Great works and the Arcosanti file

Once an acquaintance, classically educated, asked me if I had read Thucydides. He knew I went to MIT, so I think he was hoping and expecting me to say “Who's Thucydides.”

But I said, “Of course, and I especially like the way Thucydides handled detail in his description of the investiture of Syracuse.”

He changed the subject.

In the old days, freshmen and sophomores were all empowered by taking the same four humanities subjects, which started with the Odyssey and concluded with the French revolution. Some sections met on Saturday mornings. Everybody read the same books at the same time. Just about everyone who took those subjects has fond memories of them.

Many of the instructors were Harvard students working on their PhD dissertations. Many of the students had parents who had emigrated from Europe. We joked that the four courses centered on Christian traditions taught by atheists to Jews.

Alas, those subjects are no more, and now everyone is free to pursue their own specific interests in the humanities, where specific interest is often severely limited by accidents of schedule conflict.

In thinking about how MIT should change, it occurred to me that we ought to have, say, two subjects centered on Great Science and Great Engineering.

Like our back-in-the-day humanities subjects, these subjects would be taken by all the freshmen. Also, they would focus on original sources, starting in the first semester with a common core of great classics—such as Einstein's paper on the photo-electric effect and Watson and Crick's two-page paper announcing the structure of DNA. In the second semester, individual sections could veer off toward biology, physics, computer science, mechanical engineering, and so on. Students with a scientific and engineering gene would be inspired. Those without one would find out fast.

So I wrote up a prospectus, complete with sections on benefits for students, benefits for the faculty, content, and assignments.

Of course, as I wrote, I knew there are lots of reasons why such subjects will never be taught. I even knew some reasons why they would be a bad idea.

But I once visited Arcosanti, the experimental town in the Arizona desert conceived and promoted by Paolo Soleri. I was particularly impressed by an exhibit of architectural models of buildings designed by architects who knew they were too out-of-the-box ever to be built. I suppose they were designed partly for fun and partly for discussion.

That's why I wrote up a prospectus. It's on my disk under Arcosanti.

26 September 2010

The MIT 100

Some say that the United States has a second diplomatic corps that is sometimes more effective than the official one. Its origins are at places like the Naval War College, the Air War College, and the Army War College, which are interesting to visit, in part, because of the variety of foreign uniforms you see on campus.

Most of the foreign military-school students are carefully selected by their home countries and most are on a fast track toward positions of high influence and responsibility. Having learned our values and bonded with people in our military, foreign graduates of our military schools provide a back-channel way of getting messages through.

During the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, American Officers who knew Egyptian Officers were getting in touch and reminding their Egyptian friends about some important principles.*

So, why not have MIT create an analog of what happens in our military schools, an analog aimed at educating the next generation of world leaders both technically and culturally. Each year, we would welcome to the campus 100 seniors nominated by 100 universities from 100 countries all over the world. We would embed them in MIT dormitories and FSILGs for a senior year and perhaps a fifth year master's degree.

Sure, we have a lot of foreign students already, and we have a demonstrated appetite for deals with foreign universities that involve large financial packages. A big deal with Russia's government-funded Skolkovo Foundation is nearly final. But few students come from poor countries and none of our deals are with universities in poor countries or universities in the Western Hemisphere or especially universities in poor countries in the Western Hemisphere, such as, say, Haiti.

I waited a day and the idea still seemed interesting, so I started it off on a shakedown cruise, as I generally do, by writing up a prospectus, complete with possible solutions to a dozen obvious problems. I calculated it would cost a visionary donor about $10 million per year.

Of course, it might not work, and it certainly would not work at a place other than MIT, and perhaps the place up the street, and three or four other universities. On the other hand, if it worked, it would have a nice ring to it: the MIT 100, a corps of future world leaders all bonding together with MIT students headed in important directions.

* Economist 24 February 2011.

23 October 2011

The Infinite Connection Advisor

Photograph courtesy of Patrica Sampson

These days, whenever you you walk down the Student Street in the Stata Center, you are likely to see students, sitting alone, staring at computer screens, jabbering away with friends and family in myriad foreign tongues, via Skype.

So why not use Skype to help fix MIT's undergraduate advising problem.

When I was a kid, my parents and I had awkward, monthly, expensive feeling, long-distance telephone calls. Now, I use Skype to work with collegues from California to Istanbul. For me, Skype is a great enabler, far superior to telephones and email. Somehow, seeing adds a powerful social dimension.

There are points of light, of course. Some departments have effective associate advisor programs; the Alumni Association offers a career-guidance service to alumni; and many FSILGs have alum-engaging mechanisms of various sorts.

Still, the advising problem has been admired, sometimes mitigated, but never fixed, for decades. Not all advisors have been in the nonacademic workforce recently; not all get to know their advisees. Many are spread too thin.

Among those who complain are seniors, soon to become young alumni. So, let's put together a Skype-based system to create a connection between our students and on-line young alumni, thus putting the young alumni to work on the problem they have been complaining about:

Skype × Alum = Infinite Connection Advisor

By making systematic and intentional connections we might get a highly non-linear return on investment. A systematic and intentional connection is one that involves definite, mediated assignment of students to volunteer alumni, with contact proactively initiated by the alum, rather than a passive offering of a find-it-and-opt-in service.

Infinite Connection Advisors would provide career advice that complements other MIT sources. Young alums are well positioned to describe how they like working in their fields in general; to relate how they like the organizations they work for in particular; to suggest how they have made use of their MIT degrees in both obvious and nonobvious career paths; and to recommend organizations friendly to interns and attractive as long-term employers. A successful program could contribute to lifelong bonds between advisor and advisee, strengthening the alumni interpersonal network.

The idea still sounded good the day after I thought it up, so I tried it on a few people in the obvoious places.

Alas, interest, but no traction. So, off to the Arcosanti file it goes, the place on my computer where I put ideas I write up just for discussion and fun.

27 March 2012

Then end of live lectures? Not yet.

We went to see the Stones the other night, as we always do when they are in town. We just can't miss seeing what Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Charlie Watts are up to.

Then, before my ears stopped ringing the next day, I saw on one of the MIT what's-happening displays something to the effect that live lectures are dead. Maybe if it is said often enough, it will make it true.

I recalled the concert. Of course I could have listened to all those songs as I drove to work at any volume I liked. I could have popped a video into all the fancy electronic toys I keep in the media room. But I didn't. Instead, I spent a lot of money for the welcome privilege of filling my eyes with real photons bouncing off real people, surrounded by about 18,000 other similarly minded fans.

So is the live lecture dead? Not yet, I think. We like the social act of seeing it live with others. We like having singular people in the same room, even if it is a big room.

So in our rush to MOOC everything, maybe we are asking the wrong question. We ask how can we get out stuff out to 10s of thousands or 100s of thousands of people. Instead, maybe we should ask what 100 skills, concepts, and experiences should every MIT student acquire by age 30.

Then, we can ask how we can best use established and emerging technology to deliver those skills, concepts, and experiences.*

The list would include elements every educated MIT graduate should understand at one level or another just because he or she is entitled to wear a Brass Rat. My candidates would include probability and statistics, electromagnetic wave propagation, limits to what can be computed, chemistry of one sort or another, the nature and origins of life, and what makes our species unique, all of which are redily available, but none of which are now required of every MIT student.

But alas, who is to make such a list? Perhaps I should volunteer, but then I think, in rational moments, that I should just consign the idea to the Arco Santi directory.**

* See the What's Next with MITx for more on the subject of web-enabled educational transformation.

** The place where I put romantic ideas that I write up just for fun,

22 June 2013