Professor Nigam’s Twitter Thread on the AIU

Professor Nigam is the registrar at NLSIU, and he was kind enough to read my series of posts on the Almost Ideal University. What’s more, he took the time to respond with a very thoughtful series of tweets, as a part of his excellent series that is freely available on Twitter. I don’t know if he has a name for it, I think of it as the “My Dear Law Students” series.

If you are a student of law, the series ought to be mandatory reading. If you are a student of writing, the series ought to be mandatory reading. I’m quite serious, please do read all of them!

In this post, I’m going to cite some of his tweets, and add my two penn’orth.

And nor will students of economics be able to demonstrate real world potential unless assisted by real economists. You learn best when taught by folks with skin in the game. In my Almost Ideal University, you can’t become a teacher without having worked in the field first. And that’s a non-negotiable requirement.

Yes, of course there are problems with this. Why will folks want to leave a corporate job? Won’t the pay be lesser in academia? Why would firms be ok with having folks just “go away” for six months to teach? All great questions, and valid ones. But that’s exactly what we need to figure out if we’re going to ever get around to building out the AIU.

These problems arise, of course, only because I am in complete agreement with Professor Nigam when he says that you need people with skin in the game.

And I’d much rather solve these (much harder) problems than solve the problem of how to make three hour long in-class theoretical exams more relevant.

The equitable access problem is a real one, and I’ll state upfront that I do not really know how to solve it. Technology can help to an extent, but the AIU won’t be equitable to begin with. Yes, replicability, if it works out, will help. But it won’t ever be a perfectly equitable system. My sole defense is that the system I seek to replace is, if anything, even more inequitable.

Not, I hasten to add, that this should mean that we stop worrying about equitable access in the case of the AIU!

And regarding the second tweet in this section, yes, bureaucracy is inevitable. But if gamified well, there is a chance that the system (again, while not being perfect) will be better than the status quo.

My point is this: if we can get students to view assignments as something to work on cooperatively rather than combatively, the need to monitor is that much lesser. Of course, the need to mentor is that much higher, but isn’t that the point of education in the first place?

But yes, those of us in academia will need to figure out how to make this happen, and as Professor Nigam has pointed out, that with the help of working professionals.

There’s a great deal of detailing to be worked out here, and apprenticeships, mentorships and professionals in residence on campus will all have a role to play. Again: a hard problem to solve, but attempting to solve for this is a worthy mission as an academician.

I wish I could do a better job of writing more clearly, and the fault is mine over here. In my AIU, the onus isn’t on the student to attend. The onus is on the professor to make the class interesting enough to attend. The student is always free to not attend, but the professor should be good enough to make the student feel regret at not being present in class. Specifically:

  1. The professor should have the ability to not just explain a particular student’s doubt, but also in the process enrich everybody else’s understanding of that issue.
  2. The professor (or their assistant, perhaps) should allow the most non-intuitive doubts to filter up in class. That is, study groups, whether offline or on (say) Discord servers will allow the students themselves to resolve the relatively easier doubts. Those that prove resilient will be handled by the professor. Will it work perfectly right from the get-go? Of course not. Is it worth trying? I vote yes – but of course, as they say, your mileage may vary.
  3. So, no, not a diminishing role for physical classroom instruction at all. Au contraire, a role of paramount importance for the physical classroom, for synthesis will happen there. And perhaps can only happen there, but that takes us into deep waters for a blogpost. And on a related note, the more you agree with me over here, the more you should worry about inequities across the entire system. For obviously, physical classroom sessions can’t scale.

A rare area of disagreement for me in this Twitter thread, for I do have a lot of confidence in the motivational levels of undergraduates. Not all undergraduates, I should be clear. As with everything else in life, so also with motivational levels of undergrads: there will be a distribution. Some will be very motivated, and will remain so no matter how bad college is. At the other end of the distribution, some will remain very unmotivated, no matter what how good college is.

But that being said, it is true that I prefer to award the benefit of the doubt to the student. This is in good humor, Professor Nigam, and please do forgive me my impertinence, but innocent until proven guilty! Or in this case (and is it the same thing?) motivated until proven otherwise. 🙂

But quite honestly, and I’m no longer joking around, I very strongly believe that the enthusiasm to learn is systematically sucked out of a student with every passing year in academia. The more years you spend in the system, the more likely it is that you will want to not learn. This is not a universal law, but in my experience, it has been a fairly accurate heuristic.

Will there be students who will abuse the system I propose? Absolutely. That is the nature of a distribution.

