What’s the MOOC Endgame?

Tamar Lewin’s story on the struggles of MOOCs to generate revenue has revived talk about what the future holds for online courses. A lot of the discussion pertains to partnerships between MOOCs and brick-and-mortar universities, but in the long-run I’m skeptical of these arrangements because MOOCs and traditional universities are natural competitors. In fact, MOOCs are just about the only thing with a chance of ending the bachelor’s degree’s decades long reign as the only thing that can make you employable, a reign that has been very lucrative for those that grant them.

Universities may have initially embraced elements of MOOCs, perhaps for altruistic reasons and perhaps as a way to enroll more students and collect more tuition. But as the purveyors and beneficiaries of the bachelor’s degree, universities don’t want to see any real competition in the credentialing market. Ultimately they will do whatever they can to stop the existence of a $5,000 online “degree” that’s as useful as a B.A. from a top brick-and-mortar school. To not do so would be like Apple allowing somebody to make a $20 iPhone. So while some amount of licensing between MOOC providers and Universities will take place, Universities will ultimately fight real credentialing of independent MOOCs. (And by “real credentialing,” I mean credentials that will make people sought after by employers, not certificates than mean nothing if you don’t already have a college degree.) Universities are extremely powerful, and it seems unlikely they’ll allow a world where large swaths of talented 18-year-olds are deciding to pay $5,000 to get a B.A.-equivalent credential from online classes.

The question is, if Universities lock MOOCs out of the lucrative business of providing valuable credentials, what will MOOCs do?

I think one possibility is that businesses or other non-profits will replace universities as the MOOC partner with credentialing muscle. For example, Google could say that if you take these 32 MOOCs and pass these 10 tests (some of which could be developed by the MOOC provider but some of which could be developed and administered by Google itself), then you’re approved to work certain jobs at Google. If you want a better job at Google, then you have to pass the 38 MOOC bundle. Of course somebody who passes the tests wouldn’t have to work at Google. If they to work for Microsoft or their local government a Google “degree” would be enough to earn consideration for a job. The beauty of this system is that young people will be able to take a bundle of classes that’s more specific to what they want to do. And the bundels don’t all need to be 30 classes. There could be a four-class GE engineering bundle or a six-class Brookings Institution public policy bundle.

What’s in it for businesses? Lower costs. Imagine that 10 years from now advances in MOOC and assessment technology essentially allow somebody gain the knowledge of a Harvard B.A. for a $10,000. There’s no way Harvard is going to start giving away $10,000 degrees — the school will keep charging $40,000 a year so it can preserves its financial structure. But where does all that extra tuition money go? The answer is that a lot of it goes into the paychecks of those Harvard graduates. Or more specifically, it comes out of the bank accounts of the companies that hire those graduates. Because when you’ve spent $160,000 on an education, you damn well better be paid like you have a $160,000 education. The results is a society where it’s in the best interest of employers for students to get the cheapest and most efficient education possible, but it’s in the best interest of universities for students to get the most expensive education possible. If MOOCs use employers in order to gain legitimate credentialing power it will be the first time that credentials are being doled out by parties that want them to be as inexpensive as possible. Instead of being used by universities to make more money, tuition savings from MOOCs will be distributed among course creators, students, and employers.

Does this mean a partnership between MOOC’s and corporate America is bound to happen? Of course not. But there’s a compelling case that independent MOOCs and businesses are natural allies while MOOCs and brick-and-mortar Universities are natural competitors.


One Reason Youtube Videos Are Awesome

Their portrayal of violence is both more-realistic and more-negative. Oh, and there’s also less of it:

In this content analysis, we examined violence in Web-based entertainment. YouTube videos (N = 2,520) were collected in 3 different categories: most viewed, top rated, and random, with additional comparisons between amateur and professional content. Frequencies of violent acts and the context of violence (e.g., characteristics of perpetrator and victim, justification, consequences) were compared both between these categories of YouTube videos and with existing research on television violence. The results showed far less violence as a percentage of programming on YouTube than there is on television. Moreover, the violence that was present showed more realistic consequences and more negative context than television violence. Post hoc comparisons illustrated several differences in the presentation of violence between make and category of video.

The good news is that the long-run trend is toward less television and more Youtube-ish videos. If kids are in fact getting brainwashed by what they see on TV, the future should be one in which people are more fearful of violence.

