Tag Archives: University

Disrupting learning: is education going down the way of the music industry?

According to Business Insider, the Khan Academy has just raised an extra 5 million dollars in funding. It was started in 2004 by an MIT graduate called Salman Khan, who started tutoring his cousin in math via Yahoo’s Doodle notepad. It went so well that other members of his family asked him to do the same, so Salman decided to record his lectures as videos and upload them onto YouTube. At this point, of course, they could be shared, and they were. This way of learning became very popular, and seven years later the Khan Academy is a well-funded charity that draws 39 million page views a month.

Assume 20 pageviews (videos) make up one student’s day of schooling; assume further 25 students in a real-life classroom, and 22 days of school in a month. That means that the Khan Academy takes the place of a very large 3500-classrooms school, being taught by, at most, ten extremely skillful teachers. Plus, each student can proceed at their own pace, with no need to sync with others that might prefer different speeds or learning times. Given the well known limits of traditional education as a learning method, it is easy to foresee continued success for endeavors of this kind.The Khan Academy’s successes may be a sign that a significant fraction of that market is going to get commodified, fast. When that happened to the music industry, it lashed back, hirinfg lobbyists to build legal barriers around its stream of revenues and lawyers to sue high school kids guilty of unlawfully sharing music files. I am not looking forward to what happens when universities get wind that they are being bypassed. Students in countries like the UK, where university tuition fees stands at three thousand pounds per year, are certainly going to want to bypass them: the alternative is getting into student debt, and the financial crisis is teaching us a thing or two about debt. Things could get ugly.

Marco De Rossi, the young founder of the Italian peer-to-peer online school Oilproject, dreams of putting online, on video every lecture of every course of every university in the country for free viewing. He certainly has the community to do it: what he needs is a one-line piece of legislation, that puts squarely in the public domain the intellectual property rights of taxpayer-funded university lectures. My guess is that it is now or never: either this legislation is made now or the education lobbyists will lock it down for good. Until the next Tahrir Square.

Taming social networks: my Ph.D. at University of Alicante

One of my New Year resolutions for 2010 was “study complexity economics”. In my job as consultant on public policy I find myself facing problems that standard economics cannot even describe, let alone solve them. The complexity approach – a weird interdisciplinary mix of biology, computer science, neuroscience and various add-ons, from statistics to archaeology, with math holding everything together – could hold some of the answers.

It’s looking like I’ll get plenty of chances to study this stuff: I have become a Ph.D. candidate in Quantitative Economics at University of Alicante, in Spain, effective academic year 2010-2011. David Lane, member of the Science Board of the legendary Santa Fe Institute, and – less problems – I shall defend my thesis in the fall of 2012. My line of research is going to be quite practical: I want to figure out how to train social networks to execute some tasks. It’s networks, as opposed to people participating in them, I want to train.

This is more entangled than it seems. We more or less agree that social dynamics are emergent. Most interesting societal strucures, from Common Law to cultures and even the Mob are complex adaptive systems, and their behavior is impossible to predict in the long run. Not because we have bad models: in a complexity framework it is unpredictable even in principle

On the other hand, I have theorized (in Wikicrazia) and tried to practice (in Kublai and elsewhere) that we can and should harness collective intelligence to improve public policies and, ultimately, the world we live in. How to reconcile the unpredictability of social networks with the agency that public policy requires? I would like to explore the possibility of training social networks, through appropriate design choices and stimuli, as you would train some huge animal: using their superhuman information processing capacity to the advantage of humans. This means first and foremost understanding their mathematical structure and trying to influence it: it’s what Ruggero Rossi (another newly enrolled Alicante Ph.D. candidate) and I have started to do. Anyway, I’m going back to school: at 44 it is really a luxury, and a wonderful adventure. My thanks to Giovanni Ponti, the director of Alicante’s doctoral programme, for awarding me the most important and prestigious academic title: that of student.

Il domatore di reti sociali: il mio Ph.D. all’università di Alicante

Ho iniziato il 2010 con il proposito di studiare l’economia della complessità. Nel mio lavoro di consulente sulle politiche pubbliche mi trovo a dovere risolvere problemi che l’economia che ho studiato all’università non riesce neppure a descrivere, non parliamo poi di risolverli. L’approccio delle scienze della complessità – un curioso miscuglio molto interdisciplinare di biologia, informatica, un po’ di neuroscienze e vari altri ingredienti minori, dalla statistica all’archeologia, con la matematica a tenere insieme il tutto – potrebbe avere qualche risposta.

Beh, pare proprio che avrò parecchie occasioni di studiare queste cose. A partire dall’anno accademico 2010-2011 sono infatti uno studente di dottorato in economia quantitativa all’università spagnola di Alicante. Il mio supervisore sarà David Lane, che fa parte dello Science Board del leggendario Istituto di Santa Fe, e se tutto va bene discuterò la tesi nell’autunno 2012. L’argomento della tesi è piuttosto pratico: voglio capire come usare le reti sociali per eseguire dei compiti. Le reti, non le persone che le compongono.

Il problema è molto più aggrovigliato di quanto sembra. Abbiamo sempre detto che le dinamiche sociali sono emergenti. La maggior parte degli oggetti interessanti nella società, dal sistema di Common Law alle culture e perfino alla criminalità organizzata, sono sistemi adattivi complessi, e il loro comportamento è imprevedibile a lungo termine. Non è questione di raffinare i modelli previsionali: secondo questo tipo di scienza, è imprevedibile in linea di principio.

D’altra parte io ho teorizzato (in Wikicrazia) e provato a mettere in pratica (in Kublai e altrove) l’idea di imbrigliare l’intelligenza collettiva per migliorare le politiche pubbliche e, in definitiva, il mondo in cui viviamo. Come conciliare l’imprevedibilità delle reti sociali con la direzionalità che le politiche pubbliche richiedono? Vorrei esplorare l’idea che sia possibile, attraverso scelte di progettazione e la somministrazione di stimoli adeguati, addestrare le reti sociali, come se fossero dei grandi animali; e sfruttare la loro capacità di elaborare l’informazione, che è molto più che umana, per fare vivere meglio gli umani. Questo vuol dire innanzitutto comprenderne la struttura matematica, e cercare di influenzarla; è quello che abbiamo cominciato a fare insieme a Ruggero Rossi, anche lui studente ad Alicante. Comunque sia, ritorno a scuola: a 44 anni, è davvero un lusso e un avventura meravigliosa. Grazie davvero a Giovanni Ponti, il direttore del programma di dottorato, per avermi conferito di nuovo il titolo accademico più importante e prestigioso: quello di studente.