The sad standards of computer-related college degrees

A reader brings word of a disturbing situation: It's possible to graduate with a data-processing degree without writing any code

What follows isn't a request for advice. It's correspondence (edited for length) letting me know about a potentially disturbing situation: a data-processing degree program that doesn't require any demonstration of technical proficiency of any kind.

Read it. Then, if you have firsthand knowledge of the subject, please post a comment (preferred) or send me an email to let me know if this has become common or is an outlier that doesn't represent a trend. When I've accumulated enough responses to have a sense of the true situation, I'll publish the results.

- Bob

Dear Bob ...

My daughter was (unexpectedly) "good with computers" (to use her mother's words), but struggled to find a major in college at which she could excel. She preferred to handcode HTML rather than use an HTML editor (at the time, something like Dreamweaver), but wasn't one of those bright young people already writing programs in C by the time she was in junior high school. Still, she was "good with computers."

[ Also on InfoWorld: Bob warns that even those with coding skills may find themselves trapped in an tech career box | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

Imagine my surprise (and, as it turned out, her relief) that she could get a four-year undergraduate degree in "data processing" without having to write a single program in any language! All such assignments were routinely structured as group (team) exercises; it turned out that the groups who found a natural affinity for each other always had at least one member who could do all or most of the work for each assignment. There were no tests as I think both you and I understand the concept. Everything was a "project," and each team was responsible for its own effort.

To give you a sense of the assignments: The "lab" project for the Server Administration course she took consisted of little more than the groups separately installing Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 on an ordinary PC, either at school or at someone's home. That was it -- just install it. The instructor did not even check that the installation was done correctly; he simply took their word for it, apparently.

The bottom line is that my daughter never developed any real IT skills. She remains a power user and, as it seems most young people are today, a fearless one at that (reinstalling Windows on her personal home PC is a frequent activity of mine). I realized there was little chance of her landing an IT job and was glad she didn't because she clearly had developed no genuine, useful, marketable IT skills. She would have been found out very quickly.

But there is always someone who knows less about technology than an actual power user, and many are happy to pay for even just that talent. She's basically a secretary, but the only one in the office who is capable of figuring out that the reason some document is not printing is because the printer (which can't take legal-size paper) doesn't have any legal-size paper in it, or the reason "the Internet" is down is because the DSL phone line is dead or the RJ45 cord unplugged from the jack in the wall. As such, she'll always have a job, but I don't consider it to be an IT job -- and neither does she.

A hundred others like her also graduated with a degree in computer science that hot day in May several years ago. By then, she'd realized her own limitations, but she said that she was still the one that many, if not most, of the others came to when they had a problem with some application on their computer or didn't grok some HTML construct.

This seems to be a trend: In an effort to widen and deepen my own skill set, I have had occasion to examine computer science course material available online from a number of top-tier colleges and some from the lower rungs. In most instances, what I remember from my nearly 40-year-old computer science education still places me far ahead of what they are now teaching; I had to search elsewhere (mostly in open source offerings or even now-old, but graduate-level textbooks) for suitable material.

We've had trouble finding qualified U.S. job applicants who want to do the work we need done. I wonder if there's a connection.

- Concerned Citizen

This story, "The sad standards of computer-related college degrees," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com.

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