and pure analysis. More recently, with the emergence of “casual mechatronics” like Mindstorms and other hobby platforms, we see professors opting to motivate students with, for the lack of a better word, fun, and arguably at the expense of rigor.

The Quanser Pedagogy Is Actually a Hybrid
At Quanser we believe in the importance of rigor and strong analytics in engineering design but we try our best to present the experience in engaging dynamic environments. And for the most part it is very well received and very successful in real universities.

The business of serving academia can be challenging. In some ways, a university is like any customer in any segment. They have needs and the vendor who can best meet those needs at a good price wins the deal. In other ways though it is very different in that the decision-making processes and internal dynamics have a uniqueness that don’t exist in other large human organizations. Principally, it often seeks and celebrates dissent.

Ongoing Debate Is Important To Pedagogical Success
I recently stumbled on a LinkedIn thread in which a young recent-Ph.D. instructor was soliciting support for some collective response to key contemporary issues facing the higher education community. What ensued is truly classic academia: a lengthy trail of very articulate and passionate points of support and points of dissent. Even before the digital age, this existed. The main difference today is that we seem to have readily accessible transcripts.
The business of serving academia can be challenging.  In some ways their
decision-making processes and internal dynamics are completely unique.
A casual reading of that LinkedIn thread or a light reflection of my own encounter with the professor might indicate that things are unraveling. For me, it’s exactly the opposite. Frank expressions of well-conceived opinions on complex issues are critical to the success of the modern university, even if the direction is non-convergent. The mind is at its sharpest when challenged right down to one’s core beliefs. The main thing that I took away from all of this is that we need to be vigilant. As our lab concepts continue to enjoy increasing adoption we can’t forget that what we have delivered is one possible answer to a series of extremely complex, if not intractable, academic challenges. The good news is, Quanser has a very strong history of managing complexity. Our range and diversity of products and our ambitious goals for curriculum innovation are clear testaments to our appreciation and respect for the unique and treasured aspects of global academia.

As for our disagreement about the driver simulation, the feedback we got from the university was that they thoroughly enjoyed the lively debate and the debate may or may not have any influence in the future on their adopting this approach. In other words, it was one of those classically orthogonal discussions… heated in the long run, but likely neutral in impact. The ultimate irony is that the system was largely refined in collaboration with that institution’s faculty so the debate was primarily an intellectual engagement of peers and not so much a judgment on a concept. Having said that, I will be better prepared for the next time… and I’ll leave the cheeseburgers to my kids.

- Tom Lee

As Chief Education Officer at Quanser, Tom Lee is focused on spearheading the development of Quanser's global academic community. He is closely involved with Quanser's technology and solution development process and the company's partner and alliance programs. He holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and an MASc and BASc in Systems Design Engineering from the University of Waterloo.

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