Will Classroom Teaching Change This Semester Onwards?

The new semester is underway in some colleges and universities, and others will begin soon enough. Across the country, a new bunch of students will be attending their first semesters in undergrad or postgrad courses.

This is both old news and news at the same time. There’s is nothing new in this if you take the long view, but given that this is the first semester post the end (?) of the pandemic, it is very new and very different.

Why different? Because we’ll be teaching students who have spent two years learning at/from home, and the way they have learnt is very different from the way they will learn in this semester.

  • Physical attendance will be required. Not by me, to be clear, but colleges and universities will require it (of course).
  • Usage of internet enabled devices might be frowned upon. Again, not by me, to be clear, but there will be a fair few number of colleges, universities and professors who will require complete attention, and that will mean no phones, tablets and laptops allowed.
    Let me be clear: I personally don’t mind usage of these devices in classes, but don’t hold very strong views on the subject, and am well aware of the fact that there are a large number of professors who hold very strong anti-device views. How this will play out is something I am very interested in seeing this semester.
  • Discussions, debates, arguments will be centre-stage once again in a classroom, and this time with many more people involved, whether they like it or not. Have we lost the skill? Will there be new norms given the last two years? Will it be more difficult to get discussions going, or will it be easier than ever before?
  • Every single professor I have spoken to has bemoaned the lack of eye-contact and visual cues while teaching. How will we adapt to having these advantages with us once again?
  • How screwed up are attention spans post pandemic? Not just because of ‘taking’ classes from home, but because of the pandemic itself – and how will these affect both teaching and learning?
  • Have students learnt to think of material available online as definitely being a substitute for an in-class experience, as opposed to a complement? And if so, are they likely to take less kindly to some of the teaching they will experience offline? And if so, how will colleges and universities respond? As my favorite blogger says, solve for the equilibrium.
  • Do pen and paper exams make sense anymore? If yes, why? If not, how are we thinking about substituting for them? Are these discussions taking place in higher-ed institutions across the country?
  • How should our pedagogy change? More videos shown in class? More interactive content? More discussions?
  • Will all classes be recorded and shared with students? Should they? If not, why not?
  • What percentage of subjects/courses offered in a semester will be offered ‘remotely’?
    • This is not just about habit formation. The one lesson that all course coordinators learnt during the pandemic (including yours truly) was that we need no longer be restricted by geography when it comes to hiring really good profs. But now that all classes are offline, should we just give up on profs we know are good, simply because they are not located in the same city/town as your campus? If the truth is to lie somewhere in the middle, how do we decide?
  • How will students solve what I’ve taken to calling the 2x problem? Imagine listening to the prof speak at 1x – how quaint (and quite possibly frustrating) it might seem to post-pandemic cohorts of students!

I don’t know the answers to even one of these questions. But in the semester that is coming up, I hope to spend a lot of time talking to folks who are in the higher-ed business to understand how classroom teaching will evolve from here on in. It promises to be a fascinating five months!

Here is an old blog post in which I predict that classroom teaching will decline from here on in, and wither away in the long run. And here is one in which I try to force myself to take the opposite position.

Thoughts, opinions and feedback is always welcome, but in the case of this blog post, especially so. If you are teaching a course in this semester and wish to chat, please drop me a line at ashish at econforeverybody dot com.

Make Examinations Relevant Again

Alice Evans (and if you are unfamiliar with her work, here’s a great way to begin learning more about it) recently tweeted about a topic that is close to my heart:

And one of the replies was fascinating:


I’ve asked students to create podcasts in the past for assignments, but not yet for final or semester end examinations, because I am constrained by the rules of whichever university I’m teaching in. There are some that allow for experimentation and off-the-beaten-path formats, but the vast majority are still in “Answer the following” mode.

But ever since I came across that tweet, I’ve been thinking about how we could make examinations in this country better, more relevant, and design them in such a way that we test skills that are applicable to the world we live in today, rather than the world of a 100 years ago.

To me, the ideal examination would include the following:

  • The ability to do fast-paced research on a collaborative basis
  • The ability to work as a team to be able to come up with output on the basis of this research
  • The ability to write (cogently and concisely) about how you as an individual think about the work that your team came up with

What might such an examination look like? Well, it could take many forms, but here’s one particular form that I have been thinking about.