Do more students suffer today for being made to mandatorily sit through classes that just aren’t good enough? Absolutely, and I would rather avoid this than the former.

Completely agreed!

I could get into one of my classes, as a hypothetical, a retired bureaucrat who has impeccable knowledge of how the Union Budget takes shape over the course of the financial year in India. This hypothetical bureaucrat has forgotten more about the budgetary process than any of us will ever know. Unfortunately, watching paint dry is more entertaining than listening to this person speak.

We’ve all met folks like these: really, really good experts, but really, really bad communicators. And that’s fine! Their job wasn’t to be good communicators. It then becomes my job as the teacher in that class to make it more interesting. Maybe I interview the bureaucrat, rather than have him speak? Maybe I record the interview and play snippets? Maybe I speak offline with him, and then conduct I class based on that conversation?

But yes, we absolutely need great teachers to make the subjects accessible and enjoyable.

It’s a great question, and I wish I had an answer, but I don’t. As I said in my first post on the AIU:

I’m a big believer in the fact that students should have skin in the game, and therefore I think that a price should be paid for acquiring an education. But I’m also all too aware of the fact that some students simply cannot pay, and therefore think that some amount of subsidization is inevitable.
It gets trickier still, because you will almost certainly have to spend more resources on those students who will need subsidization. They are, other things held constant, likelier to need more intensive training in getting the quality of their writing up to the same level as that of other students, simply because they are likelier to not have had the same exposure to quality education in school. And this will apply to other dimensions as well: quantitative skills, the luxury of having time to practice their skills and so on.

That is, the economist in me is saying that students from poor or underprivileged families will need more intensive training and help, educating them in the AIU will be more expensive. But that still doesn’t explain the how of it. Sure, it’ll cost more, but for doing what, exactly, and how?

There are some potential answers (bridge programs, extra assignments, more mentorships) but I’m hazy on the details right now.

Would I be correct in saying, however, that if we don’t solve this problem within the university itself, the student will face an ever tougher challenge out of it? That is, an underprivileged student who doesn’t get the kind of education we are speaking about right now will find it even more difficult to succeed out in the real world – is that a reasonable hypothesis? And if yes, then it becomes even more imperative to ensure that we work towards ensuring that these students get the kind of learning that we are speaking about?

Food for thought, for sure, and I’ll be feeding at this trough for a while. 🙂

Thank you, to Professor Nigam, for an excellent set of thought-provoking questions!

And a request to all of you – please help by letting me know what makes sense, and what doesn’t when it comes to the Almost Ideal University.

A Question for Lant Pritchett

This interview went viral (well, about as viral as interviews of economists can be) recently. And it was this excerpt that made the rounds:

India never changed its mind about having a selection system rather than an education system. A selection system is where you put all children in a classroom, but provide a poor or indifferent environment for learning, and see what happens. The students that learn in that environment must be brilliant. As for those who do not learn, teachers will say they must be the type of children who cannot learn. India took that option because they expected that 2-3% of the population would be an educated elite, and that would be good enough. And so, they committed themselves to selection rather than education. Things will only change once they fundamentally change their ideas, which they are hopefully in the process of doing now.

Tyler Cowen chose a different bit of the same question to excerpt:

Ann Bernstein: From your knowledge of India and Indonesia, what are the core causes of their lack of educational progress? These are places with highly qualified civil servants and, at least in India’s case, a democratic government. How do you see this problem? How do we get out of this trap?
Lant Pritchett: I’m head of this very large research project called RISE and we’re spending millions of dollars to find out the answer to that question. One of the countries where education improvements have been dramatic is Vietnam. At a tiny fraction of the spending in most countries – including South Africa – Vietnam is achieving OECD levels of learning. When we asked our Vietnam team why the country has produced this amazing success, they told us: ‘because they wanted it’.
On one level, that seems silly; on another level, it is the key. Unless, as a society, you agree on a set of achievable objectives and actually act in a way that reveals that you really want those objectives, you cannot achieve anything.

Me, I’m dying to ask Lant Pritchett a question, and I really wish it was asked in that interview:

What made the Vietnamese want educational progress?

I finished yesterday’s post by asking what needs to change in terms of societal incentives for my Almost Ideal University to have even a chance at existing. Same question, except it seems to not be a theoretical one in Vietnam’s case – and so I’m dying to know: what made the Vietnamese want educational progress?

More generally, what makes any society want educational progress?

