August 15, 2018

Can Classes on Field Experiments Scale? Lessons from SOC412

Last semester, I taught a Princeton undergrad/grad seminar on the craft, politics, and ethics of behavioral experimentation. The idea was simple: since large-scale human subjects research is now common outside universities, we need to equip students to make sense of that kind of power and think critically about it.

In this post, I share lessons for teaching a class like this and how I’m thinking about next year.

Path diagram from SOC412 lecture on the Social Media Color Experiment

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Teaching the Craft, Ethics, and Politics of Field Experiments

How can we manage the politics and ethics of large-scale online behavioral research? When this question came up in April during a forum on Defending Democracy at Princeton, Ed Felten mentioned on stage that I was teaching a Princeton undergrad class on this very topic. No pressure!

Ed was right about the need: people with undergrad computer science degrees routinely conduct large-scale behavioral experiments affecting millions or billions of people. Since large-scale human subjects research is now common, universities need to equip students to make sense of and think critically about that kind of power.

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It’s time to bring Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies into the computer science curriculum

In the privacy technologies grad seminar that I taught last semester, Bitcoin proved to be the most popular topic among students. Two groups did very different and equally interesting final projects on Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies; more on that below.

More broadly, we’re seeing a huge demand for learning the computer science underlying Bitcoin, both at Princeton and elsewhere. But research papers on Bitcoin don’t make for great teaching materials. Identifying the core ideas, building them up in logical progression, and connecting them to other areas of computer science is a challenging task.

Over the summer, I teamed up with Joe Bonneau, Ed Felten, and Andrew Miller to do just that. We’ve produced a lecture series which will start going online soon. While we spend some time in the lectures on the specifics of Bitcoin, much of our discussion is about the underlying principles which apply to cryptocurrencies in general. Steven Goldfeder and other students are working with us to produce homeworks, programming assignments, and a textbook, which will together comprise a complete online course. We’ll announce it here when it launches.
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