Imagine an examination for a subject like, say, macroeconomics. Here’s a question I would love to ask students to think about for such an examination today. “Do you and your team find yourself on Team Transitory or Team Persistent when it comes to inflation today? The answer, in whatever format, should make sense to a person almost entirely unacquainted with economics.”

This would be a three hour long examination. Say the exam is for a cohort of 120 students. I’d split the class up into 10 groups of 12 each, and ask each group to spend one hour thinking about this question, and doing the research necessary to come up with an answer. They can discuss the question, split the work up (refer to textbooks, refer to material online, watch YouTube videos, discuss with each other, appoint a leader – whatever it is that they need to do) and come up with an outline of what their answer is.

The next hour would be coming up with the answer itself: write a blogpost about it, or record audio, or record video. The format is up to them, as is the length. The only requirement is that the output must answer the question, and must include reasons for their choice. Whether the background information that is required to make sense is to be given (or referenced, or skipped altogether) is entirely up to the students.

And the final hour must be spent on a short write-up where each individual student submits their view about their team’s submission. Given that the second hour’s output was collaborative, does the student as an individual agree with the work done? Why? Or why not? What would the student have liked to have done differently? This part must be written, for the ability to write well is (to me) non-negotiable.

To me, this examination will encompass research (which can only be done in an hour if the students are familiar enough with the subject at hand, so they need to have done their homework), collaboration and the ability to think critically about the work that they were a part of. Grading could be split equally on a fifty-fifty basis: half for the work done collaboratively, and half for the individual essay submission.


Sure, there would be some problems. Students might object to the groups that have been formed or students might end up quarreling so much in the first two hours that they’re not left with much time. Or something else altogether, which is impossible to foresee right now.

But I would argue that such examinations are more reflective of the work that the students will actually do in the world outside. More reflective than “Answer the following” type questions, that is.

The point isn’t to defend this particular format. The point is to ask if the current format needs to change (yes!) and if so how (this being only one suggestion).

Right now, examinations provide a 19th century solution to very real 21st century problems, and their irrelevance becomes ever more glaring by the day.


We need to talk about examinations, and we aren’t.

Why, exactly, might mandatory offline attendance be better?

I’d ended yesterday’s post by asking two questions: why is mandatory offline attendance in classrooms a good thing, and why are offline examinations better than online ones. I’ll try and list out arguments for mandatory offline attendance in today’s post.

A quick note before we begin: I don’t think mandatory offline attendance is better. I think a hybrid system is here to stay, no matter how reluctant universities and college are about it. But it is precisely for this reason that I want to write out this post – I want to force myself to “write for the other side”. Doing so helps me understand that point of view better, and two things are likely to happen as a consequence. I can sharpen my own arguments as a consequence of understanding theirs better. Second, maybe I’ll end up modifying my views by better understanding theirs.

  • Conversations are much more likely to take place in a classroom than in an online setting. Being physically present in a classroom along with others and with the professor dramatically increases the chance that a conversation is initiated and sustained. I can personally attest to this, and I am fairly confident that most people involved in academia (students and teachers) will do so as well. To the extent that you think conversations about whatever is being taught is a good thing (and I most certainly do), offline classes are definitively better.
  • Peer pressure to attend a class, and to listen once you are in class is much higher in an offline setting.
  • A classroom is conducive to learning. Your bedroom or living room, no matter how comfortable, is not. To the extent that you think priming is a real phenomenon with tangible, measurable outcomes, offline classes are likely to be better.
  • There are positive externalities (spillovers) to attending offline classes. Serendipitous conversations in corridors with people from other classes or professors, being able to walk into a professor’s office for a chat after class, the continuation of discussions of what happened in class over a cup of chai at the canteen are all much much more likely after having attended an offline class.
  • The over-the-shoulder effect tends to be underrated by folks in favor online classes. A student peering over your shoulder at your work can in a glance offer a quick correction or tip, and it is still much easier for a professor to walk through a physical classroom to take in the level of understanding of the students. VR, AR and metaverses may well be on their way, but we aren’t quite there just yet.
  • There is a performative aspect to offline classes that is all but impossible to recreate online. Watching a physics professor teach about pendulums by climbing onto one requires a physically present, and obviously involved audience. It will not have the same impact if conducted online. And my hunch is that the class is likely to be recalled much more effectively if you were physically present in class.
  • Retention based on visual cues works better than most other memory techniques, and visual cues are much more likely in a social setting than the cozy comfort of your home. See this as an example of what I am trying to get at (and please don’t hesitate to correct me if I’m wrong!)
  • What else?

