17 – A Symphony of Details

17 – A Symphony of Details

It’s been a number of years since I began to teach online courses here at Galen University. It started small, with me offering one or two during the course of a semester in which most of my classes were face-to-face. Presently, with the majority of new Computer Science students coming into the program as full-time workers returning to school to get their degrees, the face-to-face classes that I teach have instead become the exception rather than the rule.

I’m not complaining; even though it actually takes more time to prepare the material for such a class, especially since I prefer to make my own diagrams, sample programs, and animated sequences, I enjoy the flexibility of delivery as much as the students do. In addition, (and to reveal some behind-the-scenes stuff) if I mess up too badly when recording my asynchronous classes, I can always do a Take 2 (or Take 4 in the case of one ill-fated module) with nobody the wiser. Since I record my longer course modules in sections (A, B, C, etc.) even losing Internet connectivity or electricity in flagrante recito doesn’t set me back too much. I also get a chance to take advantage of new tools in online education, and to explain some of the more complex concepts in a visual – sometimes even interactive – way that works far better than the lecture-and-sketch approach that accompanies the traditional classroom environment.

I’ve noticed something, however, during the course of these years that I would have thought unlikely. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it is often the case that the full-time workers who are also students, and who may also have families to attend, perform a little bit better than those students who are full-time educatees. One would think that a student who is primarily a student has more time to dedicate to studying, practicing presentations, and composing essays, but for some reason this abundance of time (relatively speaking, of course) doesn’t seem to have a benefit proportional to their performance.

Now, this is not really saying anything negative about our full time students as individuals; most of you guys do great, at least in the classes that you have with me… and I suppose I can’t take ALL the credit for that. Nevertheless, I would expect that, generally speaking, due to the factors and advantages I have mentioned here the traditional students would outshine the part-time or online ones to a significant degree. That isn’t what I’ve observed.

While all students are created equal in the moral and civic sense of the word “equal,” it would be absurd not to acknowledge that individual scholars have unique strengths and weaknesses. A part of character development is learning how to emphasize our strengths and overcome our… alternative strengths.

Some of our students are simply blessed with the ability to grasp course material the first time they hear it. They are exposed to the concepts, they understand them almost intuitively, and they can apply them without much effort to the solution of problems. We tend to reward such students for their achievements. On the other hand, we have students whose particular skills lie elsewhere, and so when it comes to course work, even in a subject they enjoy, their grades do not always reflect the degree of effort they exert. Unfortunately, neither does the praise and encouragement they receive, which would inspire them to continue to do their best.

Natural talent is only part of the story, however. The amount of time spent studying is also only a part of the story.

Another factor, and one that is often difficult to identify (and usually impossible to teach) is simply the effect of having more, and more serious, responsibilities. It may be something of a cliché, but life really does teach lessons that cannot be learned in the classroom, even if that classroom is virtual.

The very experience of working at a job, taking care of a family, paying taxes, and finding the occasional gray hair, this seems to have a profound effect on one’s outlook, and at least some of that translates into a student’s approach to learning new material. Having more responsibilities, rather than diluting an individual’s attention, actually appears to focus it more keenly on whatever he or she is doing.

While both humans and computer systems have a limited supply of resources to deal with, and are often engaged in multi-tasking, the human mind appears to be able to run self-optimization processes. This means that as the degree of multi-tasking increases, the better we are able to do each individual task. We “rise to the occasion,” as the expression goes. This only works up to a point, however, because any system can become overwhelmed and begin to make mistakes. For people, however, it seems that there is something of a bell curve situation going on. Too much simplicity can be just as detrimental as too much complexity.

Many, many years ago, somewhere between high school and college, I briefly worked as a data entry clerk at one of Belize’s fine governmental institutions. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience for me; the work itself was not difficult – at all – and perhaps that was part of the problem. The way we had it set up, we worked in teams. One or two people would enter the data, and another would double-check to make sure that everything entered was accurate.

It turned out to be a good system, especially considering the fact that I, as one of the data entry individuals, made a lot of mistakes. I have always been a fairly good typist, but there were misspellings. I’m pretty competent with numbers, but there were miscalculations. I don’t want to give the impression that my work was riddled with errors to the degree that it was unusable, but compared to the other data entry folks, my degree of inaccuracy was higher.