Scott Sumner Makes It Hard to Judge the Economic Impact of the Internet

There’s a longstanding debate about the internet’s impact on economic growth, and today’s good news from the Federal Reserve illustrates how difficult it is to resolve. QE3 may be a precursor to NGDP targeting, and as Matthew Yglesias points out, the idea of NGDP targeting only spread because of Scott Sumner’s blog.

Professors at Bentley University who’ve never published a famous book don’t normally shift the public debate. But Sumner’s vigorous and relentless blogging throughout the crisis on the potential of expectations-focused monetary policy really broke through. It all began with some links from Tyler Cowen and perhaps a tiff with Paul Krugman. I became a regular reader and his ideas have done a lot to influence me, and you can clearly see the influence on Ryan Avent at the Economist, Matt O’Brien at the Atlantic, Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review, Josh Barro at Bloomberg, and a few of the Wonkblog contributors. Outside the exciting world of online economics punditry, NGDP targeting hasn’t (yet!) caught fire as rapidly but it gained explicit allegiance from Christina Romer, Krugman, the economics team at Goldman Sachs, and eventually Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans who started out with a different but similar-in-spirit program.

In a pre-internet world there’s no telling how long it would have taken for Sumner’s ideas to spread to the necessary people. The slog of conferences, peer-reviewed articles, and op-eds that would have been necessary to move the needle could have pushed the tipping point 15-20 years down the road. If NGDP targeting proves to be a valuable policy innovation, we’ll have less severe downtowns and more growth years sooner than we would have had them in a parallel non-internet world.

This is all to say that it’s difficult to quantify how the internet contributes to the formation and spread of ideas. If two people on a chemistry message board were to create a silver-bullet renewable energy source, how do you measure the internet’s contribution? In a future that’s more connected things will only get murkier — hopefully the rise of NGDP targeting is the start of a trend where the internet helps obscure but smart policy ideas rapidly gain influence.

Your Daily Reminder That the Future is Near

In chemopreservation [= plastination], one fills a brain with plastic-like chemicals, which make strong cross-links bonds between most everything they touch. So there are two times when brain info can be lost: before it is filled with plastic, and after.

Assuming you can keep them safe from melting, burning, etc., plastic brains should last for a very long time:

Brain researchers have looked at samples preserved many decades ago, and see almost no change. Tissues preserved in amber seem to have remain unchanged for forty million years. (more)

So the main issue is how much info is lost before filling with plastic. Now it is obvious that non-fresh brains with collapsed blood vessels pose a serious problem – the plastic might just not get to some places. But for brains filled with plastic within a few minutes of live blood flow, I just can’t see the problem.

For example, imagine that key brain info is encoded in certain key protein densities at tiny synapse pores, with different nearby pores having different key proteins. As long as there are thousands of copies of each key protein in each pore area, the plastic will almost surely usually preserve the info of which kind of proteins were in which areas. Even if some key proteins move away from their pores, most will stay near, and the amino acid sequences that define the proteins will mostly be preserved by the cross-link bonds the plastic makes.

And even if this isn’t true for twenty percent of the key proteins, there is almost surely enough brain system redundancy for this to not matter. Yes, you’d need a finer scan than the Brain Preservation Prize will use to read it, but the info is still there.

That’s Robin Hanson, with an update on brain preservation science.

When Do Tribal Attitudes Develop?

The long term fate of the human race will ultimately depend on our ability to overcome our tribal roots. It won’t be easy. Until very recently, maintaining an “us” vs. “them” view was necessary for survival. Those who were too trusting of other groups or who failed to protect their own kind often found themselves pillaged or killed.

The relative ease of survival and the collective nature of modern problems has changed all that. Tribalism may now be somewhat maladaptive. We dislike those who have different attitudes, and that leads to unnecessary conflict and violence. Furthermore, our tribal nature has taken many issues that aren’t zero-sum and effectively turned them into zero-sum games. Nobody wants to pay the cost for benefits that will be spread over the entire world (e.g. cutting back on carbon emissions.) In the long run, the future of the human species will depend on whether we can overcome the boundaries that separate us and band together to focus on what’s in the best interest of the human race (i.e. what happens in every alien invasion movie.) The big question is how easy this will be.

