Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Game Changers

Two announcements on Monday connected to my two Alma Maters mark the changing face of universities.

It didn't hurt that Cornell got a $350 million donation and that their main competitor, Stanford, dropped out.

Foreign countries have been creating campuses for some time now, like Northwestern's Qatar campus. Great to see this happening in my own country, a realization of the importance of technology and that New York knows it must make these investments. May this lead to other cities building tech campuses like they build sports arenas. Unlike sports, we can have many winners.

What's going to happen on this tech campus? Education, research, start-up incubators? Will there be a separate CS department in New York or just a branch from Ithaca? I can find very little details on the web, though there is this cool fly-over.

Following up on Stanford's online courses, MIT is creating their own tools for teaching online courses and will share these tools with other universities. Those taking the courses may receive a certificate but will have to pay a small fee to do so and the certificate will not bear the MIT name. According to the FAQ "MIT plans to create a not-for-profit body within the Institute that will offer certification for online learners of MIT coursework. That body will carry a distinct name to avoid confusion. MIT awards MIT degrees only to those admitted to MIT through a highly selective admissions process." Nevertheless these courses will allow people to get access to great MIT courses at little cost.

In the 90's, Newspapers decided they could better serve the public by putting their news stories online. How did that work for them? Are universities starting to go down the same path today?


  1. The Cornell campus will be very interesting. I assume that the main CS department will remain in Ithaca however: my guess is that the NYC campus will never hire a theorist. -If- Cornell decides to try and build another CS department in NYC of the same caliber as Ithaca, pretty soon NYC will become the only serious CS department at Cornell, because it will be much easier to recruit new faculty to New York than to Ithaca. The only equilibrium I see is that either the NYC campus is only a professional masters program, or that the entire university slowly migrates away from Ithaca to New York. I don't think there can be two strong campuses with identical missions.

  2. I don't think theorists would gravitate to NYC over Ithaca. Theorists are deep thinkers who—I'm guessing—value quiet and beauty. NYC has some beautiful distractions but it certainly is not quiet, and the costs associated with NYC are enough to cause many people to spend time worrying about survival and everyday logistics when they could be spending their finite seconds on earth on more engaging problems. The college student daughter of the Russian billionaire who just bought the penthouse apartment at 15 Central Park West won't have that problem, though.

  3. Lance, you implicitly assume that newspapers started their downward spiral because they put their content online.

    I would argue they started going down because they were offering effectively an undifferentiated product that had a zero marginal cost of production; such a setting leads to perfect competition, which drives the product price close to the marginal cost of production (*not* average cost of production).

    You can expect to see a similar path for the education industry. Undifferentiated products (especially introductory classes) are going down the same path, leaving universities to compete on products (classes, programs) in which they can differentiate themselves from the competition.

    I will risk a prediction: "Educating for latest developments in research" will play an increasingly important role over time; these will be courses that cannot be taught well by arbitrary instructors but require expertise in the field.

  4. Even *gasp* theorists tend to prefer cities. In addition to the standard charm of urban environments, it is -much- easier to solve a two-body career problem in a place like New York City than in a place like Ithaca.

  5. Although upstate NY universities are somewhat more pro-active about recognizing two-body problems ( than most other universities that seem to think that professors are either single or have stay-at-home spouses.

  6. would I be correct in assuming that the question " How did that work for them?" was rhetorical?

    if so, then what exactly did happen to newspaper sales or such related figures?

    I believe that this will help them in the long run, and for sure help the community in bringing up better informed individuals.

  7. Stop the sun from rising10:31 PM, December 22, 2011

    In the 90's, Newspapers decided they could better serve the public by putting their news stories online. How did that work for them?

    The alternative would have been to refuse to acknowledge the new reality, like the Encyclopaedia Britannica did. How did that work for them?

    Are universities starting to go down the same path today?

    They are, and this is inevitable. We either embrace it and try hard to find a business model under it, or we go the way of the horse-and-buggy industry.

  8. Working through Mayor Bloomberg's numbers, the 300 faculty members are projected to bring in a per-faculty cash flow of $2.55M per year. While such people undoubtedly exist, it will be no easy task to hire a cohort of 300 for which this is the mean funding performance, while at the same time sustaining institutional and educational coherence.

