Bad requirements in curriculum design

A new degree program is being set up.  I won’t say in what, or who’s leading the charge, or any of that – because it’s both irrelevant and unnecessary, and also I don’t want to be seen as trying to torpedo the exercise. However, I find that the foundations upon which the program is based is rather flawed.  I think these flaws constitute a good case study in requirements elicitation, so I’ve put some notes together on it.

The motivation for the new program starts with these three points (only slightly redacted to preserve anonymity):

  • Just 29% of [university] students were very confident they could find a job in their own field after graduating.
  • 47% of Ontario [university] students said they see themselves starting a business after graduating.
  • This means they will look to other post-graduate opportunities.

Let’s look at each one in turn.

The first point is the one I find most troubling, for several reasons.  It seems to derive from the study reported here.

First, does it really matter how many students feel confident?  Or does it matter how many actually do find work in their own fields?  Are we assessing student’s mentalities?  No; we’re trying to figure out if there’s a “market” for a particular program.  It seems obvious, then, that the only number that really matters here is how many students actually find work in their field.

Second, what field(s) are we talking about? Clearly there will be some variation depending on the fields included.  Does the 29% apply to, say, Medieval History students as well as medical students?  Probably not. No further references about this survey were given, so it’s not like we can go find out for ourselves.

Third, there’s an underlying assumption that finding work in one’s field is universally preferable to finding other work, and that the other 71% would want to find such work but just aren’t confident that they will succeed.  This isn’t necessarily the case.  Indeed, one cannot really comment on the value of the 29% without knowing more about the other 71% too.  Some of them may already recognize that they just haven’t the character to even graduate, let alone find work.  Others may have been pressured into a field by their parents.  And some may just be learning about a field because they are inherently interested in it but have no plans on pursuing a career in it.  Clearly, the data as presented may well be a false dichotomy, which is indicative of flawed reasoning.

The second point comes from the same source as the first, and suffers from the same basic flaw: it’s one thing to know that students would like to start their own business, but how many actually do?  And how many actually succeed at it?  Isn’t the ratio of successful startups to total attempted startups far more meaningful than just knowing what students wishes are?  (That’s rhetorical; of course it’s more meaningful!) What, if anything, can be gleaned from knowing just that one statistic?  Precious little.  It may be that many of those students simply have no idea what’s involved in starting a successful business; it may also be that they would like to, but know that they won’t.

There’s also a bunch of other information missing that’s quite relevant in assessing the nature of this student “market.”  For instance, what’s the time-scale involved.  For instance, regarding the first point, does “after graduating” mean “immediately,” “within one year,” “within five years,”….  The same question may be asked of the second point.  Clearly, if one is trying to devise an academic program for very recent graduates, it will be a substantively different program than one devised for people returning to school after, say, five or ten years in “the real world.”

The third point, even if one accepts the first two, is a complete mystery to me.  It’s phrased as a conclusion derived from the first two, but I just don’t see it at all, unless of course one assumes graduates are just automata who, having set their course (of finding a job in their field and starting their own business) will march like Morlocks, unswayed by changes in society, technology, and culture – not to mention their own personal growth.  Now add in all the questions I raised above about the premises of this argument and how these other factors will affect students’ thinking.

There’s one other important matter that’s implied here: that academia needs to promote economic growth, that growth is always good, and that without it, The Universe Will End.  Seems to me, however, that promoting economic growth cannot be the only driving force – yet not a single other motivation is discussed in all the documentation that I’ve seen about this new proposed program.  Not to mention that the notion of limitless growth is just abominable (see here and here).

Now, remember – these three points are almost verbatim the sole foundational motivation to create an entire academic program.

I can’t help but look at this as a design problem, and what I see here is just a solution looking for a problem.  That is to say, a fairly typical way to design something is to start with requirements that describe, implicitly, the condition at which you can stop designing because you have an answer.

For instance, if you’re designing an aircraft, the basic requirements can be summed up as: Design a way to transport X people and cargo up to N kilometres in no more than T hours, subject to all pertinent regulations {R}, and providing them with services (a, b, c,…) during transport.  If you cannot very crisply define X, N, T, {R}, and (a, b, c…), you stand exactly zero chance of succeeding.  Even if you do know those things, success isn’t guaranteed at all, but at least you have a chance.

Where are the requirements for this new academic program?  Nowhere; they don’t exist.  How can one expect to have any chance at all to create a successful program without knowing those requirements?  One cannot.


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