Friday, June 26, 2009

Resurrecting a blog and an education system

So here I am, resurrecting my blog. It's been quite a long while, two and a half years from what I see in the Archive. I chose Blogspot because it allowed me to use my own domain for free, and I've also imported my old Yahoo! 360 blog.

It's my second attempt to do this, last time (a few weeks ago) I've set up the blog on my own web-server. Unfortunately, it's on a non-standard port, and moreover, the host was off-line quite a lot, so I decided to try again on dedicated service.

Yesterday, Hoai told me she found my CV on-line. I was intrigued at first, but then I remembered I had sent it to some Romanian foundation a while back, when they asked for it and an essay. I want to post that essay here to. I'll translate it for you, because Google's tool does quite a lousy job at it.
Ever since my childhood I liked to play with wires, light bulbs and batteries. My grandfather and his job played an important role in it, considering I lived with my grandparents until my third grade. He was an electrical engineer. We also had a bunch of instruments, components and devices around the house. Not long after I learned to read, he bought me a book, Think Physics, and also a number of other electronics books. In that period, my grandpa made sure I was always thirsty for knowledge. At some later time, when I already had a computer, I started doing programming too. These three sciences have become my favorites: Physics, Electronics and Computer Science.

In Physics, the change occurred in my seventh grade, when my professor called me and three other classmates to his desk and asked us if we wanted to go to the Olympiad. I liked the idea, and with a little study, I was ready for what would later become kinda my job during high-school.

The Romanian education system had an important contribution to my international academic results. The high-school curriculum is more in depth than that from countries. In Romania the competition between students is encouraged. In the United Kingdom for instance, university exam results are given to the students privately, and it is their choice what they tell to anyone else. In these conditions, the competitive spirit is greatly diminished.

Despite this, young Romanians leave to study abroad. The differences between the Romanian and British academic environments are various, starting right from the underlying cultural differences, to curricula, approach and lab equipment. For instance, universities on the island focus more on skills, while in Romania it's more about accumulating information.

If you ask what should be changed, the answer isn't clear. A first problem could be that the timetable is too crowded, but it isn't so everywhere. Even though this is true about the Polytechnic University of Bucharest (PUB), it would be wrong to say the same thing about the Informatics degree from Bucharest University. For previous Olympiad contestants, PUB's degree seems ideal. However, the institution accepts many students - they aren't all Olympiad contestants. Thus we need to think about the other students. The amount of effort required from them seems too much, and whether all modules they have to take are relevant, is debatable.
In my opinion, university shouldn't be about getting through the exams, and then forgetting everything. Unfortunately, it is so for many students.

Another problem is professors' attitude, and people's attitude in general. In the west, professors treat students with respect, and are treated back with similar respect. Any student can talk with his professor on equal terms. Teachers actually encourage students to stop them in the middle of the lecture if anything isn't clear, so they can explain again in a different way. From year to year, courses and lab exercises are improved based on feedback from students. According to rumors from some of my friends back home, lecturers don't usually allow interruptions. Often times, they give answers like "I don't have enough time to explain it again" or "you should read the book again". If anyone is brave enough to make comments regarding the curriculum or the lecturer's methods of teaching, he risks having his grade lowered. A story I've heard a long time ago goes like this: a certain professor from PUB (I believe he isn't teaching anymore though), when he'd call the register at the beginning of the semester, he'd stop at a few students telling them "your name is not an engineer's name". Those students would unavoidably fail his course. Of course, this is an extreme case, but it does show some serious attitude problems.

A series of changes are needed in Romania's education system. The first thing I would encourage is totally eliminating cheating and plagiarism. Such attempts should be drastically punished, and supervision during exams should be tight. Students cheat (oh, they sure do!) because they find the exam or the curriculum too hard. In a completely honest environment (no cheating), if more than 10-20% of the students fail a certain course, or nobody scores more than 80% in an exam, that should be an alarm that something went very wrong. Also the grading should be entirely objective, possibly similar to the grading in the Olympiad, with two professors evaluating the same exam independently, and the student being allowed to challenge his score.

Changes would be many. If what I've suggested above was done, the rest should follow automatically.

I hope the status of Romania's academia is not as grim as I saw it when I wrote this essay. After all, I know some teaching assistants and lecturers that try hard to make their classes work. There are people out there who care more about their students than about their paycheck. Unfortunately, they can not make too many changes even if they wanted. And even if they made the changes, a "no student left behind" strategy would impact on the learning experience of the top students.

Back then, I only had the experience of a year of study in a British university. In the meantime, I've spent a year in an American university as well. I might write more about this later. For now, let's just say nothing is in black and white. Life is complicated, education is complicated, international differences are complicated. Fixing a flawed education system I'm quite sure isn't easy either. But how should I know? I'm just a student...

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