Callaway: Good afternoon, and thank you for joining. Hi. I’m David Callaway, I’m editor-in-chief of “USA Today.”
Classroom, libraries, scientific research publications: the digital revolution is shaking up not just the definition of these institutions but their very futures in our world. With us to discuss where all of these are going and what it means when the world has access to all of the knowledge, are five distinguished panelists. Sitting to my farthest left is Ijad Madisch, cofounder and CEO of ResearchGate, the Berlin-based scientific research exchange website. Next to him is José-Marie Griffiths, vice president for academic affairs at Bryant University. Next to me on my right is Rohini Nilekani, chairperson of Arghyam, which is the Indian water projects foundation, and also a leading provider of children’s books across India to help raise education there. To her right is Richard Levin, the CEO of Coursera, the big MOOC company which is shaking up universities and teaching online; former president of Yale for 20 years, so just moved over last year, yes?
Levin: Six months ago.
Callaway: And just to the right of Rick is Tony Marx, president of The New York Public Library. Thanks everybody for joining us.
So Tony, I’m going to start with you. I’m from New York City, I spent many years as a young student in The New York Public Library. I was always a bit intimidated by how big and imposing it was, and in my mind already had all of the world’s knowledge in it, at least to a 17-year old. But now you’re talking about something that is going to be completely different, a ministry of intelligence for the whole world.
How would you—where are you taking the library, and what do you see libraries of the future becoming?
Marx: Okay, small question. The New York Public Library is not just that amazing building with the lions, it’s the largest circulating library system in America. It has 93 buildings, so in every neighborhood, the poorest neighborhoods of New York, so it’s lots of—and you were braver than I. I never entered the main building until I was a grad student.
I thought, you know, “Whoa, that’s much too intimidating.” So I would say that there are three things that we’re after. One is the physical space is still essential. It is the key third space in our society. It’s the one place where all New Yorkers—or anyone—but all New Yorkers can come and do, and find quiet and computers and books, and we’ve got everyone from the homeless and the immigrants who feel more welcome at the library than anywhere to Nobel laureates and what have you. So we have to maintain that, but we’re going to shift the basic 100-year old model from a passive model to an active, proactive model. So we should fill all that physical space, not only with individual study but also with educational programs—after school, English language. We’re the leading non-university partner with Coursera, so if you are doing a Coursera course you can come in and meet with a grad student and help each other, all kinds of things like that in every neighborhood. So physical is not going away; in fact, the fact that you can do everything online—people don’t want to do that. They actually want to be in beautiful spaces and they want to be with other human beings, right? I don’t think that’s changing; in fact, I think it’s becoming more clear.
Second, we have to get everything in the library online for free to anyone in the world. That’s the Holy Grail, that’s what the technology makes possible, right? There are legal problems, financial problems, coordination problems, but imagine a world in which it isn’t just, say, the guild of academics—which Rick and I were once—my wife who is one says I can’t say I am one anymore. You know, if everyone could have access to all the corpus of the world’s information, imagine the creativity that would be unleashed.
Callaway: José-Marie, you are in the academic world also. Access is just the starting point, is it not? Where do you go from there?
Griffiths: Well, access is the starting point, and we do have to remember—we saw in the McKinsey report in our package that a large chunk of the world doesn’t even have access, so they’re not even at point number one. But to me, access is just the beginning. With access you can discover, you can learn, you can know—what does knowing something mean? You can apply the information and knowledge to different circumstances, so access is only part one, and this is what institutions—academic, educational institutions, educational organizations—are in business to help make happen.
Callaway: And so a library as Tony describes, which is—has all this information, is still going to be required, not just for its beauty and its social ramifications, but for librarians, right?
Griffiths: I think librarians are in some respects almost more important than the libraries, because their library is changing, but librarians don’t just exist in libraries, librarians are all over the place, and the skill set that they have to help people move through this hierarchy of how to access and then how to learn and how to know, and digging in for those nuggets, I like to call librarians knowledge prospectors—tying in with the geology theme—they really have a skill set that is going to be—that is—becoming increasingly valuable in today’s world.