I sometimes worry that I have found such a good hammer that the whole world looks like a nail, but please tell me how my answer is wrong: a society that agrees that life is a non-zero sum game is a society that will want educational progress.

Status driven societies, for example. If which college you go to matters more than what you learn in that college, you live in what these days is called a status driven society. And since, by definition, there are only so many “top” colleges in a given geographic area, there are only so many seats to go around. Those that get in have “won”, at the expense of everybody else who has “lost”. And the incentive for the college in question is to not increase the number of seats, for that would drive down its status.

I wonder if that conclusion is as befuddling for everybody else as it is for me? The best college in town should not admit more students because that very act will ensure that it is no longer going to be thought of as the best college in town. We have successfully Groucho Marxed the education sector in India.1 He meant it as a joke, we think it to be a great way to dispense quality education.

(Scaling up will have a negative impact on quality, especially when it comes to education. Therefore replicability rather than scale. That is, there is an argument to be made that the “top” colleges admit more folks than they do right now. But their bigger responsibility is to help other colleges become better, in my opinion.)

It’s the whole college as a bundle problem all over again: when you spend the time and money getting educated from a top college, you’re hoping, as a student, to get at least two things (there’s a third, but that’s not relevant right now):

  1. A great education
  2. The license to say, “… from XYZ” in addition to whatever your educational qualification is. XYZ could be Harvard, could be IIT, could be Fergusson College in Pune. But hey, only so many additional people get to say that every year. Status!

Parents want to be able to say that their kid went to a great college. Kids want to go to a great college. Companies want to recruit from great colleges. Professors want to work in great colleges.

And in a zero sum world (or status driven societies, if you prefer), there can, by definition, only be so many “great” colleges.

Go back to a part of the excerpt from Lant Pritchett’s interview at the top of this post:

And so, they committed themselves to selection rather than education.

Yes, indeed we did. And my contention is that we did so because we prioritized status over education. LinkedIn over Coursera, in my framing.

And that, unfortunately, leads us to a chicken and egg problem. Because the only way to change priorities at a societal level is through… education.

So, three conclusions, and before that, one problem.

The problem: if what I’ve said here makes sense, we have a really, really big battle up ahead of us. How to use a broken education system to nudge society towards a better education system that isn’t broken is a hard thing to think about – and I would therefore love to understand how I might be wrong. Please tell me!

The three conclusions:

  1. Depending on only the education system to provide higher education isn’t a great idea (“But then what else?” is a question I do not have an answer to at the moment).
  2. I need to read more about education in Vietnam
  3. Teaching more people that life is best thought of as a non-zero sum game is a great mission to have in life. No?

  1. Not just in India, of course. But given where I am, and given who I am, I will naturally focus much more on India[]

And What Will *They* Do?

NYT Cooking taught me how to make cake this past year. Ranveer Brar taught me how to make palak paneer. Sahil taught me how to make a bacon bomb. Kenji Alt-Lopez taught me how to make pizza. Smita Deo taught me how to make mutton. Krish Ashok opened up entire worlds of possibilities. I can go on and on.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I didn’t make all of the dishes up there, but I did make some, and I think they turned out fairly well. You should try my butter chicken sometime. But the point is, I upped my cooking game a fair bit during these pandemic times. Most of us did, I think.

And one of the major reasons we became better is because we all carry around some of the best instructors in our pocket, and that for free. Your culinary school is in your pocket, as is your theatre, your sound studio, your music room, your karaoke bar, your art museum and your sports arena.

So why not your classroom?

Watching Chapter 3 of the series on Linear Algebra from 3Blue1Brown was a life-changing experience for me (and I’m not exaggerating), because I finally understood the visual intuition behind linear transformations. Ditto with Bayes Theorem. As I often tell my students in classes on behavioral finance, it is one thing to read a paper written by Fama by attempting to check out a book from the college library. It is quite another to sit and listen to Fama talk with Thaler. Or listen to Dani Rodrik talk to Tyler Cowen. Or just stroll into a “room” where some of the most interesting folks in the world are chatting with each other, as Clubhouse and it’s clones have made possible.

YouTube (and just YouTube alone, forget everything else) has taught more, across all dimensions, to most students in the past eighteen months than most universities could have managed in twice the time. That’s rhetoric, not data, but I really do think we’ll be quibbling about the magnitude, not the direction if we argue about that estimate.

Learning has had its dynamo moment.

So whenever the pandemic recedes, those of us in academia need to address questions that will (and should) increasingly be asked by students. Why the classroom? Why mandatory attendance? Why only these notes and not those videos? Can I honestly do a better job than this when it comes to teaching the Solow model? Is SC Gupta really better than Seeing Theory?