    How many complexity theorists generate revenue at this level? How many quantum information theorists? Are present trends in US industrial, NIH, NSF, and defense research spending consistent with the mayor's working financial model?

    When I attend synthetic biology seminars, I find the students already living in a world in which experiments are largely subcontracted to roboticized laboratories and analysis is largely conducted in virtualized simulation environments … and the students themselves confidently foresee that this roboticized/virtualized/globalized research environment will expand rapidly to ubiquity.

    As Jane Austin might have put it: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a graduate student in possession of an inquiring mind and a cloud connection is not in want of a wet bench in a large research building."

    Research hypotheses? Experiments? Theorems? Campuses? That research focus is so 20th century, and it represents an enterprise model that thoughtful students regard as outdated and some folks argue is moribund.

    The 21st century research focus seems to be trending instead toward system surveys, synoptic simulations, and computational virtualization, which are research elements scale more naturally, rapidly, reliably, and cheaply into global-scale enterprises.

    Therefore it seems (to me) that we can be entirely confident that something good will happen at the Cornell/Technion/NYC campus, but it's less clear that anyone can accurately foresee what that "something" will be.

    Perhaps the synthetic biology students are right, and if so, the Cornell/Technion/NYC campus will evolve to be an institution quite different from what Mayor Bloomberg envisions. That's what I think too.

  9. Newspapers made money from three sources:
    (1) people buying them (I've heard this really
    wasn't the main source, (2) Ads placed in them,
    (3) Classified Ads. Craigslist may have killed
    papers more than anything else. And what did they deliver- news to people. Now that its online
    they are ... in search of a different business model.

    Academia makes money via (1) tuition, (2) alumni giving, (3) money from the state,
    (4) money from companies, (5) grants.
    ((3) (4) and (5) may be hard to distinguish)
    (The order I wrote them is arbitrary).
    And what do we give to the students:
    (1) knowledge, (2) an intellectual atmosphere
    and community, (3) certification that they got
    that knowledge.

    Going online we are giving away (1) for free.
    This could still work. We may be able to still charge for (3) with people taking courses off line
    taking exams and such and getting a certificate
    (this is already happening). If enough people do
    this and its priced right, this could work.
    Would `getting into Harvard' be a quaint notion if
    you could take courses online and get Harvard credit for them if you passed. This could be,
    in essense, everyone gets in but you really really could flunk out.

    Universities still offer an intellectual atmosphere but if a student can take online courses at a much better rate...

    UPSHOT: the obvious- Colleges will have to look at this change and change their business model.
    I think they need not share the predicted state
    of newspapers since colleges sell CERTIFICATES OF KNOWLEDGE. However, if everything is online
    and done really well then teaching may become
    less of our jobs (computer science is in BETTER shape than math in this regard since CS courses
    change faster).

    What should the new business model be? I don't know.

    Whats black and white and Red all over:
    The New York Times Balance Sheet
    (I think thats from Colbert)

  10. ------------------
    GASARCH posts: "And what do we give to the students: (1) knowledge, (2) an intellectual atmosphere and community, (3) certification that they got that knowledge."

    Academic certification comes in two types: (3a) certification that the student gained admission, and (3b) certification that the student attended classes.

    From elite institutions (3a) arguably is the more important of the two (just consider the academic records of America's recent presidents and vice presidents, for example). As the MIT press release that GASARCH quoted was careful to stipulate: "MIT awards MIT degrees only to those admitted to MIT through a highly selective admissions process" … here MIT is protecting the value of its academic (3a) certificates while at the same time taking steps to mass-market its academic (3b) certificates.

    In medicine there is a third brand of certification: (3c) board certification. This academic (3c) certificate explicitly testifies to a candidate's work experience, professional skill, and social maturity (which (3a) and (3b) certificates do not).

    From an enterprise point-of-view, there is little opportunity for growth in the number of academic (3a) certificates, whose virtue resides in their scarcity. And there is little opportunity for revenue in academic (3b) certification, which is in its nature readily virtualized and commodified.

