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A Gamification Of Education: a modest proposal based on the Universal Decimal Classification and RPG skill trees

13 Ritalin 07 July 2013 06:27PM

While making the inventory of my personal library and applying the Universal Decimal System to its classification, I found myself discovering a systematized classification of fields of knowledge, nested and organized and intricate, many of which I didn't even know existed. I couldn't help but compare how information was therein classified, and how it was imparted to me in engineering school. I also thought about how, often, software engineers and computer scientists were mostly self-thought, with even college mostly consisting of "here's a problem: go forth and figure out a way to solve it". This made me wonder whether another way of certified and certifiable education couldn't be achieved, and a couple of ideas sort of came to me.

It's pretty nebulous in my mind so far, but the crux of the concept would be a modular structure of education, where the academic institution essentially established what information precisely you need from each module, and lets you get on with the activity of learning, with periodic exams that you can sign up for, which will certify your level and area of proficiency in each module.

A recommended tree of learning can be established, but it should be possible to not take every intermediate test, if passing the final test proves that you've passed all the others behind it (this would allow people coming from different academic systems to certify their knowledge quickly and easily, thus avoiding the classic "Doctor in Physics from Former Soviet Union, current Taxi Driver in New York" scenario).

Thus, a universal standard of how much you have proven to know about what topics can be established.

Employers would then be free to request profiles in the format of such a tree. It need not be a binary "you need to have done all these courses and only these courses to work for us", they could be free to write their utility function for this or that job however they would see fit, with whichever weights and restrictions they would need.

Students and other learners would be free to advance in whichever tree they required, depending on what kind of profile they want to end up with at what age or point in time. One would determine what to learn based on statistical studies of what elements are, by and large, most desired by employers of/predictors of professional success in a certain field you want to work in.

One would find, for example, that mastering the peculiar field of railway engineering is great to be a proficient railway engineer, but also that having studied, say, things involved with people skills (from rhetoric to psychology to management), correlates positively with success in that field.

Conversely, a painter may find that learning about statistics, market predictions, web design, or cognitive biases correlates with a more successful career (whether it be on terms of income, or in terms of copies sold, or of public exposure... each one may optimize their own learning according to their own criteria).

One might even be able to calculate whether such complimentary education is actually worth their time, and which of them are the most cost-efficient.

I would predict that such a system would help society overall optimize how many people know what skills, and facilitate the learning of new skills and the updating of old ones for everyone, thus reducing structural unemployment, and preventing pigeonholing and other forms of professional arthritis.

I would even dare to predict that, given the vague, statistical, cluster-ish nature of this system, people would be encouraged to learn quite a lot more, and on a quite wider range of fields, than they do now, when one must jump through a great many hoops and endure a great many constraints in space and time and coin to get access to some types of educations (and to the acknowledgement of their acquisition thereof).

Acquiring access to the actual sources of knowledge, a library (virtual or otherwise), lectures (virtual or otherwise), and so on, would be a private matter, up to the learner:

  • some of them already have the knowledge and just need to get it certified,
  • others can actually buy the books they want/need, especially if keeping them around as reference will be useful to them in the future,
  • others can subscribe to one or many libraries, of the on-site sort or by correspondence
  • others can buy access to pre-recorded lectures, peruse lectures that are available for free, or enroll in academic institutions whose ostensible purpose is to give lectures and/or otherwise guide students through learning, more or less closely
  • the same applies to finding study groups with whom you can work on a topic together: I can easily imagine dedicated social networks could be created for that purpose, helping people pair up with each other based on mutual distance, predicted personal affinity, mutual goals, backgrounds, and so on. Who knows what amazing research teams might be borne of the intellectual equivalent of OK!Cupid.

A thing that I would like very much about this system is that it would free up the strange conflicts of interest that hamper the function of traditional educational institutions.

When the ones who teach you are also the ones who grade you, the effort they invest in you can feel like a zero-sum game, especially if they are only allowed to let a percentage of you pass.

When the ones who teach you have priorities other than teach (usually research, but some teachers are also involved in administrative functions, or even private interests completely outside of the university's ivory tower1), this can and often does reduce the energy and dedication they can/will allocate to the actual function of teaching, as opposed to the others.

By separating these functions, and the contradictory incentives they provide, the organizations performing them are free to optimize for each: 

  • Testing is optimized for predicting current and future competence in a subject: the testers whose tests are the most reliable have more employers requiring their certificates, and thus more people requesting that they test them
  • Teaching is optimized for getting the knowledge through whatever the heck the students want, whether it be to succeed at the tests or to simply master the subject (I don't know much game theory, but I'd naively guess that the spontaneous equilibrium between the teaching and testing institutions would lead to both goals becoming identical).
  • Researching is optimized for research (researchers are not teachers. dang it, those are very different skill-sets!). However researchers and other experts get to have a pretty big say in what the tests test for and how, because their involvement makes the tests more trustworthy for employers, and because they, too, are employers.
  • And of course entire meta-institutions can spring from this, whose role is to statistically verify, over the long term,
    • how good a predictor of professional success in this or that field is passing the corresponding test, and
    • how good a predictor of passing the test is to be taught by this or that teaching institution.
    • how good a predictor of the test being reliable is the input of these or those researchers and experts
  • It occurs to me now that, if one wished to be really nitpicky about who watches the watchmen, I suspect that there would be institutions testing the reliability of those meta-institutions, and so on and so forth... When does it stop? How to avoid vested interests and little cheats and manipulations pulling an academic equivalent of the AAA certification of sub-prime junk debt in 2008?