Is Online Education Transitory?

Students are finally making their way back into colleges across the country. Omicron, and whatever variant follows next will make the road bumpy, and there remains a significant chance that there will be some U-turns along the way. But we’re finally limping back towards something approaching normalcy. Or so one hopes.

But the transition isn’t smooth, and cultural adjustments are going to be tricky. What sort of cultural adjustments? Here goes:

  • Lockdowns and restrictions have been in place long enough for a culture of online learning to have emerged. In the context of this blog post, I define the word culture to mean social behaviors and norms that have emerged among students during the past eighteen (or so) months. There is more to culture than that, I am well aware, but it is this specific aspect of the word that I am focusing on.
  • Students across India have gotten used to the following aspects of this culture:
    • Listening to a lecture that is being delivered need not be a community based event. You can listen to a lecture alone, anywhere, as opposed to along with your classmates in a classroom.
    • Listening to a lecture need not by a synchronous event. That is, you don’t need to listen when the professor is speaking. One can listen later, as per one’s own convenience.
    • Listening to a lecture need not be a 1x event. Amit Varma’s point about being able to listen to somebody else speaking at even 3x applies to lectures as much as it does to podcasts. Students who find a particular professor boring may even argue that the point applies with even greater force to lectures than it does to podcasts!
    • Students feel much more comfortable calling out online examinations for the farce that they are. And let me be clear about this: online examinations are a farce. If you are a part of any university’s administration in this country, I urge you to speak to students, their parents, and recruiters about this issue. I repeat, online examinations are a farce. This is important, and it needs to be called out. We’re very much in Emperor’s New Clothes territory in this regard, and that is where the cultural aspect comes in.
  • At the moment, most colleges (if not all) are not making classroom attendance mandatory, at least for the students. Students may be on campus, but not necessarily in the classroom. Most students I have spoken to (in a completely unscientific fashion, I should add, so this is strictly anecdotal) think this to be the best of all worlds. They are not at home, they are with friends, and they are not in a classroom. It doesn’t get better than this, as far as they are concerned.

So now, assuming you find yourself in even limited agreement with what I have written above, think about the scenario I am about to outline. Imagine that you are a university administrator with the power to mandate offline attendance in classrooms and offline examinations for your students. And at some date in the foreseeable future, you decree that this must happen.

And some students come along and ask an entirely reasonable (to them, at any rate) question: why?

Why are offline attendance and offline examinations better than what we have right now?

What would your answers be?

How to Escape Education’s Death Valley by the Great Sir Ken Robinson

I’m not one for celebrating “days”, but I’ll happily admit being thankful that this video is scheduled for the 5th of September!

There’s No Say’s Law in Classroom Teaching

Yes, that’s not exactly what he said, but I’m going with the definition we all “know”. And I’m going to repurpose that popular definition for going on a rant about classroom teaching.

Supply does not create its own demand.

That is, the supply of education in the classroom does not create the demand for education in the classroom.


Do you have a memory of staring out the classroom window, having given up on waiting for time to move faster? My congratulations to you if you have never once experienced this emotion across school and college, because it was my only emotion in almost all classes I ever attended. And boredom of an excruciating nature was my only emotion because all classes were tremendously boring.

Some were instructive. Some teachers/professors really knew their stuff. Two professors, who I am lucky enough to still have as mentors, were the best professors I have ever had. But even they didn’t think it was their responsibility to inspire the class to learn more. A Walter Lewin type moment in a class that I attended? It has happened not more than one or two times across over two decades of sitting in classrooms.

And this is, even today, something that enrages me.


David Perell’s latest essay is the inspiration for this rant:

Inspiration is a uniquely human experience because it isn’t motivated by mere survival. It transcends the world of needs and lives in the world of wants. By doing so, inspiration stirs the mind. It’s no coincidence that the etymology of inspire is linked to “the breath of life.” As the sparkle of inspiration enters our bodies, we are animated with a video game style turbo-boost. Though a state of perpetual awe is the natural state for kids (which is why they learn so fast), it’s foreign to most adults. Too often, the wrinkles of age and the weight of responsibility silence the rush of epiphany.
Blinded by age, we can turn to cold rationality, valuing only what we can define and prioritize only what we can measure. When we do, we forget that the wisdom of an inspired spirit exceeds our ability to describe it. The less we insist on a justification for our curiosities, the more we can surrender to the engine of inspiration and let learning happen.

https://perell.com/essay/how-learning-happens/

How do I teach my eight year old daughter to sum up the first n numbers? By asking her to memorize {(n*[n+1])/2} or by telling her Gauss’s story? Do I teach her Marathi and Hindi by asking her to read her textbook, or by introducing to her the shared civilizational wonder that is etymology?