The way that I think about work, and the way that I approach the tasks I am performing, has certainly changed over the years, in part due to my college experience, and in part just due to those “life lessons” I mentioned earlier. Back then, however, I saw my job as a placeholder, and while in a sense that was true, it was also an opportunity for me to apply what I had learned in school, its somewhat repetitive nature notwithstanding. One of the reasons for my lack of precision was something that I warn my students against all the time… not properly understanding or paying attention to the questions/details that I am expected to know.

Many, many students have lost many, many points in my classes because they failed to read a quiz question carefully enough. I have asked for examples, and I have gotten definitions. I have asked for explanations and I have gotten examples. I have asked two-part questions and had the second part, which is often the most important as it deals with evaluating or applying the first part, go unanswered.

To quote the insightful and poetic word(s) of Annie Lennox, “Why?”

The specifics are critical. The details are critical. I’ve said in earlier articles that a single misspelled word, or missing symbol, can ruin a program many thousands of lines long. Let me express that principle another way. Have you ever heard a beautiful and complex piece of music, moving in its theme and rich in its composition? Have you ever heard such an arrangement played… but one note was wrong?

Imagine if an orchestra performed an hour’s worth of music, and one instrument, at one point, made a glaring mistake. After the performance, that would be the moment everyone remembered. Our approach to work, and in fact, the overall experience of our lives, can be a lot like that.

I would say that one of the signs of maturity, and not just growing older, but developing a more mature outlook on life, is the recognition of the importance of details. It is this that allows us to attend multiple tasks at the same time, and do well on all of them. It is this that allows us to balance work, school, and our social lives, without any one of these vital aspects suffering due to neglect. It is this that undoubtedly makes for a good student, regardless of whether one is a traditional face-to-face student or a member of the Galen family that participates online.

Students who have matured tend to perform better, in my view, because they bring their experiences to bear on what they are learning, grasping the material more readily, and making sure they understand what is being asked of them during evaluations. They read questions on quizzes and tests more carefully, because they know that carelessness in reading can cost them severely as an employee or as a parent. If they are married, miscommunications, misunderstandings and forgotten commitments can certainly cost them “affection points” with their spouses. Imagine if every student thought of a quiz or an examination as an opportunity to express his or her commitment to properly managing details?

Again, I am generalizing here when it comes to comparing online students (who are usually a few years older) with traditional ones, but I do so with a purpose in mind. I have had excellent students in both my on-campus and online courses. There was a period of time when all of Galen’s valedictorians, for about two or three years, were face to face Computer Science majors (and yes, I mention that as often as I can get away with it). I am now looking forward to our next few valedictorians being identified from among our online students (from Computer Science, of course).

This should be seen as a challenge, and actually as encouragement, to our entire student body. It might seem to be an impossible instruction, were I to say to you, “Choose to be more mature.” Maturity is not usually seen as a choice, but rather a passive sign of development, the gradual and cumulative effect of being alive. Regardless of this perspective, I believe that Galen students have previously undiscovered superhuman powers that simply need to be awakened. They have a calling, a destiny, to fight the insidious forces of ignorance and stupidity. All they need is the right combination of the more “sidious” forces, not the least of which is confidence.

Choose to be mature. Learn what you can from our fellow students that are juggling the… heavy round objects of life. I need a better metaphor.

Choose to be mature. Commit to paying attention to details, and accurately prioritize the many factors that are drawing on your attention. If you can do this, by recognizing that your choices actually do matter, and your performance in the scant months you have with as at Galen can significantly impact the rest of your lives, you may find yourself reading a little more carefully, and meeting deadlines with more consistency. You would be doing yourselves a tremendous favor, and also making your instructors happy. That’s what we call a “win-win.”

So, time for the concluding flourish: Be the conductor of your own personal orchestra, remembering that yes, sometimes even a single note that is off-key can diminish the beauty of an entire performance. Many of your challenges will follow this pattern. Life is made up of details, respectfully managed and elegantly displayed, and there is almost nothing that any one human can do that is impossible for another to also accomplish.

P.S. If you didn’t get that Annie Lennox reference, go ahead and Google it. It’s rather relevant to the concept of details and music.

David Aguilar
Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering
Galen University