Category Archives: Uncategorized

Where Can You Find MOOCs From the Top Universities?

I’ve compiled a list of the top 25 universities according to US News & World Report, and which MOOC Provider you can find their courses on, using the data from curricu.me.

 

University

Provider

Princeton Coursera
Harvard EdX
Yale Coursera & Yale Open Learning
Columbia Coursera
Stanford Coursera
University fo Chicago Coursera
Duke Coursera
MIT EdX
Upenn Coursera
California Institute of Technology Coursera
Dartmouth College iTunesU
Johns Hopkins Coursera
Northwestern University Coursera
Brown University Coursera
Washington University in St Louis Semester Online*
Cornell EdX
Vanderbilt Coursera
Rice Coursera & EdX
University of Notre Dame Semester Online
Emory University Coursera & Semester Online
Georgetown University EdX
University of California – Berkeley EdX
Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative
University of California – Los Angeles UCLAExtension
University of Southern California n/a

*Semester Online is a paid, for-credit service with an application process, so it does not qualify as a traditional MOOC

Some quick observations:

–       University of Southern California is the only holdout on this list.

–       It really speaks to the power of Coursera and EdX. There are some young providers like Canvas or FutureLearn who will need to find a niche or have a really great value proposition in order to be successful in this market.

–       It also speaks to the power of MOOCs. 24 of the top 25 universities offer MOOCs or MOOC-like courses.

The Nerd’s World Cup: Does Behavioral Economics Disprove Rational Economics?

The USA just beat Mexico to qualify for the World Cup.

From a rational, economic perspective, the USA should qualify for every sporting event on the planet. The USA has more people, more resources, and more free time to invest in sports. When you take a look at the major medal winners in the Olympics, more medals mostly correlates to these factors.

So while the fact that we are the bottom-feeders of soccer doesn’t hurt my American pride, it does pique my interest. Why doesn’t the rational model work?

The answer is that the rational model does work, but the number of factors that I put into my model while walking from the TV to the bathroom doesn’t even come close to telling the whole story. There are many more factors: The United States lacks a history of soccer, we lack a culture that cares about the sport, Sportscenter doesn’t air it enough, Mexico’s star player had a tight hamstring (maybe). If we could measure these and the 10,000,000 other factors that go into it, you could literally chart on a graph how many wins a soccer team earns.

In an economic decision the same simplification errors apply. We say that people will pay $3 for a bottle of Gatorade because it gives them $1 of hydration, $1 of flavor, and $1 of brand appeal. Allegedly, any purchase can be rationally broken down into the elements of value that the purchaser receives. Obviously, this doesn’t explain the many abnormalities in rational economics, like why someone will pay $6 for the same Gatorade. These abnormalities are explained by the science of Behavioral Economics. A behavioral economist will explain that one person buying that same Gatorade for $6 can be attributed to the fact that the person has a higher price tolerance, due to gradually being accustomed to higher purchases. Or maybe even because someone told him Gatorade is worth $10 and he thought getting it for $6 was a great deal. That behavioral economist might explain the USA’s overall soccer futility with the theory that emotional benefit of winning a soccer match is not as great the emotional benefit of winning a football match.

And if they did this, I would agree with this economist. But then that economist might continue his theory, and try to say that behavioral economics disproves rational economics. Because an emotional factor affects team USA’s performance or the price we pay for a Gatorade, we therefore can’t create rational models. With this I disagree. Behavioral economics does a good job of identifying cost/benefit factors which are hard to quantify. But just because factors are hard to quantify does not mean they are not actually measurable. We could, with enough data, measure how the number of seconds that Sportscenter airs soccer coverage affects soccer enrollment among children. And then (theoretically) do this for 10,000,003 other factors. When we arrive at the end of this excruciating process we have, once again, a rational economic model for the number of wins a soccer team earns.

Behavioral economics is a stop-gap. It is a reasonable way of way of making shortcuts in measurement when you simply lack the tools to measure further, like saying the world is flat because it looks flat. But it still a part of economics. And, like team USA, it has a ways to go before it reaches its goal.

