October 3, 2022

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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Singapore Punishes Net Freedom Advocate

Over the last few days my activist self has come out.  I was a tenure reviewer for Dr. Cherian George at Nanyang Technical University, one of Singapore’s most high-profile universities.  His tenure case was overturned at the top, where university administration meets the country’s political elites.

It is difficult to dismiss George on the basis of academic merit. With degrees from Cambridge, Columbia, and Stanford, his pedigree is admirable. He has three books under his belt: the eviscerating “Air Conditioned Nation”, the evocative “Freedom From the Press” and a scholarly tome comparing independent online journalism in Singapore and Malaysia that was actually published at home by Singapore University Press. Through a string of academic articles, George has been equally critical of the government and the press, so it is not surprising that the country’s journalists have not rushed to his defense. He has revealed to colleagues that the decision to deny his tenure was solely because of “non-academic factors”—the university administrators told him as much. He’s had positive teaching evaluations. This wasn’t a merit based decision.
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On the Harvard "Cheating" Scandal

The news that Harvard is investigating more than 100 students on charges of unauthorized collaboration on a take-home exam has, predictably, led many commentators to chime in. No matter who you are, a story like this is likely to trigger one of your hot buttons, whether it’s the declining moral standards of kids these days, the moral core of elite educational institutions, the inherent injustice of top-down rulemaking, or whatever. Not to mention that the course was “Introduction to Congress.” [Read more…]