$1-Billion Effort to Rethink Computer-Science Education at MIT Sparks...

Higher Education

$1-Billion Effort to Rethink Computer-Science Education at MIT Sparks Interest—and Protests

By Jeffrey R. Young     Feb 27, 2019

$1-Billion Effort to Rethink Computer-Science Education at MIT Sparks Interest—and Protests
An origami-folding algorithm is among the examples of the benefits of blending computer-science and other fields, including art and the humanities.

Cambridge, MA—MIT is in the midst of a $1-billion effort to reshape how it teaches computer science, in what some say may be a model for other colleges. But the effort has has also drawn protests by some students and professors, who are questioning how well ethics will be integrated into the effort and are criticizing the influence of a controversial donor.

Those mixed feelings were on display this week as the university hosted a three-day celebration of its planned College of Computing. The event included a back-flipping robot modeled on a cheetah and other marvels of digital engineering, as well as planned appearances by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. It also sparked protests by students and professors, including a “teach-in” questioning how well ethics will be integrated into the effort and criticizing the influence of a controversial donor.

Two big ideas drive MIT’s new college. First is that MIT needs far more computer-science professors to meet the demand by students and researchers. Second, coding is no longer a department to put off in a corner, but a toolset that can be applied to every academic discipline. And that means making sure everyone writing computer code also pays attention to the cultural and ethical implications of their tools, the effort’s leaders say.

“It’s turning computer science into a lingua franca,” said Sanjay Sarma, vice president for open learning at MIT, in an interview. “I think students will soon all learn English, Spanish and Python.”

That ubiquity also raises the stakes for the new college, which emerges at a time of increasing skepticism of the impact of Big Tech on our daily lives. In the wake of scandals like Cambridge Analytica using Facebook user data for political purposes, more people are raising questions about the darker impacts and unintended consequences of digital tools.

Colleges once dreamed of launching the next Mark Zuckerberg. These days, the goal is to make sure that when the next world-changing CEOs hit college, they can be trained in ethics and humanities to help avoid the Facebook founder’s missteps.

Earlier this month, a group of students and professors published a protest letter in The Tech, the student newspaper at MIT, calling for the university to cancel the celebration, or for students and professors to boycott the event if it took place. A key complaint is where the biggest chunk of the money is coming from. The major donor is billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO of a private equity firm called the Blackstone Group, who has pledged $350 million. Schwarzman is also a close advisor to President Donald Trump.

The protest letter criticizes Schwarzman’s effort to oppose to an affordable housing ballot initiative in California, among other things. “For the MIT administration, as for Schwarzman, money trumps concerns for human rights and economic justice,” the authors argue. “Rather than promoting thoughtful discussion about the direction of the university, the administration stages Davos-like spectacles, of which the Schwarzman College celebrations are a prime example.”

A teach-in Tuesday night, titled “A.I. can’t fix this: MIT, imperialism, and the future of A.I.,” drew about 150 people and outlined concerns about the new college. “What’s happening is research agendas are being set by large corporations, by the rich, by the wealthy,” said Sally Haslanger, a professor in the department of linguistics and philosophy at MIT. “The choice of what we’re inquiring into, the choice of what matters, this is being controlled by big money.”

During a roundtable with reporters on Wednesday, EdSurge asked MIT provost Martin A. Schmidt for his response to those concerns. “I would argue that, in fact, Schwarzman was one of the strongest voices about putting the societal-impact lens around the formation of the college,” the provost argued.

Schmidt did note how unusual the new college is for MIT. The institution hasn’t started an academic effort on this scale since the founding of the Sloan School of Management in 1950. And MIT typically doesn’t use the concept of “colleges,” so the entity’s name is meant to signal that it is a new structural model for MIT, with a focus on crossing disciplines.

The institute plans to hire 50 new faculty members for the college, a 5-percent growth in MIT’s faculty.

Also, the university is announcing the college even before it has worked out all of the details, hoping to build it with community input as it goes.

To some students, the announcement of the new college felt abrupt—and surprisingly vague.

“I’m concerned,” said Gabrielle Ballard, an undergraduate at MIT already pursuing an interdisciplinary program that blends the humanities and engineering, who moderated the teach-in this week. “It’s kind of like we have an administration that decided this, and the MIT community didn’t really have any input on whether this was a good idea to open up the school or not. It’s super frustrating to have this huge structural change to MIT as an institution without community input.” That’s especially true, she added, when MIT has already been growing other cross-disciplinary programs in a much more methodical way, and it is unclear how those efforts fit into the new plan.

Signs of tensions around MIT's new College of Computing were on display this week, as some students revised posters for a kick-off event to indicate their objections.

Another student who has been protesting the new college is Yarden Katz, a fellow in the department of systems biology at Harvard Medical School and an MIT alumnus. “There’s a striking absence of democracy on campus,” he complained. “University administrators and a subset of willing faculty make decisions in our name, but without our involvement. The initiatives we take issue with are negotiated secretly and we rarely know their terms. That’s why these initiatives and partnerships don’t reflect the views of the broader university community.”

Model for Other Colleges

MIT is not the only college considering a reset of how computer science is situated in its curriculum.

“That’s the way we’re all going” said Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, who gave a keynote Wednesday about how a variety of colleges are encouraging a more diverse set of students to learn computer science, and to apply that knowledge across disciplines. “The fact that MIT is doing it is going to cause other institutions to follow,” she added, noting that she guessed the University of California at Berkeley may be among those who consider the model.

Adrienne R. Minerick, dean of the school of technology at Michigan Tech, said she was at the MIT kick-off event to learn about the approach, since her institution is considering a new computing college with similar aspects. She said she increasingly hears from employers that they are looking for students who can dive into code. “It’s less about coding and more about understanding these structures and computational thinking,” she added.

Sessions on Wednesday focused on the future of teaching computer science. During one panel, several speakers presented examples of how they are integrating CS into the humanities.

Among those examples: origami. Erik Demaine, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at MIT, described an algorithm he created that can generate a folding pattern to make a wide variety of paper sculptures, some of which had never been discovered by human folders. He noted that his father, who works as a visual artist, encouraged him to learn art to helped him work through problems in his research. “By doing art we get inspired to do new research, and by doing research we get inspired to do new art,” he said.

Eran Egozy, a professor of the practice in music technology at MIT, gave a talk demonstrating how he blends computer coding and musical theory for a popular course he teaches. In the process, he ends up exploring how “to apply the rules of music to computation,” by thinking through the patterns of chords to programming.

In the end, the MIT provost noted that the logic of the new college boils down to simpler math. Forty percent of the institute’s students major in computer science, while only about seven percent of the faculty specialize in the field. “That’s a tremendous imbalance in the allocations of resources,” he said during introductory remarks at the conference.

The final day of the conference, on Thursday, will feature a series of “TED-style talks” about how computing can revolutionize a variety of fields, and appearances by the governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, the inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.

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