Large classes, small groups

You might want to read my previous posts about online education and learning before reading this. See this essay about the state of higher education in India, this about signaling and bundling in higher education, this about unbundling college and this about measuring efficiency in education.

In addition, Aadisht had a great comment about optionality and higher education, which really deserves a post in its own right – but you can click on the link in this paragraph and scroll to the bottom to read it for now.

All that being said, today’s post ties together the thoughts and deeds of three people whose thinking I try to follow very carefully when it comes to online education.

The role of community in education

Let’s begin with this tweet from one of them, David Perell.

Both the thread of which 4. is a part, and the Twitter thread referenced in 4. are worth reading.

But today, I wanted to focus on the community bit.

A quick reminder: my thesis is that college sells you three things. The education itself, the access to peer networks and the credentialing. If there is to be an online model that will work for colleges, it must successfully provide all three (and more) at the same price (or less) as college does today.

When it comes to peer networks, can they ever be as successful online as they have been offline?

That begs the question: have they been successful offline? And that is really two separate questions.

About Peer Groups

  1. Are peer groups worth the effort in the first place?
  2. Is there something special about peer groups you form in college?

With regard to the first, I’m going to take a pass on answering it in depth for at least two reasons. First, I know nowhere near enough sociology to be able to speak about this sensibly for any length of time. And second, isn’t the answer obvious?

About the second question, you might want to read this essay – a part of which is excerpted below:

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/fashion/the-challenge-of-making-friends-as-an-adult.html

The entire essay is worth your time, but the crux of it is those three points above: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and college life.

Anecdote Time

Two of the best years of my life were spent while studying for my Masters degree at the Gokhale Institute in Pune. There was a fair bit of reading/learning involved, but most of those two years were spent in just hanging out with a group of people I am still close friends with.

And of the three things that Gokhale Institute gave me when I purchased a Masters degree from it, it is this group of friends that I value the most. Then comes the degree, and the least important – as it turns out – was the learning itself.

Don’t misunderstand me – learning was and is important! It’s just that for me, sitting in a class and listening to professors talk wasn’t the best way to learn. I have learnt much more by speaking one-on-one with some professors, arguing heatedly and passionately about random topics with friends, and by reading/listening/viewing to stuff on my own time.

But therein lies a dilemma.

How to reconcile online education with forming your college gang?

Random bike rides, conversations at three in the morning sitting on a ledge on the hostel terrace, giggling at a joke while sitting towards the back of a classroom is not just an important part of college. In my personal experience, this pretty much was college.

And not just during the pandemic, but even beyond, the key challenge is to figure out ways and means to achieve something approaching the same experience in this brave new online world of ours.

What might be an answer to this conundrum? That brings me to the second person whose thoughts about online education matter to me, Tyler Cowen

Small Group Theory, via Tyler Cowen

If you are seeking to foment change, take care to bring together people who have a relatively good chance of forming a small group together. Perhaps small groups of this kind are the fundamental units of social change, noting that often the small groups will be found within larger organizations. The returns to “person A meeting person B” arguably are underrated, and perhaps more philanthropy should be aimed toward this end.

Small groups (potentially) have the speed and power to learn from members and to iterate quickly and improve their ideas and base all of those processes upon trust. These groups also have low overhead and low communications overhead. Small groups also insulate their members sufficiently from a possibly stifling mainstream consensus, while the multiplicity of group members simultaneously boosts the chances of drawing in potential ideas and corrections from the broader social milieu.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2018/06/best-analyses-small-innovative-productive-groups.html

If you are going to run an online course, or are going to be a student enrolled in an online course, the most important thing you can do is think long and hard about forming groups.

If you are the person running the course, you need to make the process of forming a group as friction-less as you possibly can. Without these groups, not only are drop-outs more likely, but the groups themselves are perhaps the bigger point!

