Massive open online courses seem to be marching towards total world domination like some kind of educational singularity (at least in the case of Coursera). At the same time, there are still relatively few courses available, and each new added course is a small happening in the growing MOOC community.

Needless to say, this seems like a perfect opportunity for SI and CFAR to advance their goals via this new education medium. Some people seem to have already seen the potential and taken advantage of it:

One interesting trend that can be seen is companies offering MOOCs to increase the adoption of their tools/technologies. We have seem this with 10gen offering Mongo courses and to a lesser extent with Coursera’s ‘Functional Programming in Scala’ taught by Martin Odersky

(from the above link to the Class Central Blog)


So the question is, are there any online courses already planned by CFAR and/or SI? And if not, when will it happen?


Edit: This is not a "yes or no" question, albeit formulated as one. I've searched the archives and did not find any mention of MOOCs as a potentially crucial device for spreading our views. If any such courses are already being developed or at least planned, I'll be happy to move this post to the open thread, as some have requested, or delete it entirely. If not, please view this as a request for discussion and brainstorming.

P.S.: Sorry, I don't have the time to write a good article on this topic.

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Konkvistador brought up the idea about two months ago, but to the best of my knowledge the idea is still being researched.

There are a few primary issues to consider:

  1. What are the costs? How much time would instructors have to put into preparing the materials for the class, teaching the class, and learning the system? Who would host it, and how much would that cost? Who would analyze the data from the course?
  2. What are the benefits? How many people would take the class? What percentage would become LW, CFAR, or SI contributors? How much would the course improve their lives?
  3. What are the alternatives? Even if we knew how many CFAR-hours it would take to put on the class, and how many dollars would be donated to CFAR as a result (simplifying the problem to one cost and one benefit), we need to compare that ratio to marginal CFAR-hour to decide if it's worth doing.

One big issue for CFAR in particular is it seems like this could compete with the educational offering of their camps; indeed, a potential first course would just be to tape the minicamp materials and expect people to watch an hour a week. The trouble is that the educational value of the camp is not its sole value, and CFAR might end up cannibalizing the market for its camps by offering free videos.

There's also a question of how much advertising is worth. Supposing there are, say, three courses worth of rationality material, and that camps and courses teach a comparable amount of material, then one could imagine putting the first course online and having the second course taught at camp. This would drastically increase the demand for the camps- but I get the impression that they already have years worth of demand lined up, and so investing in supply improvements will have far higher returns on their end.

I get the impression that they already have years worth of demand lined up, and so investing in supply improvements will have far higher returns on their end.

I'd hate for this to be the reason why CFAR decides not to pursue putting out an online course on rationality. Even if demand really is as high as you say, doing an online course would dramatically increase the number of people able to go through the curriculum at all, which I assume would be good progress toward CFAR's mission. Even if CFAR couldn't fully take advantage of the extra demand for camps that this would drive, I still think Konkvistador & Wrongnesslessness' idea is worthwhile for the organization.


As Vaniver said:

Konkvistador brought up the idea about two months ago, but to the best of my knowledge the idea is still being researched.

If you are interested in doing more reading on the topic of MOOC or rationality education related literature or perhaps want to contribute something to the exploration of the subject PM me an email adress and I'll add you to the list of people who can edit & read the common notes our informal research group is accruing on google docs.

I'm a very long-time lurker (OB days) who's moved to post for the first time, since this is slap bang in my professional area of expertise. (My username is my real name, which readily searchable.)

The idea of a MOOC on rationality is a really interesting one.

I think it has a potentially very large payoff, but a low chance of success.

What's the potential benefit?

It's an obvious opportunity. You could reach an audience of tens of thousands or more to learn your methods, and an order of magnitude or two more who'd be vaguely aware. Technology enthusiasts and people who are open to new approaches are particularly attracted to MOOCs. So the potential audience for a MOOC is - I think - precisely your target audience. You could reach a scale at a speed you can't possibly do otherwise.

The everything-goes-right scenario is that you get an awful lot of people to engage with your project, who become long-term adherents to your cause, and go on to attract even more people. This really would "raise the sanity waterline" in a way and at a scale that would make a substantial difference.

What's the risk?