    Therefore (in my view) it is nearly inevitable that the Cornell/Technion/NYC campus will eventually offer some novel variety of academic (3c) STEM certification, for the simple reason that no other educational strategy justifies the massive investment by Cornell/Technion/NYC in facilities and new faculty.

    What form(s) will this new STEM certification take? What fraction of present-day STEM professors would themselves qualify for certification? Will this certification evolve to be something like an NYC Talpiot maybe?

    These questions are tough (and contentious). That is why a really well-founded, revenue-positive academic enterprise for (3c) STEM certification — in whatever form it evolves — definitely would be what Lance and GASARCH call "a game-changer."

    And that is why I wish every success for these enterprises.

  11. the best students could teach themselves, so we will need to better engage those students with the value-added aspects of attending

    the middle students are actually unlikely to have the drive to teach themselves a degree

    the worst students might manage to find the online alternative that would require the least work and provide the least results but their parents might force them to go to a real school (just as they do now)

    College and University are not trade schools. There is something gained by diversity, by having guidance, by socializing with others. Perhaps online attempts will force administrators to recognize this more.

  12. Let us consider this text:

    “The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible.

    This cannot be done by gathering or 'accessing' what we now call 'information' — which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority.

    A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.”

       ― Wendell Berry

    By consensus, the undergraduate college experience qualifies only marginally as what Wendell Berry describes as "education." Graduate school serves better, but still imperfectly, and wash-out rates are high.

    The now-traditional Osler sequence of medical school, residency, followed by a fellowship-year, succeeds wonderfully, but at the seven-fold price of (a) strictly limited admission, (b) 11-year duration, (c) faculty-to-student ratio of unity, (d) immensely high cost, (e) delegation of life-or-death responsibility to students, (f) strict controls upon creativity in a professional context, and (g) moderate suppression of professional individuality.

    Recent advances — in math, sensing, and simulation particularly — allow us to imagine a STEM educational curriculum that would embody the virtues of medical education, inculcated at an accelerated pace … and soberingly, without medicines' mandatory socialization and strict restriction of irresponsible innovation.

    Such a STEM educational milieu surely would be radical, and might even be dangerously irresponsible. Nonetheless, the Cornell/Technion/NYC campus seems destined to travel this path, as perhaps are all STEM campuses.

    Details to become known as we conceive them.

  13. The paucity of commentary upon Lance's enjoyably provocative post is surprising.

    It seems (to me) that increasing numbers of thoughtful and committed STEM students already are embracing an accelerating and irreversible Berry/Osler/Talpiot-type transformation in STEM education … a transformation to which STEM faculty now are awakening too … evidently not everyone shares this view?

  14. Is classroom teaching what MIT is primarily known for? NO.

    What we have to hope is that other institutions don't follow suit and end up giving away their core product for free. They will not only destroy themselves, but also do great harm to all but the very top undergraduate institutions. This will harm the overall quality of education in the courty as online schools compete to give degrees away for free or for cheap and by the time people realize the harm it will be too late to easily fix. We've already seen this with grade inflation which is another form of giving away what used to be earned.

  15. How long until I can go online, find all of the solutions to the online problems and get an MIT pseudo-degree without leaning anything more the web scamming?

  16. So... any word on when Cornell NYC will be hiring? One article said they'd start teaching some classes in September...

  17. Anonymous asks:
    How long until I can go online, find all of the solutions to the online problems and get an MIT pseudo-degree without leaning anything more the web scamming?

    This is why certificates generally are validated by tests: (in the US) SATs after high school, GREs after the undergraduate degree, then peer reviews after PhD.

    For folks who wish to step off the certification merry-go-round, the procedure is straightforward but not easy: Are you conceiving cool ideas? And sharing them with cool people? Who are catalyzing cool enterprises? That make the world a cooler place to live for everyone?

    If all four answers are "yes" … then a certificate of coolness is inessential.

    And should it happen that the new Cornell/Technion/Talpiot/MIT enterprises act to boost the global supply of coolness, then that (IMHO) will be a very good thing.

  18. Sidles appears to have ignored the actual details of the discussion. MIT is not going to have any in-person validation. Also, GREs are only taken after an undergraduate degree by those wanting to apply to certain graduate programs.