Here’s Tyler Cowen again, in a separate post:

Remember Lancastrian methods of education from 19th century England? Part of the idea was to keep small group size, and economize on labor, by having the students teach each other, typically with the older students instructing the younger.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/05/my-weird-lancastrian-method-for-reopening-higher-education.html

The post I quoted from is about how college might reinvent itself in the era of the pandemic, but the larger point he is making – or at any rate, the point I choose to take away – is about how learning in small groups is better than classrooms.

And on a related note, the third person whose thoughts on online education I choose to take very seriously, Seth Godin:

Great guy. Chip and I went to business school together. He was the third youngest person in the class and I was the second youngest person in the class. He got five of us together and every Tuesday night, we met in the Anthropology Department for four hours. We brainstormed more than 5,000 business ideas over the course of the first year of business school. It was magnificent. It wasn’t official, it wasn’t sanctioned. It was just Chip said let’s do this, and we did. And he picked the Anthropology Department because he knew someone there and could get the conference room.

https://tim.blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/138-seth-godin.pdf

That is from an episode from Tim Ferriss’ podcast, in which he interviewed Seth (the whole episode is well worth your time), but the point that I remembered was about small groups.

Anybody who is going to try and do education online is going to have to get small groups going. Without it – in my opinion – it simply will not work.

But how do you form these groups?

I’m still thinking about the how, and the more I think about it, the more it seems as if there is never going to be a perfect answer. Forming groups is hard, and I think we need to make peace with the fact that groups may not always work out.

People won’t get along, people will drop out, quarrels will take place even among groups that develop close bonds – there are many, many things that can go wrong. But it doesn’t matter how long it takes and how many times groups have to be formed and re-formed – it is unlikely that you’ll get an education worth the name without the formation of a group, or community.

And what do these groups do?

… will be the topic of tomorrow’s essay, for I was part of an experiment that tried to answer this question – and I really liked the answer!

Links for Friday, 17th July, 2020

  1. David Perell writes a mid-year review. It is worth reading in full, and there were multiple excerpts that I wanted to include here.

Writing is nature’s way of showing you how sloppy your thinking usually is. My mind tends to skip between topics, and the quarantine has made it worse because my Twitter usage has increased. At its worst, I develop BuzzFeed Brain where I find myself skimming instead of reading, secretly hoping my next intellectual breakthrough is just a thumb-scroll away. Long-form writing, however, re-activates my focus muscle and that’s why I do it.

https://www.perell.com/blog/mid-year-review

2. Scroll on what Mumbai’s coastal road will look like. Next week’s episode on urbanization with Binoy will have this as a primary focus – keep an eye out for that one! The pictures are worth going through – full screen on a laptop/desktop recommended.

But the proposal reflects one of the many flaws that urban planners have found with the Mumbai coastal road project: it is expensive, beyond the city’s means and capacity and is likely to congest the city even further.
A group of architects and urban planners in Mumbai have attempted to highlight these problems through visual representations of the planned coastal road. Since 2016, the group – named the Bandra Collective – has created several animated GIFs that superimpose artists’ impressions of the coastal road on actual photographs of Mumbai’s landmark coastline.

https://amp.scroll.in/article/876929/what-will-mumbais-coastal-road-actually-look-like-an-eyesore-say-these-architectural-projections

3. Varun Grover raises some interesting questions in an article about caste in the Indian Express:

There are two main arguments against reservations — one, they bypass merit and two, they should be given on the basis of economic status alone because otherwise “rich Dalits are taking undue advantage of the policy”.
The broad logical observation here is that one can’t offer both these arguments together. If we are okay with poverty-based reservations then merit is not a genuine concern. That means we hate its bypassing only when a ‘lower-caste’ person gets ahead and not when a poor from our own caste does. That’s casteism 101.

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/reservation-vinod-kambli-dalits-varun-grover-6501257/lite/

4. If you have kids at home, this is worth it – I and my daughter are working through it, and it is genuinely fun, and educational!

