“Practice what you preach!”

In June 2015, the Tilburg University instated a new rector, called Emile Aarts. Coming from the Technical University of Eindhoven, where Aarts was a professor in Computing Science and dean of the faculty of Mathematics and computer science, he is now appointed as Rector Magnificus at our university. Will his beta orientated background bring new winds into Tilburg University? Currently, this university is not very technically minded. But as society is getting more and more engaged with technology, the university (whose slogan is ‘Understanding Society’) needs to become better versed in technology as well. With appointing Aarts as the new rector, the university has made an important step into keeping pace with societal change.Tilburg University’s mission is to understand society. It has always approached questions on society through social and economical research. Currently though, there is a rising need in technological knowledge to understand our rapidly changing society. Will Tilburg University be able to keep up with these changes? We asked the freshly appointed Rector Magnificus Emile Aarts, successor of Philip Eijlander.

First off, a short introduction: Aarts appears to be appropriately qualified to bring change to Tilburg University. As a former researcher and dean, he has both a technical as well as a managerial background. He gained this experience from working at the Philips Research Laboratories and at the Technical University of Eindhoven. With his background he will change our university in a way it can match the changes in society. Aarts: “Tilburg University should strive to educate independent entrepreneurs who have insights in society and use this knowledge to advance society.”

 Currently though, there is a rising need in technological knowledge to understand our rapidly changing society

“The value chains in society have changed over the past years (…) and tech companies are looking for knowledge from inside society about the needs of people and for knowledge about the behavior of people in society as well”, said Aarts. Value chains is a term used to describe all activities leading towards value of products. These value chains in terms of technology have seen tremendous change over the past ten years. In the early days of technological products, the mere idea of having a television or telephone was enough to make consumers buy the product, without even questioning what they would actually use the product for. In today’s technological market, the experience of products has become very homogenous. You can watch television on your smartphone and make phone calls through Skype on your smart-TV. Delivering a unique and smooth experience for the user has become as important as the product itself. As these changes happen, manufacturers are looking for people trained not only in technological skills, but also in fields of humanities, psychology and economics to better understand the user experience.

Emile Aarts: “Because of the changes in value chains, students who aren’t educated with technology in mind cannot actively contribute to these value chains.” Tilburg University’s expertise in society has now became relevant for technology companies, however the student of Tilburg University lacks skills in technology. Aarts vision is shared by Max Louwerse, professor at Tilburg University: “Technological knowledge is of added value for education.” He states that the technological knowledge is present at the university, but is not used to its full potential. This is partly due to the demand of students, who are not aware of the importance of technology, and partly due to the current vision of the university.

Confronted with this problem, Aarts stated: “An idea to solve this problem is a broad bachelor program, which includes a couple of basic courses for every student of the university. This includes a programming course.” Sander Wubben, assistant professor at Tilburg University, added to this: “Programming as a course at the university is a no-brainer.” Making programming an obligatory course would send out a clear sign that the university is taking this problem very serious. “The level of the programming course should differ between the different bachelors, as different bachelors have different demands”, Aarts stated. Taking it even a step further, Aarts spoke about a whole new IT faculty at the university: “It (ed. the IT faculty) should be innovative; focused on human technology interaction rather than robots.”

Tilburg University claims to understand society, but misses out on the technological side of society. The new rector could make a change in this. As Aarts states that “As a university, you should practice what you preach”. Combining the existing expertise of Tilburg University with a more technologically driven approach along with the vision of Aarts, it promises to be a future full of innovation and changes at Tilburg University.

Sidestory 1: Communication- and information sciences (CIW): setting an example?
In line with Aarts his vision, full professor Max Louwerse states that students may not be aware of the importance of technical skills in the field of communication- and information sciences, but several teachers within the department of Louwerse do see the importance. It is this lack of awareness and enthusiasm of CIW students, which result in the university not offering technical courses. However, “…within the faculty of CIW there is a lot of knowledge regarding information technology and it’s unfortunate that is not being used by the students.” said both professor Louwerse and assistant professor Wubben. To solve this gap and for the students to gain more technical knowledge and courses, two things need to happen. First, the students should raise their awareness towards the importance of information technology and the skills required to work with it and secondly the university itself should try to slowly increase the presence of information technology in the curriculum of CIW. Phd student Mattheij states “Bachelor students simply want to pass their next courses and focus on getting a passing grade, but often don’t look into the contents of the courses. It is necessary to determine what the students should pick up during their bachelor study.”