Callaway: Ijad, you represent a company that is shaking up for scientific research the institutions just as Coursera is shaking up the university system. You argue—and tell me if I’m wrong—that ResearchGate allows scientists around the world to share stuff almost real time, get papers exchanged and swap information, and there’s a value to that as opposed to the kind of rigid structured system we’ve had for decades, where papers have to get published and they must be accepted, and people could be doing simultaneous bad ideas and not even know it. Tell us how that has caught on.
Madisch: Yeah, so it’s so interesting. When I started ResearchGate in 2008 as a scientist—so my background is I’m a medical doctor—I went to my professor, who was also of course a medical doctor, and I asked him if he could give me a half position as a medical doctor, because I want to build out this social network for scientists, because I think it could change science fundamentally. And he said to me, “Ijad, get this bird shit out of your head. Scientists are not social, this will never change. Get focused on an academic career.”
He is 65 years old, he is the guy in the world with the most publications in the world—he has, like, 2,100 publications, and he is now using ResearchGate actively.
And this one anecdote shows that this is changing, right? I will give you one number. So as a scientist I was doing so many experiments, and 95% of my experiments were negative, failed experiments, right? I could do something—you take a virus, you put it on a cell culture and it’s not growing. And we think, “Aw, damn, it’s not working. What am I doing wrong?” So I’m trying again and again, but you already created a result. And this is something that we have to change in science, that people start thinking about, that everything you create, if it’s methodological—from a methodology point of view, right?—it’s a result. And when I started ResearchGate, within the first 15 months in total two million publications were uploaded to profiles in ResearchGate, and now every four weeks two million publications and data is getting uploaded.
Callaway: And how is that changing the process? I mean, what do the folks who give grants for research think about that?
Madisch: Yeah.So we established—when I started it, roughly a year, year-and-a-half ago, I thought about exactly the same thing, right? Scientists start asking us, “Hey, can I just upload my academic paper into my profile?” We said, “Yes, why not?” And then what they get is a review directly from people, which is in real time, and where the identity of the person is open and transparent, which is a pretty important part in reviews, which nowadays, which right now is also a complicated thing. And then if you look how the scientists then, you know, see that they can get in real time feedback, it’s the most important part in our life, right? There is one thing we cannot buy in this world, is time, and if publishers are taking months of reviewing our articles it’s just waste of time. I don’t believe in a publishing, or in a peer review which is pre-published. It should be published, it should be then peer-reviewed in an open way, in a transparent way, and this is how people started using ResearchGate, so sometimes you just, you know—I always say that we are trying to be this, right? We are just trying to be a communication platform for scientists; what they do with it—this is what they have to decide. And it’s going into a very, very interesting way, so—and we have seen tons of scientific breakthroughs happen, only because the right data was connected to the right people, and then to data and to people again. And I think this will happen even more in the future.
Callaway: Rick, for two decades you led one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world. Now you have jumped over the wall so to speak and are leading one of the operations that promises to shake up the entire university structure. Is it going to be a revolution, or will the two sides learn to work together?
Levin: We’re entirely dependent on the universities for our content. We are not out to destroy universities, and we actually—I think the media has somehow assumed that we are going to replace universities, when in fact we are using universities to leverage their—the greatness of their teachers, to get access so that millions and millions of people can have access to what universities do. We are much more, at this stage, a force multiplier for the university than we are a disruptor. Yes, around the fringes there are some institutions that are importing content from our partner universities and using it in their courses to actually almost exclusively at this point to supplement the work that the importing universities’ teachers are doing.
And do I see—you know, can you imagine in 20 years that there will be some direct replacement of what universities, of what second and third-tier universities might be doing with some of this content imported from first-tier universities? Yeah, it could happen, but the university-age population is 15 percent of our user base. We are teaching people throughout a lifetime, and we’re teaching people, many of whom graduated from college but many of whom have never been near a college and wouldn’t have a chance to be. So we are expanding access, we are taking the average Yale professor, or Princeton professor, or Penn professor and giving that person an opportunity to teach in one course session—let’s say over eight weeks—more students in one sitting than they have taught in their entire career. And that’s happening over and over again.
