[ExI] the future of stanford u

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Mon Feb 25 14:12:41 UTC 2013

On 25/02/2013 03:44, spike wrote:
> Me too!  I looove Stanford, that is the place to out-hang.  Lots of 
> interesting stuff going on there always.  I had forgotten how cool, 
> interesting and mathematical is Hayden.  In some ways he is the more 
> approachable Bach, warm, nice, still precise and profound, but 
> huggable is Hayden.
> After the concert, while I was waiting around for the 1300 lecture, I walked about and pondered the future of high-end
> universities like Stanford and that other place across the way whose name often escapes me, Berk something I think.
> The online learning will have an enormous impact methinks.  I would like to steer the thread from insanity to Stanford.

Yes, the future of universities is interesting. Why do we have them? 
There are several functions they do:

1. Teach stuff to people
2. Validate what they know, either absolutely or in relation to other 
3. Get people to interact and network
4. Help people grow as persons into autonomous, smart citizen-intellectuals
5. Do research

Online courses can do 1 and 2, up to a point. One reason a lot of people 
drop out is that they do require dedication and focus, and not everybody 
got it. At a physical university you have A) a social support system of 
friends, B) university staff trying to get students motivated or help 
them if they show signs of slipping, and C) a high threshold of entry 
that through cognitive dissonance and the sunk cost fallacy keeps people 
in - you don't want to have wasted all that college money, right? This 
is why I think online courses are a huge win for smart, young and 
ambitious people in simple circumstances, but they are not the solution 
for the average could-be student in those circumstances. Universities 
grab you better.

The third function is why campuses are important. People run into each 
other. There is a high concentration of smart, creative, and promising 
people: a lot of the old school ties will be really valuable later in 
life. People come up with business ideas or just learn how to deal with 
social life and its politics by participating in local organisations and 
networks. Oxford Union is not just a debating club: it is the debating 
club where a certain number of your fellows are going to become heads of 
state one day, and everybody knows it - so the internal politics will be 
a real test. The Oxford college structure makes students and faculty of 
different specialities at least have lunch and dinner together, and 
encourages socializing across discipline boundaries. These are things 
online courses will not have much advantage over, which is at least why 
Oxford and Cambridge are currently just ignoring them.

The fourth function is mysterious, and maybe more of wishful thinking 
than anything real.

The fifth function is somewhat decoupled from the others. Brilliant 
researchers are not on average better lecturers, but having access to 
people actually finding new knowledge means that universities will 
typically be more up to date than other institutions. Conversely, you 
want to have ready access to smart students to get involved in your 
research - in a sense the education part is just a constantly ongoing 
job fair for the researchers to exploit.

One reason to have universities is clustering. Most universities are 
clusters of institutions and companies that benefit from access to each 
other and people - Stanford and Silicon Valley is perhaps the most 
famous example. I think we will start to see online clustering where 
online services also network with other services for mutual benefit, but 
I don't know if they are going to be effective enough at retaining 
attention and people to become "real" clusters.

I also wonder about virtual research clusters. The same problem about 
keeping things together recurs, but one can use other means to hold them 
together (such as contracts). A cluster might outsource lab work or 
observational work, doing the cutting edge theory and analysis in-cluster.

Anders Sandberg,
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford Martin School
Faculty of Philosophy
Oxford University

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