It's hard to do right, and it's public. You have no experience of doing it (and indeed have very little experience of teaching, relative to other MOOC sponsors) so will almost certainly make "obvious" mistakes. That could end up making you look bad and incompetent, leaving you a bit worse off than if you hadn't tried.

In theory, you could improve faster than other providers, if you were better able to apply a rational, empirical approach. The pedagogy of most MOOCs is rubbish (technical term of art there), and there is great scope for doing it better. I expect success will come faster to operators with baseline expertise rather than those bootstrapping from next to nothing, but I could be wrong - those who already "know" about teaching may be burdened with mental obstacles to doing it much better. However, there are a lot of extremely smart people working in extremely effective feedback loops in this space, including serial entrepreneurs, so I think your relative advantage here is not likely to be significant.

I don't think the risk of getting it wrong is a huge problem, though: it's an experimental space, so failures are expected and tolerated, and it's unlikely that you'd get widely slated in a way that really hurt your reputation unless you did something really daft. I think a much more likely failure mode is a lack of interest, leading to a lack of numbers.

Your offering is likely to be unattractive. It's a crowded space. And there are two big factors working against you.

First, reputation. You don't really have one, or at least, not one for excellence in teaching. You are going head to head with Harvard, MIT, Stanford et al. Taking a MOOC is unconventional (for now), so having the reassurance of a conventional, blue-chip university is a big attraction that you are in no position to supply.

Second, your subject area looks to me highly likely to prove unattractive. You are very convinced that your methods and techniques can dramatically improve people's success in life, but hardly anyone else is convinced (yet?). A proven, high-status course with obvious, direct and widely-understood relevance to a high-paid career is going to look much more appealing to an audience who aren't already convinced of your principles. And there are a lot of existing MOOCs that meet those criteria, with more coming.

You could try to mitigate this factor by focusing specifically on topics with widely-accepted applicability - probability and risk seem an obvious area. But this brings out the reputation issue very starkly: your claim to being experts in the area is not prima facie a strong one compared to established educational institutions, and your approach will likely seem idiosyncratic to those with some existing conventional knowledge.

What are the costs?

The main direct cost is the time to understand what's involved, prepare the material, and support the course. You don't need me to tell you to consider what you could otherwise spend that time on.

There's the technology itself. This isn't very hard cutting-edge stuff, but will require some technical resource, which again has an opportunity cost.

There's also the risk of losing potential big-ticket paying customers for your face to face sessions. (The self-cannibalisation issue.) That's a possibility, but not a big danger. I think a successful MOOC is likely to prove more of a shop window for the expensive, high-input product than a competitor to it. I would expect a successful CFAR MOOC to increase the number of takers for bespoke CFAR face to face workshops and courses. And it'd let you reach a much wider audience than you possibly could with face-to-face sessions. Certainly this appears to be the thinking of the likes of Harvard, MIT and Stanford.

So is it a good idea?

In summary, I think it's unlikely to succeed, but if it does, the payoff is potentially vast: basically, you'd achieve the lofty goals you've set yourselves.

How attractive a proposition that is depends on how you like to evaluate that sort of offer.

(Bias disclaimer: I'm inclined by disposition, training and experience to poke holes and find flaws in arguments and proposals for educational technology projects.)

Another important question is, whether "yes or no" questions belong to Discussion or to Open Thread.

Disclaimer: I can imagine a good article written on this topic. But this one isn't.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

I think this is definitely an important enough issue to warrant its own article, rather than a comment in the open thread, especially because of the potential number of responses.

In my opinion, this second question is far from being as important as the first one. Also, please see these posting guidelines:

These traditionally go in Discussion:

  • a link with minimal commentary
  • a question or brainstorming opportunity for the Less Wrong community

Beyond that, here are some factors that suggest you should post in Main:

  • Your post discusses core Less Wrong topics.
  • The material in your post seems especially important or useful.
  • You put a lot of thought or effort into your post. (Citing studies, making diagrams, and agonizing over wording are good indicators of this.)
  • Your post is long or deals with difficult concepts. (If a post is in Main, readers know that it may take some effort to understand.)
  • You've searched the Less Wrong archives, and you're pretty sure that you're saying something new and non-obvious. The more of these criteria that your post meets, the better a candidate it is for Main.