So what we are—we’re all about access to curated information that’s—Tony’s talking about putting the contents of The New York Public online; the ResearchGate is doing a wonderful thing putting all this publication material online. Some people have to sort of synthesize and say, “What is this? With all this stuff out there what is the state of knowledge? Who’s going to interpret it?” The best teachers, the best professors at the best universities are interpreting all that information for people for free. It’s an amazing I think—a comfort.
Now, it’s not enough. That curation—and that’s why the librarian point is so important—the capacity to give people guideposts for how to sort out all that’s available to them is tricky, and I must say Coursera—yes, you sign up for a course in whatever—ancient Chinese history—you’re going to get the best state-of-the-art thinking about the state of scholarship in ancient Chinese history. Same thing in some newly developing field like machine learning. I mean, you get very highly intelligent curation of what is going on in those fields, but you still don’t have who tells the student out there, you know, “Which course should I take when I really want to develop my skills in a certain area?” So there’s a tremendous need, actually, for interpreters of what’s available to people, because there is obviously lots and lots available to them.
Callaway: That seems to be a broad theme that we all agree on, that the information unrestricted is a good thing, but somebody has to help you along. And Rohini, that brings me to you. You’ve argued that full knowledge, having full knowledge of everything in the world threatens things like serendipity. How does that, you know, where do you see us going with this, if we continue on these paths we’ve just described?
Nilekani: Yeah, I’ll come to that in a minute, but just to familiarize you with some of the work I’ve been doing for the past ten years is, you know, it’s much earlier for all your libraries and universities and scientific sharing platforms. To have even an audience we first need to make sure that all the children in the world get access to joyful discovery. So Pratham books was set up actually to help Indian children, 200 million of whom really may not have access to a good book, and to see how we can rapidly scale up the production and distribution of indigenous, appropriate content for India’s children. And in 10 years we produced ourselves directly only about 300,000 titles in up to 12 languages, but we have had millions of reads.
And I’ll tell you what is common, what everyone is doing here. We took a platform approach. We did creative commons, we made it open-source, we said, “Take this.” We want children to read, we want to prepare them for a lifetime of discovery and joy, give them great stuff to read so they can get into the habit of reading, which is what we are not seeing in many places today, and we said, “We’ve taken an approach where you can take all our content, you can remix it, retell it, sell it, share it, translate it, do whatever you want, but make sure it gets to a child.” And so they are using every possible way to get this content out to the children, and we’ve been quite successful, and now we have a digital platform that is coming out. I’m no longer part of Pratham books, but the next leadership team is doing that.
So just to tell you that if you open this whole thing up and allow everyone to get a—to share on a platform the results that you get can be amazing, and you can set children on, really, a lifetime course, and help them to figure out what they need to learn in this vast ocean of knowledge that we have today.
To come to your question, yes—but that’s never going to be enough, you know? To have access to all the knowledge in the world is never going to be enough because eventually what you do with the knowledge is going to be important.
Callaway: That’s a good question.
Nilekani: And too much knowledge—you know, it’s the first time in the world, in human history, that everyone could potentially have access to the same knowledge at the same time, which can be fantastic, but that’s what I meant about serendipity. I think a lot of life’s happinesses and joys come from the mysterious roads and the pathways that are not defined, and so we need to keep a little bit of that mystery as well. Libraries are fantastic, but sometimes you—if you spend all of your time getting the knowledge, we should remember to make that much time to practice it and let it seep inside and produce the creativity that we need also.