  19. ---------
    Anonymous said: Sidles appears to have ignored the actual details of the discussion.

    To the contrary, I make these three predictions.

    Prediction I: MIT will impose no charge to view the classes, but will impose a fee to either (1) issue an official class grade, or (1) administer an official certification test, or plausibly (3) both. Question: to what degree is a conflict of interest generated, if the MIT Corporation retains the certification revenues, but the degree does not say "MIT"?

    Prediction II: Associated to the emergence of free-as-in-freedom STEM curricula, new varieties of free-as-in-freedom certification will evolve. The "reputation" scores associated to the various StackExchanges are perhaps a step in this direction.

    The third prediction is associated to the natural question: what level(s) of certification lie beyond post-PhD peer review?

    Prediction III: As free-as-in-freedom STEM curricula become more ubiquitous, the role of enterprise review will assume greater significance. This is the level of review that venture capitalists call "the 'deal flow' that is the lifeblood for any investor."

    It is evident (to me anyway) that the STEM enterprise will prosper in coming decades largely to the degree that the STEM enterprise helps speed the pace, retire the risks, and (most important) sustain the morale that is associated to the 21st century's "deal flow."

    For several centuries, the public has been the main investor in the STEM enterprise. For the STEM enterprise to enjoy continued support from the public, it seems evident (to me) that the 'deal flow' of enterprises that create useful, dignified, family-supporting work needs to be sustained at considerably higher levels than at present.

    As to how these higher levels may or will be achieved … well … that will be interesting to see!  :)

  20. Gee, no comments … maybe I'm not stating the dilemma in sufficiently stark terms?

    (1) If we adopt Mayor Bloomberg's financial targets for return-on-investment in STEM education, then the Cornell/Technion and MIT innovations (arguably) are destined to fall far short of the Bloomberg targets if their resource allocation processes are regulated and certified strictly by traditional peer review, but may meet the Bloomberg targets if their resource allocation is regulated instead by a vigorous process of enterprise review.

    The common-sense reason is that the massive collateral investments that mayor Bloomberg's fiscal targets require are unlikely to be obtained via any other path than enterprise review.

    (2) Successful models exist for STEM education enterprises whose resource allocation is regulated by enterprise review (In-Q-Tel, Talpiot), but these successful models are notably deficient with respect to traditional academic norms of transparency and openness.

    A major challenge for the Cornell/Technion and MIT enterprises, therefore, is how to unite the evident entrepreneurial vigor and economic viability of enterprise review, with the longstanding traditions of transparency and open access of traditional STEM education.

    This dilemma was comedically described on the TV show Deep Space 9 as follows:

    [Jake (from the planet Earth) asks Nog (from the planet Ferenginar) for a loan]

    Jake Sisko: I'm human, I don't have any money.

    Cadet Nog: It's not my fault your species decided to abandon currency-based economics in favor of some philosophy of self-enhancement.

    Jake Sisko: Hey — watch it! There's nothing wrong with our philosophy. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.

    Cadet Nog: What does that mean exactly?

    Jake Sisko: It means … it means, we don't need money!

    Essential to enterprise review processes are concrete answers to the question "What does STEM research and education mean exactly?"

    As Lance's post correctly notes, that is a question for which the new MIT and Cornell/Technion enterprises are rapidly and dynamically evolving game-changing answers.

    To the extent that the MIT and Cornell/Technion STEM enterprises introduce game-changing STEM rules that prove economically viable, won't everyone else have to play by those new STEM rules too?

    The Human Genome Project and its associated radically innovative technologies compelled geneticists to become genomicists … and this coercion deeply dismayed many geneticists.

    Similarly, it seems (to me) that the MIT and Cornell/Technion enterprises embody STEM innovations that have the potential to be sufficiently effective as to be radically coercive for the STEM community as a whole.

    Is everyone cool with that?

  21. The idea that the benefits of science and technology can be monetized in a straightforward way is just wrong.

    What was the monetary value of the return on investment on the Manhattan Project? Bell Labs? Xerox PARC? MIT Media Lab?