Theory: Greater Social Touch leads to Higher Reviews

I’ve recently been on ODesk, AirBnB and Skillshare, and noticed that these websites are full of glowing reviews. But I’ve also seen some downright nasty reviews on sites like Yelp or Amazon. Clearly, there is a correlation between higher reviews and how much personal interaction you’ve had with a service provider. But how strong is that relationship and what, specifically, are the drivers? Is it conversation? Is it seeing someone else’s picture or sharing yours? Is it not really driven by social kindness, but rather just a reflection that personalized service is generally better?
It’d be an interesting experiment. Let me know if someone has done it. If not, I may try it in the future. 

Chromecast is a Competitor’s Nightmare

Sorry for the missive that is about to follow. I have a thing for Google, and I’m writing this in a fit if adulation after reading about the new Chromecast. If I had kids, I’d imagine its akin to watching a great milestone in a child’s life, like a first step or a first word. I’m just a blubbering state of emotion.

Very short introduction: The Chromepass is a $35 USB stick that transmits video to your television, same as Apple Airplay.

Here is why I like it so much: it solves a very prevalent problem for an incredibly reasonable price. This is the how to build products, and the confirmation is in the fact that is has sold out of Amazon and Best Buy in just a few days.

Google could have gone about this in another way.  Google could have tried to undercut Apple just enough to capture some market, and then try to maintain that market through artificial barriers.
Seeing that Apple TV is $100, Google could have priced their product at $90, and then created artificial barriers to cross-sell other Google products, like say that content could only be streamed from approved apps and video on the Chrome browser. This would have been a perfectly intelligent short-term option, and one that would probably be seen as generous by most people, including the author. Apple TV would cut their price, Google would follow, Apple would release a further-reduce Apple TV lite, Roku would build their own, until finally five or six PC-to-TV streamers would compete and they’d all cost $30.

Now we get into fuzzy numbers. This process might have taken 5 or 6 years. During that time, Google would have been making higher margins on their product. They may have recouped their investment during that time. But in the end they would be one of six other competitors in the same space, fighting for the same slim margins. By starting out at such a surprising price point, they capture huge market share very quickly, and they force competitors to either put out products that aren’t ready or put out a product too late. In a market with this much potential, early mistakes could be costly. So long as Google delivers a good product experience, which they usually do, this looks like a truly shrewd move.

Our economies most lucrative profession…is free

Two articles ran today, one in the New York Times, one in the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times piece was about the effect that student debt has on the economy, where debt-laden graduates postpone consumption and major purchases, creating a drag on the economy. (Eerily similar to my piece about the same topic, I’m checking my Google Analytics now). The second piece from the Wall Street journal was an op-ed by an entrepreneur who says that his business, and the economy in general, can’t find qualified computer scientists fast enough to fill the job openings.
These two pieces are coincidentally recent, but the opportunity they describe is old news. The most common complaint I’ve heard from entrepreneurs is that they can’t find–no, can’t afford–good programming talent. When I was a business student at college, non-students would beg to get access to the tech groups at universities to pillage the talent. Google and Facebook are this countries most lavish employers for a reason. According to a very quick look on indeed.com, computer scientists now make more money than financial analysts, which is where most of my finance friends are now.