Levin: That’s a good point. Will it make us a better species? [LAUGHTER]
Griffiths: We hope so. Of course there are forces for good and forces for bad, but we hope in the end, that—it’s amazing, the capabilities we have and the speed with which these platforms and applications are being taken up is pretty amazing. And I think we’ve come to a point of discontinuity where all of a sudden something will shift. We’ve come to that tipping point, and I think we will start to see changes. I mean, I think if I look at my life and my career, I’ve seen a lot of changes, but I think fairly incremental, but they are accumulating to something though. And the hope that I have, and the reason that—you know, David was talking about optimism yesterday, or pessimism—and I’m optimistic because of the young people that I see, and the way they look at and the way they deal with the world, and the way they are willing to explore and try things out. That to me is the great hope for the future.
Marx: David, can I just jump in for a second?
Callaway: Yeah, sure.
Marx: So two things. Thinking—listening to this great conversation, so one—I absolutely agree that you could have all the content in the world, but if people don’t have access to it, don’t have, you know—80 to 100 million Americans are in the digital dark, and lots more people elsewhere in the world can’t apply for jobs, they can’t do—and they can’t get at all this information. So we have a real problem that we have to solve before we get to the next. And I certainly agree. If you had everyone wired and you had all the content in the world, you’d need more curation, more help with navigation, librarians, experts, but I do think it will call into question the role of expertise. It will open that up also, because you will also have a crowdsourcing projects, you will also have people who are not part of the guild helping to navigate each other, and it’s going to be messy as we try to figure out where is the right balance of expertise and serendipity, and also what the crowd wants to do, because we won’t be able to do it alone, we just won’t.
Callaway: That’s right. We need more evolution than revolution. One of the things I’ve also noticed in the media industry is as we’ve opened up and provided more information digitally, is that readers have—at least in the U.S.—polarized a little bit, right? They’ve gone to the information that backs up their point of view, right? Even if existing, the other information is out there that may be more correct.
You argued also that there is a danger that too much information will polarize. How would you picture that happening?
Nilekani: I mean, you can see it in all our countries, and certainly in mine, and certainly I see it here as well, that because human beings—of course we must accept our wonderful infallible creatures, thank heavens, it would be very boring otherwise.
But we do have a confirmation bias and a self-serving bias, and we take up information that serves our purposes the best, and we cling onto it very nicely. So there are two opportunities here. One is that people continue to do that, so then I constantly only read what I want to, which will only confirm what I already think I know, and which I think is right, and therefore I become much more of a stickler in my own position spectrum, and everybody else then becomes wrong. That’s happening, unfortunately. But so we must continuously find ways to counter that trend and to counter that instinct, because another thing that’s happening by us knowing so much about so many other people is that it allows me for the first time to say—to think and understand our interconnectedness and that everything that I think and feel, the sum of everything I know is also the sum of so many other people’s thoughts and knowledge, and therefore it’s a continuum.
So both the possibilities exist simultaneously. I think sometimes knowing so much makes us fearful, so we shrink back into our position, which is quite natural, but I’m hoping that the next step from that is opening us up to the interconnectedness, to other points of view, to getting out of your comfort zones. I think that’s the next step.
Callaway: And Ijad, so you have an opportunity to view that from your perch at ResearchGate, where there’s a lot of competing views going on. There’s no sense of curation yet, is there, in terms—it’s really just exchanging views. What do you, what are you witnessing?
Madisch: Yeah, the interesting thing is when I started it my professor said to me, “You know, there will be a lot of bad things happening in your network, right? And people will, you know, attack other people if they discuss scientific issues or research. There is a lot of competition going on. How are you going to curate all of these things?” And I said…
Callaway: The Yahoo message boards of scientific research.
Madisch: Yeah. The only difference is, you know, you can’t—and one of the huge, big decisions at the beginning was to say only, you know—we tried to somehow filter the people who are signing up, where, like, “We are scientists,” right? “So you need some sort of affiliation to a university.” This increases the quality, and basically you—everyone has one identity, you don’t have tons of Harvard addresses, right? You have one Harvard email address.
And this group of people, if you read the comments and you read all the discussions happening, it’s completely opposite as I was expecting it, right? It’s very positive, and people are trying to help each other, even if they don’t know each other. You know, it’s like—we have users from all the countries of the world, and so many collaborations happen now from different countries, and—which I think is even more important—from the different disciplines.
