For a long time I have tried to study things on my own, at my own pace. But it was always an uphill struggle against strong akrasia issues, and eventually I came to the conclusion that the only thing that really seems to work is to have externally-imposed deadlines. The only way I could think of to do this was to sign up for classes, so I enrolled in a number of MOOCs. So far this has worked wonders - I went from basically spending most of my time playing around and wasting time, to several recent days where I studied for several hours straight.

The only thing I don't like about this setup is that there's a very limited number of really good MOOCs out there on the subjects I want to study. Also, most MOOCs are geared for a wider audience and are therefore dumbed-down to a certain degree.

So I had the following idea: A lot of us on LW seem to be studying a lot of the same material, whether it's the sequences, MIRI course list, CFAR booklist, or any of the various recommended reading lists. What if those who were studying the same thing would get together and set a schedule for themselves to finish the reading material, complete with deadlines? This might not be a normal "externally imposed" deadline, but at least it's a deadline with some social pressure to back it up. I can't be the only one on LW who could benefit from a deadline.

The details would need to be worked out, but here's a preliminary version of the way I envision it:

  • There should be a monthly thread for requests for new classes. The request should specify the text to be used, or it could ask for suggestions for a good text. The request should also specify the approximate pace (very slow - slow - normal - fast - very fast), or an approximate weekly time commitment.
  • The next thing that would be needed for each proposed class would be for someone who's already gone through that text to propose a rough calendar for the course. For example, they could say that given the requested pace / time commitment, you should expect to spend about 3 months on that particular text. Also, some chapters are harder than others, so the calendar should specify, for example, that you should expect to spend just one week on Chapters 1-3, but Chapter 7 will need to spread over three weeks. It would also be very useful to specify what prerequisites are needed for that text. (Similar to this thread. Keep in mind that different people have different styles when it comes to prerequisites. Some prefer to do as few prerequisites as possible and then skip straight to the harder stuff, and work backwards / fill in gaps as necessary. Others prefer to carefully cover all lower-level material before even touching the harder stuff. These people will want to know about all possible prerequisites so that they won't have to work backwards at all.)
  • I would recommend creating a repository of available course calendars (i.e., course X should be split up this way, course Y should be split up that way, etc.). This can be done by creating a special thread for this purpose and then linking to that thread every time a new "proposed course" thread starts.
  • A calendar provides some deadlines, but there needs to be some motivation for keeping to the deadlines. I can think of a few possibilities that might work:
    • Social pressure: If there is anybody else in your class other than yourself, there's a certain amount of social pressure to keep up with the group and keep to the agreed-upon deadlines. Classmates can increase this pressure by actively encouraging each other to keep up.
    • Social encouragement: As you make each deadline you should report that you did so, and others can then respond with encouragement.
    • Karma: If someone makes a deadline they should post an announcement to that effect, and LWers (even those not part of your class, and even those who aren't taking any classes) could be encouraged to upvote the announcement. I haven't been on LW long enough to tell if this is a socially acceptable use of karma points, but this might be motivating for some people.
    • Perhaps someone could design a "LW U" badge or something of the sort to post on your personal / social site when you complete a course. (Notice that with the karma or badge reward forms, it becomes possible to have only a single member in a course and they'll still be able to get some form of reward structure. It might not be as effective as having other people in the course, but at least it works.)
  • There should be a dedicated thread for each course once it begins. The thread would be used for everything relating to the course: announcing progress, discussing subject-related material, meta-discussions about the course, etc.
  • LWers who have already completed the subject / textbook could follow the course discussions and provide guidance and help as needed. Anyone who thinks they can contribute in this "teacher" capacity should let course participants know about it beforehand, as this will provide additional social pressure / support, and provide valuable encouragement (there's someone I can ask my stupid questions to!).
  • I'd recommend that once one or more people decide to take a course, they should set a date to start the course that's at least two weeks (maybe a month) in the future. This would give time for others to join. Each month's thread for proposed courses could then include a list of "courses starting soon".
  • Perhaps people who have already studied a given text could put together a few quizzes / tests / finals for that text. The quizzes would be sent to individual students at a certain point in the course via private message. Each student would take the quiz on their own (honor system, of course), and the quizzes would then be graded either by the creator of the quiz (the "teacher"), a volunteer TA (using an answer key provided by the teacher), the other students, or even by each student themselves. (I would not recommend this last unless there are no other options, since even very honest people can be sorely tempted to fudge things occasionally in their own favor.) There could even be a final grade for the course. I suspect that this system would create powerful psychological motivation for certain people to work hard at the coursework and complete their work on time.

What do you think about such an idea?


New Comment
10 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:14 AM

I agree - external deadlines help in many cases and it would be interesting to try this out.

In an ideal world I'd love to see a series of MOOC's on areas such as FAI, rationality, etc though I imagine working out an effective way to test some of the topics would be a challenge. Perhaps as a starting point someone could make a couple of short polls in the guise of a quiz and use voting as the answer?

What are the options for free MOOC platforms these days? Moodle's the only one that comes to mind, and it's not optimized for MOOCs.

There is OpenMooc and coming up in 3 months will be

Deadlines are brutally effective for me. They got me through my first online programming course when none of the self-paced ones did and have continued to be effective for a year and a half of self-study. I'm taking a few MOOCs right now and a week ago, I was starting to fall behind. But then I had 3 deadlines last sunday. Between Tuesday of last week and sunday at 9pm, I easily put in 30 hours of work and got mostly caught up. It was the same in college. When there's an imminent deadline, I just don't think about doing anything else. It feels great actually.


Similar idea, less re-inventing the wheel, already paid for, already existing large infrastructures, more spreading of desired discussions: if any of us are in an existing class, incorporate LW topics. Whatever the class, there are ways to make it less wrong. Rather than continuing to talk to each other, we talk to not-each-other (with the added invaluable bonus that outsiders sometimes have criticisms overlooked / suppressed by insiders).

Perhaps people who have already studied a given text could put together a few quizzes / tests / finals for that text.

I think that trying to come up with test questions to determine if someone has understood posts in the Sequences (as well as other rationality material) is a worthwhile project, which has been suggested before.

I believe there have also been attempts to make a rationality MOOC; this comment links to some discussions (as well as being posted in response to another discussion of it), and I suspect Konkvistador is still a good person to contact.

CFAR runs courses. They could probably put on a MOOC without having to make a new curriculum

In-person classes and online classes are different, and should be taught differently. At some point I suggested that they just record a seminar, to possibly post parts of it online, but generating good material for a course and then administering it both represent expenditures of nontrivial amounts of capital and effort.

Well, they could start with a set of mini-modules and upload them to youtube. A couple hours of total content. Put lecture notes and homeworks and a forum on a website. That was a pretty typical way to prototype the early MOOCs.

Sounds a good idea to me. As a side note, it would also be cool if we had recorded lectures on LW topics.