Should I teach my students about how to think about macroeconomics by writing down equations and defining GDP, or should I begin with Gapminder? Should I draw the 2×2 matrix to explain the prisoner’s dilemma, or do I show students Golden Balls on YouTube? Should I tell students what monetary policy is, or do I ask them to play the Fed Chairman game? Should I tell them about demand and supply, or should I introduce to them the wonder that is kiviq.us?

Should students be taught about mass, velocity, friction, acceleration, arcs and circles, or should they be shown this video? How to motivate students at the start of a semester on statistics? Talk about the spice trade, and talk about brewing tea! I can go on and on, but I’ll stop here.


You see, in each of these cases, you don’t have to teach students the underlying concepts. To be clear, you can, and you should. But my point is you don’t have to – they’ll have developed the thirst to figure it out by themselves, because, you see, they can’t help it. Their curiosity has been piqued, or as David Perell puts it, they’ve been inspired.

And that, really, ought to be your job as a teacher or professor. To get students to go “Whoaaaaaa!”

Get that to happen, and then good luck trying to finish the class on time. I teach undergraduates and beyond, and I’m not suggesting that one should stop at inspiring students as a teacher. Papers will have to be read, books will have to be recommended, essays will have to be written – all of that is necessary, and absolutely should happen.

But each of these things are much more likely to be done (and willingly) if only you light the spark first. Reading Mishkin after you’ve played the Fed Chairman game isn’t a chore, it is a joy. Why, even Fudenberg Tirole stands a chance of being somewhat palatable if students have been first exposed to Games Indians Play, The Art of Strategy and The Evolution of Trust.


Every student who leaves college bored to death because of how stultifying classrooms are is a damning indictment of my tribe. We’ve failed to do right by them, and by extension have failed to do right by society.

What is wrong with higher education? A lot!

But David touched upon a raw nerve where I am concerned – the worst thing about those of us working in academia is that we fail to ask ourselves every single day a very important question: how can I inspire young people to want to learn more? Everything else is a distraction, this ought to be the mission.


Arjun Narayan asked Tyler Cowen this question recently:

You have the power to grant 100% more capital (that they deployed in their lifetime) to a person or institution who prematurely ran out of capital too soon. Who do you pick?

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2021/08/the-capital-life-extension-query.html

Substitute the word “enthusiasm” for “capital”, substitute “students” for “a person or institution” and you have my own personal mission in life. And I promise you, it is my mission because I am very much scratching my own itch.

We should all, at the margin, be learning better.

And the earlier we start, the better society will be.

Can Undergraduates Be Taught To Think Like Economists?

The title of today’s blogpost has been copied, word for word, from a blogpost I had linked to earlier (the fifth link in this post).

It’s been about two and a half years since I read that post. I would still like to believe that Deirdre McCloskey was wrong, and that you can too teach undergraduates to think like economists. But well, perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle.


A common goal for principles of economics courses is to teach students to “think like economists.” I’ve always been a little skeptical of that high-sounding goal. It seems like a lot to accomplish in a semester or two.

https://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2019/03/can-undergraduates-be-taught-to-think.html

Both Tim Taylor and Deirdre McCloskey (whose essay I excerpt from below) aren’t saying that you can’t teach economics to undergraduates. You most certainly can, and you don’t need to run a fancy-pants model to ascertain this. What they are saying, however, is that it is one thing to teach them the principles of economics. It is quite another to teach them to apply these principles in their lives, at all times.

Bower thinks that we can teach economics to undergraduates. I disagree. I have concluded reluctantly, after ruminating on it for a long me, that we can’t. We can teach about economics, which is a good thing. The undergraduate program in English literature teaches about literature, not how to do it. No one complains, or should. The undergraduate program in art history teaches about painting, not how to do it. I claim the case of economics is similar. Majoring in economics can teach about economics, but not how to do it…. (Emphasis added)

http://www.deirdremccloskey.com/docs/graham/natural.pdf

It is one thing to teach opportunity costs. And most students we’ve taught will tell you the definition. The “good” students will tell you three different definitions, from three different textbooks, and maybe cite a couple of academic papers that ruminate about what the definition means. Well, great. Do these students apply the concept of opportunity costs in their daily lives? Do they ask themselves if this (whatever this may be) is the best use of their time, and what are they giving up in order to do this?

