What do small groups do?

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,this about measuring efficiency in education and this from yesterday about large classes and small groups.

The latter part of yesterday’s post spoke about the importance of small groups, and how to go about forming them. I mentioned how the process isn’t clear at all, and about how you might have to iterate until you get the right groups for most people concerned.

But a supplementary question is, well, all right, we have the groups. Now what. As in, what do these groups do?

The beauty of a group lies in the fact that a well-knit, cohesive group that shares certain traits but also has diverse skill sets is able to accomplish so much more than an individual ever can.

So asking the group to just help each other learn achieves – nothing. Not only will it be the case that the group will achieve the goal of learning better fairly quickly, but worse, it will stop being challenging.

But, on the other hand, if you ask the group to apply what they’ve learned – ah, that’s where the magic has a pretty good chance at beginning.

Or, as Seth Godin says: ship, dammit. Not, to be clear, in those exact words, but the point he’s making is that learning all you’ve learnt isn’t worth a damn thing until you’ve put it out there in the real world.

Put what out in the real world? Anything! A blog, a podcast, a vlog, a write-up, a website, a dashboard – anything at all. But unless you use what you’ve learnt to create something, and unless that ‘something’ is up for people to see, like, love, hate and criticize… it doesn’t count.

For example (and this is the point of today’s post), go visit this page. It is a page that hosts a podcast called “The Undismal Paradox”. This is a podcast started by nine FYBSc students at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics (GIPE), which is where I teach.

Mondays is a podcast about the rise of China (and related issues), Wednesdays is about the electricity sector in India (ditto) and Fridays are about understanding how consumption habits have changed because of the pandemic (ditto^2).

This podcast was started by the students themselves, with the gentle encouragement of a colleague of mine – Saylee Jog – from the Institute. I was roped in to help in any way I could, but honestly, both I and my colleague have ended up not doing all that much.

We put a basic structure in place, created a basic workflow, and put in place simple rules to follow about minimizing errors. After that, we just stepped back, and watched these nine students learn more about economics than a class could ever have taught them.

The learning happened, make no mistake. The colleague I mentioned has taught them a course in Principles of Economics and Microeconomics-I. But learning while sitting in a class is different from learning in order to teach other folks. Plus, the pressure of shipping your work to a fixed cadence, and that too, shipping something out to the world at large, is a much better incentive to learn than the threat of an examination at the end of the semester.

The podcast is about to take a hiatus in a bit, because they have exams (oh, the irony), but it will be back in one form or the other in late August/ early September.

My personal hope is that when it will be back, I and my colleague will have to do even lesser than we did this time around. Maybe these nine students can recruit others, and the podcast will end up taking on a life of its own.

But that, to me, is a concrete answer to the question, what exactly do small groups do in an online course? They apply what they’ve learnt, and make their learning available to the world at large.

Without having shipped a product on the basis of what you’ve learnt, an education simply isn’t complete.

There are problems with this, to be sure:

  1. It by definition doesn’t scale well, because the job of the teacher/college is no longer to just teach, but also to mentor each group
  2. It is also to guide this group through a variety of stages: the formation, the inevitable adjustment pangs, the pressure of shipping, the disagreements that will crop up. Again, this isn’t a scalable thing, and so costs will rise.
  3. Getting the number of students in each group, and the number of groups in each class right will always be a challenge.
  4. Some groups will not work out, especially online. Devising fallback measures and alternatives is important.
  5. Setting up these groups, and setting up the systems associated with these groups is hard work, but hopefully, it will be a one time thing.
  6. Tackling the inertia of the education system, and convincing it of the merits of ship-the-work is hard!

But, all that said and done, it still is worth it. Because what you learn by doing simply can’t be replaced by what you learn by memorizing.

Small groups, and shipping your work is the only way online education will work.

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 21st March, 2019

  1. “In a 2011 paper, trade-policy researchers Anwarul Hoda and Shravani Prakash analyzed the impact of “the proclivity of the U.S. administration to leverage the GSP program to achieve its economic and political objectives.” They found that with major developing-country trading partners “the reciprocity requirement has proved to be ineffectual.” In 1992, the U.S. stopped India’s preferential access for chemicals and pharmaceuticals in an effort to improve intellectual-property protection. New Delhi shrugged off the pain, and waited for a World Trade Organization agreement before amending its patent law, the researchers noted.”
    Andy Mukherjee doesn’t think the removal of the GSP support by the USA will have any meaningful impact on India’s exports to that country. He also cites an interesting paper (which I haven’t read yet), which seems to say essentially the same thing.
  2. “The opportunity is simple to describe but requires real effort to achieve: the community must enforce systems that build the external costs into the way that the industrialist does business. Faced with an incentive to decrease bycatch, waste or illness, the industrialist will do what industrialists always seek to do–make it work a little better, a little faster, a little more profitably.Industrialism can’t solve every problem, but it can go a very long way in solving the problems that it created in the first place.”
    Seth Godin (whose blog is a remarkable thing, by the way) gives his take on externalities, and makes the case that economists take a far too restrictive, anti-septic view of the problem. I’m putting words into his mouth, but that’s how I interpret it – and I’d agree. Certain problems can be identified best by economists, but perhaps the solutions lie outside the textbook. A useful article to read for starting discussions around externalities, the Coase theorem, Elinor Ostrom’s work, the role of culture in economics.
  3. “When it comes to the institutional framework, there are obviously massive differences between India and China. Any leader in India must contend with parliament, the courts and state governments. Also known as democracy. That limits how quickly stuff can get done. It can also save politicians from serious mistakes. China has competing interests and constituencies as well, but it’s not the same sport, let alone ballpark.”
    The article is about India’s less than stellar economic growth in the previous quarter, but that paragraph above was important to me. India is a functioning democracy, China anything but. That has it’s advantages, and its disadvantages – to both. A point worth remembering in many ways – one of which part of the focus of this article.
  4. “In the process, Netflix has discovered something startling: Despite a supposed surge in nationalism across the globe, many people like to watch movies and TV shows from other countries. “What we’re learning is that people have very diverse and eclectic tastes, and if you provide them with the world’s stories, they will be really adventurous, and they will find something unexpected,” Cindy Holland, Netflix’s vice president for original content, told me.”
    Farhad Majoo in the NYT about why Netflix is such a good thing. It’s a useful article to understand the impact Netflix is having the world over – but also a good article to learn about pricing, the implications of pricing, content discovery on Netflix.
  5. “For several years, India’s banks have been in the spotlight over their problematic lending to prominent industrialists. Now the mutual funds and non-bank lenders — who have taken increasingly important roles in the credit system amid the banks’ woes — are coming under similar scrutiny. That is good for the development of the Indian financial sector. But it is yet another headache for some hard-pressed members of the promoter class.”
    Simon Mundy in the FT on how the IBC has provided teeth to creditors in India – which is genuinely good news. But the transition is unlikely to be smooth, and there may well be some unexpected skeletons waiting to tumble out of the closet. A good read for finance, bankruptcy and non-bank lending in India.