The most surprising fact here is that computer science is very nearly a free degree. The web is full of free programming training, free user forums, open-source code. And proving one’s computer-programming proficiency is considerably simpler than proving one’s proficiency with more vague skills like marketing. This should make that brand value of a degree from a university less valuable. From an economic perspective any cost-benefit analysis where the cost is nearly free and the benefit is very great should be over-saturated with people.
So why the gap between the number of lucrative openings and the number of applicants, which Kirk McDonald from the Journal article puts at 3 to 1? First, I simply think that the expansion of computer-related needs is just that rapid. Sometimes I think we probably can barely produce enough graduates in general to keep up! (In fact, if we consider Americans, we can’t. We now borrow from every other country.) Second, I think it is the devilish economic problem of not-quite-free information. There is still the concept of doctor-lawyer-banker professions being the best. Doctors are still doing ok, but bankers are looking more plebian and lawyers can’t find jobs. More importantly, the free path to success as a computer scientist is more uncertain than the expensive college degree path. 
Dispelling that uncertainty and creating freer information is doable, especially in a field like computer science. Two things need to happen:
First, the free education that is available needs to be aggregated and sorted. A college education exists online, but it is probably on 12 different websites. 
Second, avenues need to be provided where competent programmers can prove their proficiency. A combination of a online certificate of achievement for the courses and some kind of proctored exam or interview to prove real knowledge, could tell an employer most of what they need to know. 
If these two things can happen, we could end up in a situation where a large portion of our workforce is placed into lucrative, high value jobs with little personal debt. 
If you want to be this person and build this for others at the same time, e-mail, write, call me collect. 

Cooper Union and the Grandeur of Free

Cooper Union, a small engineering and arts school in the East Village, has made the announcement that they will begin charging tuition to students who have less need for financial assistance. The tuition will go from $0 for all students, to a maximum of $20,000 for an unspecified percentage of students.

This sounds like an inevitable decision for a small university based in the heart of New York. Studios in the area that rented for $400/m twenty years ago are now renting for $2,500. Property taxes are following the same rapid trend. Universities are in a kind of “arms race” to build the best facilities in order to attract the greatest talent. Presuming they’ve got some kind of health plan for their employees, they’ve picked a deadly trifecta of rising costs

The Deadly Trifecta

It is also a catastrophic decision for the appeal of an otherwise small and frugal school. In 2011, Cooper Union had a lower acceptance rate than Yale, Princeton and Brown. They pride themselves on being one of the most diverse of the smaller schools, both culturally and economically. With only 1,000 students and a few old buildings, this is an anomaly that can be greatly attributed to the appeal of “free”.

We are attracted to free in a much greater sense than we are attracted to “very cheap”. Would the line outside Ben & Jerry’s be the same length if they advertised “$.01 Cone Day”? No, it would be much shorter. Cooper Union has done their version of “50% off Cone Day”. A $3 ice cream cone is still not a great deal.

In a battle of market forces versus historic character, I am of the mind that the market wins 95% of the time. The old opera house will eventually come down so that the high rise can be built. So it is in this case. But I don’t think that Cooper Union has considered the magnitude of how this changes their university. In this case, we may be looking at a market decision that will eventually lead to an institution’s demise.

Prediction: Would not be surprised to see them reverse this decision. Why don’t they just put ads on all the chalkboards and pre-load every student’s phone with Facebook Home?

Is Crowdsourcing Irrational?

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to put together a website, and in doing so I’ve thought a lot about the effects of crowdsourcing. When I have a question about how to do something (which is every time I build a new piece of the site), I can always find the answer online in places like Stackoverflow or the WordPress forums. Usually I can find the answer with one Google Search, and very often I find that the entire functionality is pre-built with something like a public Git or a WordPress plug-in. This content is usually high quality, often being verified by other members of the community, and it is always free.
Crowdsourcing is a fascinating thing for an economist, because it is such a large group of seemingly irrational people giving away their assets for free. Is there an economic cost-benefit equation behind crowd-sourcing, or does it break the laws of classic economics in a huge way? Here are three potential explanations, in no particular order:

  1. Crowdsourcing creates a greater eco-system for all involved. Think of “a rising tide lifts all boats” or the incredible amounts of money governments spend trying to recreate a Silicon Valley. A person who shares his work with others will benefit from the improvements of the entire community more than he will suffer from the effects of new competition.
  2. Crowdsourcers are just egotistical fools, so infatuated with getting their intelligence in a public forum that they will disservice themselves to do it. 
  3. Everyone out there is trying to promote themselves and realize long term benefits, much like a blogger who writes for free might do until he can sell his content for fees or ad space.
I would have a hard time believing that any one of the above reasons have given rise to the huge tidal wave of crowdsourcing. I’m either missing reasons, or true, unselfish altruism is alive and well on the forums of Stackoverflow. 