A new study about the development of “us” vs. “them” attitudes provides both good and bad news. In a series of experiments psychologists Neha Mahajan and Karen Wynn had 11-month-old infants select either one of two foods, or one of two different colored mittens. They then had the infants watch as puppets “selected” the various foods and mittens. When later given a chance to select a puppet, the infants were more likely to choose the puppet that demonstrated similar preferences. The results showed that like adults, even pre-lingual infants perform a “like me”/”not like me” cognitive comparison that leads to a preference for those who are similar to themselves. The fact that these tribal preferences are so deeply ingrained does not bode well for our ability to one day ignore our differences.

There was also some good news in the study. Unlike adults, infants were not swayed by arbitrary similarities. When the infants were assigned a specific color of mittens rather than choosing it on their own, they were not more likely to pick the puppet who shared their mitten color.

Infants’ lack of preference for the similar puppet in our Random-Assignment condition could indicate that for infants, similarities in attitude are more significant bases on which to generate social preferences than are mere perceptual similarities.

For an issue like climate change, the results suggest that what’s deeply ingrained is not to side with those who share your place of birth or skin color, it’s to side with those who actually share your attitudes on climate change. Obviously those groups eventually become intertwined through social and cultural development, but the fact that they are initially separate bodes better for our ability to work together. The study comes with all the caveats about small sample sizes and working with infants, but it’s an interesting piece in what should ultimately be an important area of research.
Mahajan N, & Wynn K (2012). Origins of “Us” versus “Them”: Prelinguistic infants prefer similar others. Cognition PMID: 22668879

The Internet Chews Up Language And Spits It Out

Jonathan Bernstein laments the media’s overuse of the word “establishment”:

It’s just lazy journalism. Parties have groups, and factions, and individuals, and certainly those who are in and those who are out…oh, I suppose they can have something that’s an establishment, too (I do think there was a foreign policy establishment in the 1960s, for example), but more likely you’re not telling us anything at all by calling one of these factions or groups or individuals “establishment.” I know I’ve hit on this point before, but alas the examples of it are all over the place and just as useless as ever.

I’m never one to push back against charges that the media is lazy, but I think part of what destroyed the word is that the internet exponentially speeds up the half-life of popular jokes and phrases. The internet allows more people to publicly share thoughts, and that means more people are publicly using the word “establishment” as they see fit. With people being exposed to the word from a wider range of sources, the definition is bound to eventually stretch to the point of uselessness. In an ideal world, some kind of benevolent language council of elders would phase out the word and adopt two new ones to take on the different extremes of the old word’s range of definitions.

Will Facebook Help Destroy Organized Religion?

There are a number of reasons organized religion in America appears to be in decline. An increasing percentage of the war and violence in the world is now being done in the name of religion (as opposed to the need to increase a tax base or acquire natural resources.) Orthodox views on social issues and the depravity of the Catholic Church scandal have also turned some people off. And thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to ask questions, get answers, publicly discuss deep philosophical and existential issues, and do a host of other things that spur the adoption of alternative creeds.

I think there’s at least one more factor, and it’s something that will soon grow more significant. Religion is essentially the original social network. Whether it was the 5th century or the 20th century, people who left their current social circle could always use religion to find a new one. Locate your place of worship in a new town and you’ll have food, shelter, friends, childcare, and a much-needed safety net. No matter where you went, religion ensured you always had a community.

But now, for first time in human existence, the internet has given people the opportunity to truly craft their own communities and social networks. And because these networks aren’t bound by location, nearly anybody in the developed world can be a member. The guy from couchsurfing.com who you stayed with for two days? That friend of a friend of a friend who got you a job interview because he saw an impressive tweet of yours? That girl from your adult kickball team who set you up on a date with her friend? All of them are filling roles once filled by religious communities, but they’re part of your self-created social network. By facilitating these relationships, the internet is increasingly making the ability of organized religion to connect people obsolete. That’s not to say there aren’t other good reasons for the existence of religion, but it seems obvious that as religion’s value as a social connector declines it is bound to become less popular.

In general, I think that more and more we’ll start to see society shed some of the unecessary scaffolding for accomplishing societal goals that can now be accomplished online. The decline of religion is one example, and so is the end of retail and the disruption of our higher education system (wait, that still hasn’t happened yet?) Those are fairly obvious examples, but as we build new social infrastructure I think we’ll start to see necessary withering and deterioration in some unexpected places.