What Software Vendors Don’t Seem to Understand About University Teaching

I often get approached by software vendors with the suggestion that I teach a course using one of their product tutorials. There are plenty of open source databases, operating systems, and cloud computing solutions who want to make it into my curriculum. Of course, vendors don’t always call their product tutorials by that name, but use labels like college-level courses or the like, but this doesn’t change the content: They are still product tutorials. I can’t teach those and no self-respecting professor will ever do this. Let me explain.

Fundamentally, a professor teaches with the aspiration to convey knowledge that won’t be outdated next month or next year; hence they focus more on principles than the technology of the day. Current technology is still important, but it serves as (ever evolving) examples, not as the primary content. I believe, and so do most professors, that the net present value (all future value today for purposes of comparison) of teaching principles is much higher than teaching specific technology.

By focusing on principles, a professor not only gives students the biggest bang for their buck (or time, as there is no tuition in Germany), they also help themselves. Every professor is also trying to educate the next generation of researchers, and this next generation needs to understand fundamental principles (as known today) before they can help the professor push the boundaries of scientific knowledge. Current technology then, again, becomes the example or playground, but is secondary to understanding and evolving principles. For this reason, you will never find me teaching a pure product tutorial at university. It just doesn’t make sense.

What gives? If I was a product vendor who wanted to get their product into a curriculum and the minds of future buyers, I would not try to position commercial tutorials as university courses. Rather, I would pick the most popular textbook on a given subject and then support that textbook with well-defined examples and exercises. Those make sense for a university professor to pick up and allow for a marriage of convenience between university teaching and product vendors.

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