A Back-of-the-Napkin Case for Skipping School – Part 2

The rising cost of college has been well documented and debated over the last decade or so. Usually, these articles end with the obvious, and important question “when will it stop being worth it?” At some point, the cost of attaining an education will outweigh the benefit of receiving an education. I’d like to outline a holistic cost-benefit analysis, but using all back-of-the-napkin calculations.
Let’s start with some numbers. I will presume that a typical college education costs $150,000 after all aid, and that this debt takes 15 years to pay off. (This post is two-part, and part one explains how I got these numbers). I will also ask the web what the lifetime value of a 4-year college education is over a high-school education, and the Wall Street Journal states it is between $300,000 and $1,000,000. Let’s say $500,000, but we could easily redo this experiment with another number.

1. Real Costs and Real Benefits 
So far, we have a straightforward model. The cost of a degree is $150,000 and the benefit is $500,000. Net benefit is $350,000

2. Opportunity cost of earnings while in college
Continuing to be straightforward, we know that while serving 4 years at university, Facebook tells us that our non-university friends are making “straight cash” and buying way better cars than we have. The opportunity cost of those for years of earnings is, let’s say, $30,000 x  4 = $120,000. We’ll round down to $100,000.

3. Opportunity cost of Risk-Taking Ability
Remember that we’ve decided in part 1 that our graduate will be paying for his college education for around 15 years. This means that from the age of 22 – 37, our subject’s risk-taking ability is curtailed by his obligation to his lender. Let’s look at it a few ways:

  • The lifetime cost of a child is estimated at just under $400,000. Our student’s college loans are like having half a child at the age of 22.
  • Taking a simple average, our subject pays $10,000/year in college loans. If he instead invested $10,000 per year at a 5% return, he would end up with $225,000 at the end of 15 years. If he added no more principal after 15 years, he would still have close to $500,000 at the end of 30 years. 
  • According to Business Insider, the odds of startup success are 20%. The average IPO valuation is $250 million. I’ll resist the temptation to do an expected value on that (No I won’t! It’s $50,000,000.) But let’s be realistic and say that your ho-hum lawn care business can be sold for a $1,000,000. Expected value is $200,000. 
Despite these silly examples, debt servicing is the most damaging cost of college that gets sometimes overlooked. It creates a generation of non-innovators. And it increases in a non-linear way as the monetary cost of college increases. For a student paying $20,000 per year at 5% interest, it will take 3 years to pay off $50,000 but 41 years to pay off $350,000.

How we value this cost can be a judgment call. But I will use our third example from above and call it $200,000. For larger debt loads or a subject who has a higher tolerance for risk, I think this number could be much, much higher.

4. The WTHC Cost
Finally, the Who-The-Heck-Cares cost. A rational economic model states that we will work for our entire careers in order to realize as little as a $1 advantage over our non-college brethren. If the average lifetime income of a non-college educated person is $1,000,000, then a rational person should go to college if the average lifetime income after college costs is $1,000,001. As if in the coffin of our now dead college-educated person, he is wearing his alumni ring, holding that $1 and smiling smugly.
But less rational (real) people must ask themselves what the personal, non-monetary costs of giving up your 18-22 years to a university are, and then the cost of structuring your life around paying for those 4 years. Especially with the availability of substitutes which are available now, with free MOOCs or local community courses available for a fraction of the price, and social and networking opportunities like MeetUp.com allowing non-college attendees to be socially “plugged in”. 
Two factors, the rising costs of college and the greater availability of substitutes, have led us to a point where a traditional college education is on the cusp of not being worth it. And with the diverse number of factors that go into it, I can guarantee that many people are already overpaying. The student who does not qualify for financial aid, goes to an expensive school for a traditionally low earning potential career (art history?), and has an appetite for risk is almost definitely overpaying.
I would like to find the brave 18 year old who decides that a traditional education is not worth the rising costs, and this person will build their own curriculum and be better off than his traditionally educated peers. 