Without the internet, the cheapest and the most efficient way to deliver learning to a student was via the classroom. If I am, say, to teach a course on the Indian economy post 1991, then I can put together a bunch of slides and deliver them in a classroom where students listen to what I have to say, debate and discuss the topics I bring up in class, and then go ahead and read more stuff on their own.

With the internet, the cheapest and most efficient way to conduct the same class is to come up with a reading/viewing/listening list, and spend the class discussing the doubts and questions that students may have. This can happen in a class or online. Those who don’t have any doubts, or don’t want their doubts resolved by me are free to not attend.

But can I go one better? Can I ask the author of Half Lion to came talk with our students? Can the folks who worked on come and speak to us about why (and how) they developed the website? Can the author of the paper that highlighted how being rich and “good” was a trend that Bollywood started to become popular after Hum Aapke Hai Kaun be invited for a talk? James Crabtree to talk about inequality in India? Or maybe Stanley Pignal? Mihir Sharma, to talk about Restart? Bibek Debroy or Ashley Trellis, maybe, to talk about what else needs to be done now? Vijay Joshi? TN Ninan? Arvind Panagariya? Arvind Subramanian? Samanth Subramanian to talk about the tanker mafia in Bangalore (and indeed, elsewhere in the country)? Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar? Gilles Verniers? Cristophe Jaffrelot? Nitin Pai?

This might seem like name dropping, but it isn’t. I haven’t met, in real life, even one of the people I have mentioned above. Nor is that list anywhere close to being comprehensive. But imagine a world in which students in my class are tasked with reading the works of these people, and they then go and reach out to these experts, asking for a talk. It is quite likely that some, maybe all, of these people will say no. But the students will have that conversation, they’ll learn the art of making the ask, and they’ll learn the art of asking for alternatives. They’ll network with some of the best people in the business. And if either the person, or the suggested alternative says yes, the student (or that group of students) is responsible for moderating that discussion. They are responsible for taking notes, creating a summary, preparing a reading list and sending all of this to the guest speaker at the end of the session. That is their assignment, and it counts as being done if all of this happens. And the “semester end” examination is a reflective essay on what they learnt through all of these guest lectures: the organization of these lectures, and what they learnt from it.

I could finish the entire semester without having “taught” a class. But there would be a lot of mentoring, networking, discussion and planning in this entire semester. My role as a teacher for this course is to be the guy who decides on the broad contours of the course, facilitates introductions, figures out Plan B’s if the original choice of speakers doesn’t work out, and overall, act as a mentor for the course.

Without the internet, I had to substitute for all this. With the internet, I complement all this. I put this altogether, on the fly, during the semester, and make sure that all of it comes together by the end. The work will actually be more, much more, than regular old teaching – but this would be, in my eyes, a significant improvement.

You don’t provide a negative incentive to have students attend class. You reward them with incredible networks for having attended class. You don’t teach a class. You harness the power of the internet to conduct a class. You don’t check if students have learnt enough by having them write an exam. You make sure that students earn the right to learn from the best, by having them read and digest the works of the best in the business. Will you learn more by mugging up notes the night before the exam, or will you learn more when you know that you have to personally speak with the author of a book, and request them to come speak to your class about it?

Teachers in my Almost Ideal University will mentor students, and help them build out their networks by connecting them with the best in the business. The learning is the process, the network is the outcome. All talks to be recorded and put up for consumption by everybody in the world. Ditto for the documentation. And the challenge in the next semester is to improve upon the one that went by.

Who exactly are these professors, though, the ones who mentor the students in these courses? Full time employees? Well, sure, in some cases. But imagine a 36 year old manager in some analytics firm who is given six months off by her firm to come and teach Introductory Statistics at a university. Imagine the kind of folks she could invite for talks at her classes. Imagine the case studies she could build. Imagine the kind of problems she could speak to students about.

I could go and teach principle of economics at a law university for one semester. A former secretary of health and could come and teach a course on public health. Maybe a PhD student of, say, Professor Ashok Gulati could conduct a course in agri-business marketing. None of us need physically be on campus! This last year and a half has taught us that this work happens just as easily remotely. We just happen to be in charge, that’s all. And sure, if you can be present physically, even better!

It’s been three essays and counting in this series, but I think we need at least one more before we can call it a day. What are the societal incentives that we need to change or chip away at before my Almost Ideal University has even a chance at existing, let alone succeeding? That’s the topic of tomorrow’s essay.

