Interesting article on the front page of Hacker News right now: “Why you should take notes by hand – not on a laptop” by Joseph Stromberg at Vox. I’ve generally favored taking notes by hand for the same reason they outline as the result of a study in the article. Specifically, that people taking notes on a laptop tend to do worse when questioned on the contents of those notes. There was, however, one interesting point I wanted to harp on:

But the crazy thing is that the many college students being distracted by their laptops are simultaneously paying tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of doing so.

Something that is always in play in a classroom environment is the following: how much responsibility does the instructor have to be engaging and how much burden does the student have to stay engaged?

From my personal experience it’s the case that the quality of lecture material in a class seems to decrease the larger the class gets. I don’t think there’s a causal relationship there. If I had to guess the actual cause would be because the larger classes are core curriculum and generally not things the professors are excited about teaching. But if a professor is utterly bored by the material they’re teaching, students are going to be utterly bored watching them click through a PowerPoint slide that they’re reading verbatim.

The insinuation by Vox above (at least as I understood it) is that the students are wasting money for something that is a privilege, which isn’t a sentiment that I entirely agree with. For many careers a Bachelor’s Degree is the new standard. It’s a hoop, and one that’s not always 100% relevant to your actual degree. The biggest assets I gained in my Computer Science degree aside from the letters I can put on my resume are the experience with theory of computation and the connections I made that allowed me to have a job all four years of school. I was, of course, a bit abnormal because I walked in knowing how to code. That doesn’t change the fact that I had to sit through plenty of classes absolutely unrelated to my degree.

So, here’s the question: are students wasting money or just getting ripped off so they can make a living?

Code schools have started popping up around the technology industry, and while acknowledging that they’re not the same as a four year degree, operate under the hypothesis that you don’t need the foundational elements to be an entry-level software engineer. They have effectively lowered the barrier to entry such that you can get some basic coding chops without breaking the bank. From what I’ve heard, they’ve been doing a pretty good job with it.

Assuming this trend continues, that code schools are able to churn out good, qualified, entry-level engineers in less time and for less money – the one is left to ask how valuable the core curriculum actually is to the student. It’s normally one of the biggest stumbling blocks in acquiring all of the credits required in a four year degree, and a lot of my professors didn’t particularly care for teaching the core classes. So, why is it something I paid for?