A Back-of-the-Napkin Case for Skipping School – Part 1

Let’s do a back of the napkin calculation, and try to figure out
1) how much a typical college graduate can expect to owe when they leave college, 
2) figure out how much a typical graduate can expect to make upon graduating,
3) and then calculate how much he will pay for how long and make a judgement call on the value of his investment. 

(Image Credit: http://elitedaily.com/)

Education at a private university today is nearing $60,000 per year when you include the tuition, fees and housing costs. Luckily (yes, sarcasm) financial aid is also helping to pay for many students. So let’s say an average student manages to scrounge $30,000 per year in assistance from Uncle Sam, the university, and his parents. For a typical four year run, that comes to $120,000 in debt, if we don’t count interest accrual. Let’s say this student worked at a few summer jobs and kept his costs down, and then round that number down to $100,000.

1.) Our student owes $100,000.
Our student is average. He wants to work in marketing, because he likes watching commercials on tv, and he thinks he could make some good ones. He is also lucky, because he lands a job out of school as an analyst. He earns $40,000 per year. (Some quick Googling suggests this is average.) Our student pays taxes and only takes home $32,000 per year. He is also loyal, and will receive standard raises with the same company for the foreseeable future.

2.) Our student takes home $32,000 in his first year, with raises of 5% each year.
Our student has many options at this point. He can pay the minimum payment, he can pay some manageable portion of his income, or he can entirely devote himself to paying off his loans and put the maximum possible percentage of his income towards loans. Our student sees about $2,700 per month on his check, so he decides to pay a manageable $700/month, and he doesn’t change that as his income grows. Without interest, we can calculate that this takes about 12 years. But if we include a 5% interest, we see it takes just over 18 years and our student has paid a total of $150,000. If he increases his payments as quickly as his salary increases, it will take 12 years for a total cost of $137,000. If he is more unfortunate, and can’t find a job or make payments for a year, then only pays the minimum payment (to a minimum of a $200 payment) then he’ll be paying for 33.5 years and a total of $166,000!

3.) our student could easily find himself paying $700/month for the next 18 years for a total cost of $150,000
Now how do we justify this cost of 4 full time years of opportunity cost, then 18 years of diminished earnings? Let’s look to part 2

We should be actively trying to destroy every industry

There was an article in the Journal last week about “getting the journalism you pay for“. To sum the article up, the journalist lamented that in his dying industry nobody wants to pay for news anymore. The article concluded by saying “we need to find ways” to pay for quality news.

A market dies when customers can no longer justify paying for the items produced by that industry. And customers are smart. They prioritize, they compare prices, they find substitutes. (Note that I have prioritized, and decided to use the free stock photo for this post instead of paying $19. Thanks Shutterstock!) They are not irrational creatures who decide to “stick it” to these industries. These industries are not one hand-out away from greener pastures in which everyone wakes up and decides to pay for that service again.
But death is not such a bad thing. You don’t see economists today saying “Boy, if it weren’t for the textile industry going bust, our unemployment would be at 5%.”
Instead, the death of every industry frees up labor and capital for new and greater industries. It may not be a law, but it certainly is a dominant trend that at the point an industry dies it is no longer efficient, and when its labor and capital is put to other uses, those uses are usually towards more efficient, growing industries. The death of the U.S. manufacturing industry giving rise to the more efficient, profitable service industry, for example.

Although it is antithetical to our current “maintain jobs at all costs” philosophy, I would argue that one of the most noble purposes in business is to seek to destroy industries. I would love to see destroyed (from their current form) print media, real estate broker services, higher education, the mail, oil & gas, cable television, and everything else I come in contact to that isn’t perfect. (I’ll keep the industry of Google-ing, I can think of no more perfect service.)