Welcome to Camp Google. Two engaging weeks of interactive activities and assignments which will make this extended summer memorable for kids at home.
Starting 1st July, 2020, we will share exciting and innovative assignments with your kids to help them explore skills such as painting, writing, storytelling, arts & crafts, coding and cooking. These assignments will also include internet safety tips which will teach you how to be responsible digital citizens while being safe online.

https://events.withgoogle.com/summercamp2020/#content

5. I haven’t read this just yet (I’m writing this on the 15th of July), but it was recommended by Grant Sanderson – and that’s good enough for me!

But Gödel’s shocking incompleteness theorems, published when he was just 25, crushed that dream. He proved that any set of axioms you could posit as a possible foundation for math will inevitably be incomplete; there will always be true facts about numbers that cannot be proved by those axioms. He also showed that no candidate set of axioms can ever prove its own consistency.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/how-godels-incompleteness-theorems-work-20200714

Five Articles/Posts for the 3rd of July, 2020

  1. “Accordingly, antifragile systems and organisms tend towards a common theme: bottoms-up decision-making, rather than top-down decision making. Antifragility requires real options, and real options are low-cost. Antifragility is only successful if you can actually detect, react, and grow in response to deviations from your present state in real time; the only way you can feasibly do this is for disorder detection and response to take place at a small enough resolution, and tight enough turnaround time. Top-down systems have a hard time with antifragility, because for them, all options are costly.”
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    I’m late in posting this, having read this a while ago, but a useful essay by Alex Danco on how to think about anti-fragility, the term coined and popularized by Taleb. There are a lot of very useful ways to think about anti-fragility, but this essay explores immunity and how to think about our bodies immunity from the prism of anti-fragility. I found it especially useful to think about our bodies (which are at risk from the virus) and our governments (which are supposed to help us protect ourselves against the virus) and ask which is more anti-fragile, and why.
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  2. Kevin Kelly (a man worth learning more about) recently posted “68 bits of unsolicited advice“. Each advice is worth reading – here’s one that is easy to understand, difficult to implement on a sustained basis. Ask me. I should know.
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    “Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points.”
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  3. “Grades destroy curiosity. Too many kids learn for the sole purpose of raising their GPA because that’s what the system incentivizes. From an early age, I observed that my success in school depended more on my grades and less on how much I learned. In college, even though I wrote essays on my own and worked as an intern in New York City for companies like Skift, I was almost kicked out of my fraternity because my GPA was below 3.0. Likewise, my college counselors evaluated me on two metrics: grades and SAT scores. Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: “When students cheat on exams, it’s because our school system values grades more than students value learning.””
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    Read this essay by David Perell. Please. Read it.
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  4. This link came to me via Recommendo, which is a newsletter I have subscribed to about a month or so ago. Worth a ponder, it is about the art of critical thinking.
  5. Great visualizations, as always, from the NYT. This one is about the spread of the coronavirus in the USA.