    The problem is not that you cannot get measures, like number of patents, or IPOs generated, or value of portfolios. The problem is that all these measure only some of the effects, and the important effects may be initially considered as marginal. Remember that the html protocol was developed to post high energy physics results easily in a small community...

    All successful think tanks had some features in common: ability to attract exceptional brains, willingness and ability to support radical ideas, a good amount of intellectual freedom, money, and some fraction of somewhat practical goals.

    Silicon Valley grew through a combination of factors. These factors are not well understood (or the many attempts to replicate it elsewhere would have succeeded.) New York is trying to come up with a new science and technology academic center of excellence and industrial incubator. There are good reasons why they may succeed, and if they do, it will probably be because they do things differently than their competition.

    If the criterion is that they will be generating income, it is unlikely to succeed, unless "income" is defined broadly. After all, Cornell generated about 600 million income, because they treated a student well. Can we quantify the amount of income due to the beauty of the gorges in campus?

  22. CSProf, you make some good points regarding monetization, but they are points that institutions like Talpiot (founded 1979) and In-Q-Tel (1999) appreciated decades ago.

    The previously mentioned survey by Andrew Mara titled "Maximizing the Returns of Government Venture Capital Programs" (2011) is the most nearly comprehensive open analysis (presently known to me), and in it the idea of "monetization" is mentioned nowhere at all (even though Mara's survey is not particularly forward-looking)

    What metrics are In-Q-Tel, Talpiot and the other emerging enterprise-centric STEM-supporting institutions evolving? What metrics might/should/will the new MIT and Cornell/Technion STEM enterprises employ?

    A narrow focus on enterprise monetization (in my opinion) does not do justice to these interesting questions and to the expanding scope that is associated to the evolving notion of a "STEM enterprise."

    A broad discussion of these points is (I think) what Lance's post was intended to provoke.

  23. I don't see essential necessity for undergrad students to attend university or classes to learn the course material. The interaction with instructor can be more efficiently replaced by online forums and Q&A sites like Most people don't attend university for the sake of knowledge. There are other reasons can also replaced by other means over time (e.g. certification organizations, as soon as there is a large organization whose certificate about quality of job applicants will be a better indicator of the quality the value of having a university certificate will drop). There is considerable deficiency in the current system which these cheaper and easier ways of attaining knowledge will change. The modern higher education system we have today is no more than a few hundred years old. Possibly less than 100 years in its current form as an industry. Over time it will change again. The current system may not survive for another 50 years but that is normal.

    The main short term threat felt by those who are in administrative positions in the current system is that universities will loose one of their main founding sources, the one that is being relied on more and more (undergrad tuitions) as government founding is going down (as we see in California). Will system reach a stable position such that the cost of research will be paid by the main beneficiaries of it? (i.e. industry which is relying more and more on universities) Should the benefits of publicly founded research be given back to the public (e.g. by returning the right to public domain?) Can intellectual "property" "rights" survive in their current form (Apple claiming to own the right to design rectangular devices with some exaggeration) or will reality force them obsolete? And many other fundamental exciting questions.

    The change is coming to lots of areas, and unlike the fake promises of change politicians make, it doesn't need us or anyone else for that matter to believe in it. Those in powerful positions in the current system will fight to keep the system as is (as RIAA and MPAA have demonstrated) but to no prevail.

  24. ------------------
    Anonymous says: Those in powerful positions in the current system will fight to keep the system as is (as RIAA and MPAA have demonstrated) but to no [avail].

    Anonymous' assertion is a Great Truth, meaning that (by definition) the opposite assertion is a Great Truth too.

    In reference to which, check (for example) the educational credentials of In-Q-Tel's Board of Directors, or this lecture by (former NIH director) Elias Zerhouni.

    As Zerhouni forcefully asserts:

    Our greatest risk is to lack imagination. I have said this before, and I will repeat it — emphatically — now: The greatest risk in science is to stop taking risks.

    What our most experienced academic leaders have come to appreciate similarly well as our least experienced graduate students, is the practical challenge of introducing a greater measure of what is called "risk aptitude" into the traditionally conservative culture of academia.

    Surely complexity theory has something to say about this challenge?