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As Cornell CIS Turns 20, Higher Education Leaders Gather to Explore the Evolving Role of Tech

by Alec Giufurta

Since its founding 20 years ago, Cornell’s Computer and Information Science has grown to be a powerhouse in technology education. Its freshmen enrollment size has grown nearly five fold since 2011, from 253 to over 1100 in 2019, and the program itself was ranked 14th globally by Time Higher Education.

On Thursday, in celebration of its 20-year-legacy, higher education thought leaders convened in the Statler Ballroom to discuss the rapidly evolving role technology plays in the world of education and beyond.

Moderated by Farhad Manjoo ’00, opinion columnist for The New York Times and a former editor in chief of The Sun, the panel included Harvard University professor of natural science Barbara Grosz ’69, Carnegie Mellon University president Farnam Jahanian, President Martha Pollack and MIT Chancellor and professor of computer science and medical engineering Eric Grimson.

During the panel, when asked about whether there is tension between the fields of higher education and tech industries, Pollack bluntly stated, “yes.”

Pollack said that the biggest problem the Computer Science Department faces is in “hiring enough talented faculty,” as Cornell simply cannot match the salary or the “research toys” provided by companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Cornell Tech was created to solve this gap, and is “working extremely closely with industry,” Pollack said, adding that she joined the board of IBM so that she could have more insight into the industry.

Grosz echoed this necessity, starting how “the need for new models of working with industry is really really important.” Yet, working with the tech industry begs the implicit connection to their data, and “with data comes questions of privacy and security,” Grosz said.

But opposite to Big Tech’s enthusiasm in expanding and coming up with new services, Manjoo noticed that people, now more than ever, are more concerned about the presence of tech. “I feel that optimism is, perhaps dying, or just diminishing,” they said.

For Grosz, the solution must start with “[giving] up the idea of faking it until we make it and putting it out there and letting the public de-bug it … the pendulum has to come back to responsible system building and system design.”

The panelists also discussed “distance learning” –– how technology was supposed to enable universities to reach more students at an overall lower cost. MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, were brought under the spotlight to illustrate the importance of a social interaction component of higher education.

“MIT’s first MOOC was a sophomore-level course on circuit design … taken by about 130,000 around the world, including a 16-year-old high school student in Ulaanbaatar, who got a 100 percent on everything in the class,” Grimson said.

This unusual record prompted skepticism from faculty at MIT, until Grimson found out that, by coincidence, the student’s principal was his academic advisor. Five years later, this student graduated from MIT.

“The opportunities are actually enormous for us if we think about the role of technology to enhance learning outcomes,” Grimson said.

Yet in a world where skills required for jobs are rapidly changing, Manjoo questioned how the leaders thought about educating students for skills needed in the future. For Pollack, the answer lies in a liberal arts education.

“How do you think analytically, how do you communicate across difference and recognize different perspectives” are all advantages of liberal arts institutions, Pollack said.

“One thing that I could guarantee that every student graduating Cornell is adept at, it is would be communicating across difference, being able to appreciate the perspective of people who are different,” Pollack said.

This argument, Manjoo recognized, is not something often cited in the public debate over how to educate students for a world where the tech industry takes center stage. They stated how the common response to this is for students to “learn to code.”

“We can’t be teaching them just skills that are going to get them their first job,” Jahanian said. “Sixty-five percent of the jobs for the Z generation, throughout their lives, have not even been invented yet.”

More critical for new students, according to Jahanian, are the skills that will prevail through an ever-changing technological world. Students, however, have pushed back on this notion, Grosz said.

On a particular occasion when Grosz was encouraging students to take classes outside computer science, a young woman told her that “‘every hour that I spend learning something like this is an hour I’m not spending coding, and what does that mean for my job,’” Grosz recalled. “That’s something we really have to combat.”