Etc: Links for 20th December, 2019

  1. The coolest things that David Perell learnt in 2019. He has a paragraph on Twitter, from Bill Gurley, that I wholeheartedly agree with. Tempers run high on Twitter, true, but it is a magnificent learning tool for me.
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    “One of the examples is a famous New York City physician who was renowned for his ability to predict that patients would get typhoid. He predicted the sickness time and again. He would palpate their tounge (feel around their tongue) and predict, weeks before patients had a single symptom, over and over, and became famous, and as one of his colleagues said, he was a more productive carrier of typhoid than even Typhoid Mary because he was giving his patients Typhoid with his hands. In that case, the feedback he was receiving was reinforcing exactly the wrong lesson.”
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  2. Two articles that I got to read as a consequence of subscribing to Joanna Lobo’s Newsletter (if you are interested in writing, either as a hobby or a career, this is a newsletter worth subscribing to). The first is about the perils of comfort food…
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    “Every meal was meticulously pre-portioned and packaged for every individual. We never ate family-style, which was how I grew up eating, and how I learned that portion control is often not within your control: You are not just eating for yourself, and the choice to eat (and how much) often symbolizes love and affection more than physical nourishment. What is considered a “serving” when your chopsticks keep dipping back into shared plates and the diet app you use doesn’t even know what 鱼香茄子 (Chinese eggplant with garlic sauce) is? How can you not overeat when people were heaping dishes onto your plate without you asking? Is it rude to not finish that tofu someone offered you? What is fullness?”
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  3. “A Zomato spokesperson tells Open they are currently in the process of doing away with their food-reviewing levels. The titles have already been removed from the mobile app, the spokesperson says, and they will soon be removed from the website too. According to her, this has nothing to do with complaints about soliciting money, or restaurants and connoisseurs coming together to bump up an establishment’s ratings. “We are just coming up with a newer version, a new engagement tool for users,” the spokesperson says over the phone.”
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    A long read about gaming restaurant reviews.
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  4. Bourbaki’s influence is still alive and well. Now in “his” 80th year of research, in 2016 “he” published the 11th volume of the “Elements of Mathematics”. The Bourbaki group, with its ever-changing cast of members, still holds regular seminars at the University of Paris.
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    A lovely essay from the Madras Courier about Bourbaki, the “guy”.
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  5. Lots of links to work through in this video, but worth your time! Stats nerds only.

Links for 22nd May, 2019

  1. “Perhaps the most typical thing about Bergstrom’s gambling was that for him, as for so many others, the money seemed to signify something else. Gamblers often describe how, when the chips are on the table, money is transformed into a potent symbol for other psychic forces. In Bergstrom’s case, the action on the craps table seemed, like a love affair, to be a referendum on his self-worth.”
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    What are the motivations for gamblers? How do they view money? Is it the means to an end, is it a metaphor, is it symbolic? How might the lessons one gleans from reading something like this be applied elsewhere? For these reasons, a lovely read.
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  2. “Virat Kohli, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Dinesh Karthik, KL Rahul, Kedar Jadhav and Ambati Rayudu are all collectors if you go by their IPL batting. I had mentioned in the copy (which later got edited out) that it is worrisome that the Indian batting lineup ahead of the World Cup has a sort of sameness to it.Fortunately, while they all bat the same way in T20 cricket, they are all different kinds of beasts when it comes to One Day Internationals.”
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    Beware of relying too much upon data, but that being said, the cricket fans among you might want to subscribe to this newsletter, which analyses cricketing data to come up with interesting ideas about the upcoming world cup.
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  3. “Well, you know what Graham understood, I think, better than probably anyone who had written about investing before him is that there’s a big difference between what people should do and what they can do. Another way to think about this is that distinction between what’s optimal, and what’s practical. And we pretty much know how people should invest. Investing is – as Warren Buffett likes to say “It’s simple, but it’s not easy.” And dieting is simple, but not easy. In fact, a lot of things in life are simple, but not easy. And investing is a very good example. I mean, if all you do is diversify, keep your costs low, and minimize trading. That’s pretty much it. It’s like eat less, exercise more. Investing is just about as simple, but it’s not easy. And so Graham understood that people are their own worst enemy, because when they should be cautious, they tend to take on risk.”
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    David Perell interviews Jason Zweig, and it is an interview worth reading, and perhaps even re-reading. I have linked here to the transcript, but if you prefer listening, you should be able to find out the link to the podcast.
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  4. “Any time a central bank – unless it has a completely sealed closed economy – raises or cuts interest rates, it is taking currency and interest rate risk vs. the major reserve currencies, even if it is not directly buying or selling foreign currency.”
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    A short, clear and concise article about the RBI’s rupee-dollar swap.
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  5. “Diets have changed most dramatically in Africa, where 18 countries have diets that have changed by more than 25 percent. Sugar consumption in Congo, for example, has increased 858 percent since 1961.”
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    A truly excellent visualization – worth seeing for a multitude of reasons: data about nutrition, visualization techniques being just two of them. And that statistic about sugar consumption in Congo is just breathtaking.