Another discrepancy I'd like to see solved is the difference between the official time it is supposed to take to obtain this or that degree, to learn this or that subject, and the actual statistical distribution of that time. Nowadays, a degree that's supposed to take you five years ends up taking up eight or ten years of your life. You find yourself having to go through the most difficult subjects again and again, because they are explained in an extremely rushed way, the materials crammed into a pre-formatted time. Other subjects are so exceedingly easy and thinly-spread that you find that going to class is a waste of time, and that you're better off preparing for it one week before finals. Now, after having written all of the above, my mind is quite spent, and I don't feel capable of either anticipating the effect of my proposed idea on this particular, nor of offering any solutions. Nevertheless, I wish to draw attention to this, so I'm leaving this paragraph in until I can amend it to something more useful/promising.

I hereby submit this idea to the LW community for screening and sound-boarding. I apologize in advance for your time, just in case this idea appears to be flawed enough to be unsalvageable. If you deem the concept good but flawed, we could perhaps work on ironing those kinks together. If, afterwards, this seems to you like a good enough idea to implement, know that good proposals are a dime a dozen; if there is any interest in seeing something like this happen, we can need to move on to proprely understanding the current state of secondary/superior/higher education, and figuring out of what incentives/powers/leverages are needed to actually get it implemented.



1By ivory tower I simply mean the protected environment where professors teach, researchers research, and students study, with multiple buffers between it and the ebb and flow of political, economical, and social turmoil. No value judgement is intended.



EDIT: And now I look upon the title of this article and realize that, though I had comparisons to games in mind, I never got around to writing them down. My inspirations here were mostly Civilization's Research Trees, RPG Skill Scores and Perks, and, in particular, Skyrim's skills and perks tree.

Basically, your level at whatever skill improves by studying and by practising it rather than merely by levelling up, and, when you need to perform a task that's outside your profile, you can go and learn it without having to commit to a class. Knowing the right combination of skills at the right level lets you unlock perks or access previously-unavailable skills and applications. What I like the most about it is that there's a lot of freedom to learn what you want and be who you want to be according to your own tastes and wishes, but, overall, it sounds sensible and is relatively well-balanced. And of course there's the fact that it allows you to keep a careful tally of how good you are at what things, and the sense of accomplishment is so motivating and encouraging!

Speaking of which, several netwroks and consoles' Achievement systems also strike me as motivators for keeping track of what one has achieved so far, to look back and be able to say "I've come a long way" (in an effect similar to that of gratitude journals), and also to accomplish a task and have this immediate and universal acknowledgement that you did it dammit (and, for those who care about that kind of thing, the chance to rub it the face of those who haven't).

I would think our educational systems could benefit from this kind of modularity and from this ability to keep track of things in a systematic way. What do you guys think?

The curse of identity

125 Kaj_Sotala 17 November 2011 07:28PM

So what you probably mean is, "I intend to do school to improve my chances on the market". But this statement is still false, unless it is also true that "I intend to improve my chances on the market". Do you, in actual fact, intend to improve your chances on the market?

I expect not. Rather, I expect that your motivation is to appear to be the sort of person who you think you would be if you were ambitiously attempting to improve your chances on the market... which is not really motivating enough to actually DO the work. However, by persistently trying to do so, and presenting yourself with enough suffering at your failure to do it, you get to feel as if you are that sort of person without having to actually do the work. This is actually a pretty optimal solution to the problem, if you think about it. (Or rather, if you DON'T think about it!) -- PJ Eby

I have become convinced that problems of this kind are the number one problem humanity has. I'm also pretty sure that most people here, no matter how much they've been reading about signaling, still fail to appreciate the magnitude of the problem.

Here are two major screw-ups and one narrowly averted screw-up that I've been guilty of. See if you can find the pattern.