Does winning matter more than learning? Does winning matter more than doing? If you end up defeating somebody else – a person, a team, a tribe, a party or a nation – what do you gain? And to go back to the previous paragraph, was it but a Pyrrhic victory?


Consider this hypothetical:

Let’s say there’s two teams in some corporate environment somewhere. And for whatever reason, these teams don’t get along well together. Both sides believe that they’re in the right, and the other side is in the wrong, and we’ve reached Mark Twain territory.

Are they going to go to their manager(s) and ask them to resolve this issue? Sure, it may seem like a good idea initially. But said managers, I can assure you, have things to do. Deliverables to, well, deliver. Teams to manage. Projects to initiate. Other people to manage. And so the manager(s) might listen to both teams long list of complaints once, perhaps twice.

But eventually the price mechanism will come to the party. The more the two teams spend time on this, rather than on work, the more expensive the situation becomes for the enterprise. Because a commodity that is limited (time) is being spent on non-productive work (productive, in this case, can be thought of as remunerative).

Since the whole point of the firm’s existence is to maximize revenue, this will not be tolerated for too long. The manager(s) will eventually say one of the following:

  1. Figure it out yourselves, but get the work done, for that’s what matters. Or else.
  2. Let’s reallocate, forcibly, both teams on to other projects. This will usually be accompanied with a mental note to themselves that truly important projects in the future should not be given to these team members. For obvious reasons.
  3. Or let’s shut down the project, because the point of a firm is to do the work that earns one the money. Start something new, with a new set of people.
  4. Now, since the team members are old enough to know that eventually pts 1 to 3 will occur, they usually swallow their differences and get the work done. Sure, bitching about the other team will happen in bars and pubs in the evening, and sure the other team won’t be called home for dinner anytime soon. But in the workplace, professionalism will win out, due to the price mechanism. In more explicit terms, they will get the work done because they know that otherwise they will be fired.

The reason all of this will happen is because these team members will have families, responsibilities, loans to pay off. The money they will lose out on by losing their jobs is far too important, and the threat of losing out on their income forces them to behave professionally.

The opportunity cost argument comes into play. Playing politics may be good for your ego, but it ain’t good for your wallet. But that lesson comes with age, it doesn’t come from attending principles of economics classes.

A nineteen-year old has intimations of immortality, comes directly from a socialized economy (called a family), and has no feel on his pulse for those tragedies of adult life that economists call scarcity and choice. You can teach a nineteen-year old all the math he can grasp, all the history he can read, all the Latin he can stand. But you cannot teach him a philosophical subject. For that he has to be, say twenty-five, or better, forty-five. …

http://www.deirdremccloskey.com/docs/graham/natural.pdf

Adults don’t necessarily grasp the argument that the opportunity cost of politics is work. But they understand the rules of the game called life. They do understand that the opportunity cost of politics is an increase in the probability of losing their wages. And so they still practice politics, but more covertly. Not, in other words, an ideal situation if the system is trying to optimize work, but hey, better than overt politics.

How to get students to understand that the opportunity cost of politics is learning? That the opportunity cost of politics is not getting fun projects done? That the opportunity cost of resolving arguments, or adjudicating who said what to whom and when is not being able to start other fun learning based projects? There’s no price mechanism at play, there’s illusions of immortality (they don’t get that time is limited), they don’t have the responsibility of putting food on the table (they come from a socialized economy called a family), and they haven’t experienced the tragedies of adult life.

To them, winning a political argument against the other side is the best use of their time.


Principles of economics, if taught well, and if learnt well, should in theory help you understand that the opportunity cost of politics is work. Philosophy should in theory teach you that good work is better than bad politics.

I’ll say this much: I was convinced that Deirdre McCloskey was wrong when she said that you couldn’t have undergraduates do economics, even if we taught them economics.

Now?

I hope.

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.

https://econforeverybody.com/2021/07/09/the-almost-ideal-university/

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.

https://www.cde.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Lant-Pritchett-in-conversation-with-Ann-Bernstein.pdf

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.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2021/06/ann-bernstein-interview-with-lant-pritchett.html

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.

https://www.cde.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Lant-Pritchett-in-conversation-with-Ann-Bernstein.pdf

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 Indiabefore91.in 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.