But What Will We Do?

All that is well and good: a high quality, low scale, not very cheap university that gives away it’s plans and implementation details for free. But what would students and faculty in such a university, well, do?

There are two ways to answer this question.

First, work out what they do in most universities today, reach a conclusion about whether what they do is desirable, and if not, work out what needs to change and in what order.

Second, start with an idealized worldview of what they should do, while ignoring all constraints, and ask if that idealized worldview is realizable. If the answer is no, figure out what’s stopping you, and therefore work out what needs to change and in what order.

I prefer the first approach1, and that’s the approach I’ll be using in this essay.

So what do students in a university do today? They learn, they show that they’ve learnt, and they form networks. College is a bundle.

Let’s begin with the one in the middle: showing that they’ve learnt. I’d want to chip away at that first.

How do students today show that they’ve learnt? They write examinations. These are supposed to be a proxy to show how much you’ve learnt, and how much you’re able to apply of whatever you’ve learnt. Is my understanding of why examinations exist correct? I’m genuinely asking.

And the reason I am asking is because I am extremely sceptical of the ability of examinations to do either.

That leaves us with two potential answers: change the examination system for the better. Or replace it with something else that has the potential to be better, and a guarantee of not being worse. At the very least, experimentation is called for.

My personal preference will be for a student to do, not for a student to show that she has learnt. That is, examinations need to be replaced with projects. These projects can’t be submissions as you and I understand them today. Not half-assed stuff that a team “works” on – let’s be honest, that’s code for nobody works on it. This is a project that sits on its own individual website, and that forever. That project is the student’s CV. It contains everything about the journey that led up to the creation and shipping of that project.

I’ll use an example from the field in which I teach, which is economics. What I am about to say should also apply to most of the other subjects in the humanities, and perhaps less so in, say, STEM fields.

Most students of economics acquire a degree to usually do one of three things: teach, research or work in a corporate job.

So your only “examination” comes at the end of your third year degree, where you ship a project based upon one of these three areas.

  • If you are learning economics in order to be a teacher, you have to teach a class, and document that entire class on your website. And when I say class, I mean at least a twenty hour course. Subject? Your choice. Students? You have to recruit them. Will this class be for free? No, you have to convince your students to pay a fee that is not trifling. How many students? At least ten, not more than thirty. But your degree is awarded for having taught this class, and is based on the feedback from that class.
    Designing the syllabus for that class, coming up with the reading material, arranging for guest speakers, hiring your TA’s from among your juniors, coming up with assignments, evaluating these assignments, handouts – the whole shebang. Do the work, teach your students, and then say that you have graduated from the course.
    And the entire three year journey leads up to this moment. If what you want to do is teach, then we should have taught you how to teach – and what skills you need to pick up in order to be able to teach students who are willing to pay you for your expertise.
  • If you are learning economics in order to do research, then you have to work on and publish a report on a topic of your choice. Come up with a topic in your second year, refine it, apply for a grant for it, prepare a plan for how you will work towards it, hire out your team, design your questionnaire, collect your data, clean the data, do the analysis, reach your conclusion and submit the report and the presentation to the funding agency, and on your website.
    Again, the entire three year journey leads up to this moment. If what you want to do is research, then we should have taught you how to do research – and what skills you need to pick up in order to be able to do research for an agency that is willing to pay you for your expertise.
  • If you are learning economics in order to work in a firm or start a business of your own, then, well, you have to do these things to get the degree. You have to convince a firm to hire you for an entire semester, or you have to spend an entire semester building out a team, pitching for funding, and get a product to market in order to be awarded a degree.

Long story short, you are evaluated for what you have done, not for what you have submitted for internal review and assessment.

My Almost Ideal University would have no examinations, but only a specific end-goal. Do the work, and if you’ve done it well enough, you’re awarded the degree. There’s no first place, no last place, no grades, no marks, nothing. If your work is good enough, we say that you are good enough to go out and start doing more of what you just finished doing.

Will this system have problems in terms of implementation. It’s a guarantee. Can I pick flaws in the design that I have put up? A dozen.

But does it have a fighting chance of being, at least along some dimensions, better than the status quo? Even if you happen to disagree, I think it to be a question worthy of further discussion. So especially if you disagree, please, do tell me why! 🙂

So that’s what the students will do. What will “faculty” do in my Almost Ideal University? We’ll talk about it tomorrow!

  1. why is a blogpost in its own right[]