  • When I began my university studies back in 2006, I felt strongly motivated to do something about Singularity matters. I genuinely believed that this was the most important thing facing humanity, and that it needed to be urgently taken care of. So in order to become able to contribute, I tried to study as much as possible. I had had troubles with procrastination, and so, in what has to be one of the most idiotic and ill-thought-out acts of self-sabotage possible, I taught myself to feel guilty whenever I was relaxing and not working. Combine an inability to properly relax with an attempted course load that was twice the university's recommended pace, and you can guess the results: after a year or two, I had an extended burnout that I still haven't fully recovered from. I ended up completing my Bachelor's degree in five years, which is the official target time for doing both your Bachelor's and your Master's.
  • A few years later, I became one of the founding members of the Finnish Pirate Party, and on the basis of some writings the others thought were pretty good, got myself elected as the spokesman. Unfortunately – and as I should have known before taking up the post – I was a pretty bad choice for this job. I'm good at expressing myself in writing, and when I have the time to think. I hate talking with strangers on the phone, find it distracting to look people in the eyes when I'm talking with them, and have a tendency to start a sentence over two or three times before hitting on a formulation I like. I'm also bad at thinking quickly on my feet and coming up with snappy answers in live conversation. The spokesman task involved things like giving quick statements to reporters ten seconds after I'd been woken up by their phone call, and live interviews where I had to reply to criticisms so foreign to my thinking that they would never have occurred to me naturally. I was pretty terrible at the job, and finally delegated most of it to other people until my term ran out – though not before I'd already done noticeable damage to our cause.
  • Last year, I was a Visiting Fellow at the Singularity Institute. At one point, I ended up helping Eliezer in writing his book. Mostly this involved me just sitting next to him and making sure he did get writing done while I surfed the Internet or played a computer game. Occasionally I would offer some suggestion if asked. Although I did not actually do much, the multitasking required still made me unable to spend this time productively myself, and for some reason it always left me tired the next day. I felt somewhat unhappy with this, in that I felt I was doing something that anyone could do. Eventually Anna Salamon pointed out to me that maybe this was something that I was more capable of doing than others, exactly because so many people would feel that ”anyone” could do this and thus would prefer to do something else.

It may not be immediately obvious, but all three examples have something in common. In each case, I thought I was working for a particular goal (become capable of doing useful Singularity work, advance the cause of a political party, do useful Singularity work). But as soon as I set that goal, my brain automatically and invisibly re-interpreted it as the goal of doing something that gave the impression of doing prestigious work for a cause (spending all my waking time working, being the spokesman of a political party, writing papers or doing something else few others could do). "Prestigious work" could also be translated as "work that really convinces others that you are doing something valuable for a cause".

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Modularity, signaling, and belief in belief

19 Kaj_Sotala 13 November 2011 11:54AM

This is the fourth part in a mini-sequence presenting material from Robert Kurzban's excellent book Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind.

In the previous post, Strategic ignorance and plausible deniability, we discussed some ways by which people might have modules designed to keep them away from certain kinds of information. These arguments were relatively straightforward.

The next step up is the hypothesis that our "press secretary module" might be designed to contain information that is useful for certain purposes, even if other modules have information that not only conflicts with this information, but is also more likely to be accurate. That is, some modules are designed to acquire systematically biased - i.e. false - information, including information that other modules "know" is wrong.

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Modularity and Buzzy

24 Kaj_Sotala 04 August 2011 11:35AM

This is the second part in a mini-sequence presenting material from Robert Kurzban's excellent book Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind.

Chapter 2: Evolution and the Fragmented Brain. Braitenberg's Vehicles are thought experiments that use Matchbox car-like vehicles. A simple one might have a sensor that made the car drive away from heat. A more complex one has four sensors: one for light, one for temperature, one for organic material, and one for oxygen. This can already cause some complex behaviors: ”It dislikes high temperature, turns away from hot places, and at the same time seems to dislike light bulbs with even greater passion, since it turns toward them and destroys them.” Adding simple modules specialized for different tasks, such as avoiding high temperatures, can make the overall behavior increasingly complex as the modules' influences interact.

A ”module”, in the context of the book, is an information-processing mechanism specialized for some function. It's comparable to subroutine in a computer program, operating relatively independently of other parts of the code. There's a strong reason to believe that human brains are composed of a large number of modules, for specialization yields efficiency.

Consider a hammer or screwdriver. Both tools have very specific shapes, for they've been designed to manipulate objects of a certain shape in a specific way. If they were of a different shape, they'd work worse for the purpose they were intended for. Workers will do better if they have both hammers and screwdrivers in their toolbox, instead of one ”general” tool meant to perform both functions. Likewise, a toaster is specialized for toasting bread, with slots just large enough for the bread to fit in, but small enough to efficiently deliver the heat to both sides of the bread. You could toast bread with a butane torch, but it would be hard to toast it evenly – assuming you didn't just immolate the bread. The toaster ”assumes” many things about the problem it has to solve – the shape of the bread, the amount of time the toast needs to be heated, that the socket it's plugged into will deliver the right kind of power, and so on. You could use the toaster as a paperweight or a weapon, but not being specialized for those tasks, it would do poorly at it.

To the extent that there is a problem with regularities, an efficient solution to the problem will embody those regularities. This is true for both physical objects and computational ones. Microsoft Word is worse for writing code than a dedicated programming environment, which has all kinds of specialized tools for the task of writing, running and debugging code.

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