We found out that the curriculum of the study is in fact changing, shifting more and more towards the computational side of the field. For example, Tilburg University is implementing computation in several traditionally non-computational courses. By doing this, the student are shown the difference between what computers can do and what humans can do as well as the possibility of computers to support humans in their tasks. This helps to raise enthusiasm and awareness among students. The number of students who see the importance of technological skills grows, but as Mattheij states: “It is important that students want to learn technical skills.” The CIW department can certainly change if the movement to change comes from both directions.

Currently, there are several courses related to information technology available for CIW students. Some courses want students to get acquainted with programming and the purposes in general (ICT in society, Understanding Intelligence, Cognitive Modelling). Other courses focus on what kind of information systems students may encounter in the future for research purposes (Business Information Technology, Social aspects of new Media). These courses give an general idea of some concepts within businesses, but do not help students grasp how to use this acquired knowledge. Three relatively new courses in IT (Language in the digital age, Language, mind & computer, Seminar data processing) try to teach students computing skills. All CIW students need to choose at least one of these courses to graduate. The first two courses mainly focus on what tools are available and what they do. Both the ‘Language’ courses are, therefore, more theoretically focused than the subject Seminar Data Processing is. In SDP students learn how to manipulate these tools and generate their own ways of processing data. In the eyes of Wubben and Mattheij, SDP might be the most technical course in the bachelor as far as learning technical skills goes. However, the course is not so popular if compared to the ‘Language’ counterparts. Although, CIW is willing to set an example to change its curriculum, the chart shows that students are still either unaware or unwilling to see the importance of the most technical course. Change has to come from both directions to be successful as an initiative. With appointing Emile Aarts as a new rector, it is expected that change from both directions is coming. As he wants to try to prepare the students to meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s society.

“Just another technological hype coming from the industry”

Sidestory 2: Coding- the new curriculum or hyped talk of the day?
Learning how to code is the new talk of the day. Visionaries, lawmakers and entrepreneurs agree that students should be taught how to code in all stages of the educational system. The argument coming from the main evocates is that students should be prepared for a world in which data will be used for many aspects of the daily life. Learning how to work with this data − learning how to code − seems to become a prerequisite to be well equipped as a modern worker.

However, there is also critique against this new idea in education. In de Volkskrant, professor in educational psychology Paul Kirschner described the proposed coding-courses as nothing more than “just another technological hype coming from the industry”. In support of Kirschner’s remark, there hasn’t been any publication yet that proves the advantages coding for the developing mind of a child or adolescent.

Coding in the curriculum certainly has its yay or nay-enthusiasts. Staying ahead of the flock, the UK introduced coding in its school curriculum in 2013, introducing a three stage coding-program covering ages 5 until 14. The industry applauded this bold move as a gap between technological jobs and the lack of knowledge deficient workers would soon cease to exist. As for the Netherlands, the educational system is a little less prone to change. We went out and asked an educator in the field − Marielle Nobelen, teacher in Dutch Language at the Stedelijk Gymnasium Breda − what she thought of coding as part of a new curriculum in the Netherlands.

Coding as a part of the mandatory curriculum, what do you think about that?
“I’m certainly following the discussion on this topic from a distance. But what I’m mostly noticing is that this is an idea not really existing in the current educational goals of today’s primary and high schools. Not that we shouldn’t prepare our students as best as we can for the future, it’s just that the educational value of coding as a subject as compared to learning concrete grammar or a new language is very unclear at this point. Besides − and of course this is strictly personal − if we would adopt coding not as a specific skill but as general knowledge, the value of coding as said skill goes drastically downward, just because of all the competition alone!”

Would you adopt coding in a new school curriculum?
“I am not opposed to the idea of giving courses in coding at the elementary and high school. However, as it stands right now, I believe that as a teacher there are many subjects that are invaluable to the developing mind of the child. Think about logical thinking, feeling for speech, general knowledge about the world etc..! It would be better to change the current IT courses and merge coding and computer skills together.”

It becomes clear that coding as a new part of the educational curriculum is not greeted with the same enthusiasm by everyone. Plenty of opinions and debates will follow before the mainstream opinion about coding in school has been properly formed. The question remains, with other countries already taking the gamble, if we should wait any longer to find out what the hype is all about?

Dit artikel is geschreven door studenten Transmedia Journalism van Tilburg University: Joris van Abeelen, Lennart Driessen, Rick van Hamond en Kaz Roomer.

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