If you think about going back to science, the first scientists we can remember, they were doing science or research in maybe one area, or in different areas as one person, and science became like this, where it’s really spread out, everybody had to get specialized, specialized, specialized. And I hope to get the people closer to each other again, and this is automatically happening in the network without me doing anything, and the curation is done by the community again. It’s all these things happening, which is just happening, and of course we have to build a great product and enable these to the user, but still it’s the community that is doing it, and that is something very interesting.
Callaway: Do you have any success examples?
Madisch: We have. Tons.
Callaway: I mean, something that was solved, or a world problem fixed?
Madisch: Yeah, yeah. Give me an area you want to hear one about, for example Ebola. One example was that a guy from Australia had an idea to analyze text messages, because most of the people in West Africa, in that country—and these countries don’t have Internet, but what they use is text messages, and he said, “Okay, maybe by analyzing the symptoms, who—so the patients could send text messages with their symptoms, and he would, and he can analyze all the text messages and can find new hotspots of outbreaks in areas. And he put that idea on ResearchGate, and then really, like, it happened, a huge discussion, and then in the end he got funded and now he’s doing it.
Another example was from—there was a scientist in Nigeria working on infectious agents, and what he found out was that a baby which he had in this hospital died, and he didn’t know why, so he talked to someone in Italy on the platform, and he said, “Hey, I have blood samples, I would like to send you these blood samples.” So he sent the blood samples to the Italian researchers who work with an American researcher, together with someone from Boston, and they analyzed the blood, and he found a new pathogen which only infects plants. This was the knowledge until then, but it somehow mutated and now infects human beings as well, and now they are analyzing this more and more. And it was—they found each other on ResearchGate, they published this together.
And you know, I can tell you tons of stories. Also another drug which was—it’s sold for one specific disease, and it was, you know, it’s one pharmaceutical company who is selling this drug for a lot of money, and basically someone found out it’s a placebo, right? And from—
They put it on ResearchGate, right? And the last story just happened in the beginning of that year. There was this huge stem cell study which was published in “Nature,” and it was a huge success because it would have ended all the discussion about, you know, to use embryos for reproduction of organs. So what their claim was—it was a Japanese group and a group in Harvard—they claim, “Okay, we can use normal cells, reprogram them into stem cells with a very simple procedure.” And they published it in “Nature,” it was huge in all the press, it was a huge breakthrough. And then someone on ResearchGate started, in a discussion, and said, “Guys, I can’t reproduce this, it’s so hard to reproduce, can anyone help me?” It was, like, very positive in the beginning, but over time it turned out that—so at the same time we were building—it was, like, serendipity—at the same time we were building a feature which enables open review of research, so in the end he used this tool in order to, say, give clear data that this is not reproducible. And then a day later the “Wall Street Journal” took the story, they wrote about it, exclusive, and in the end the studies had to be retracted. Unfortunately—and that’s the sad end of the story—the Japanese professor committed suicide because then it came out that this was all fake.
Callaway: Wow. So not only does it help solve problems, it helps expose that.
Callaway. Okay. Rick, what’s the most startling thing you’ve—most surprising thing you’ve realized since you’ve joined Coursera in terms of what you expected when you left Yale?
Levin: The most startling thing is I had never failed a course before, but I failed retirement.
I got sucked in because I thought the mission was so inspiring, so important that I’m there. You know, there’s a—what I find really exciting and a little surprising is that even in this amazingly kind of creative culture that we have out here in the innovation center of the world that, you know, we’ve got 150 employees, and I think every single person is there because of the social mission. I mean, it’s a for-profit company, everybody would like to get rich while their doing it, but I think people chose Coursera over other places because they really care about what we are doing, and that, you know, I thought that was pretty neat. I wouldn’t have completely expected that, but even the engineers are there because rather than go to a social media company or something—all very worthy, I’m not trying to put anything down—just they want to be at Coursera because it’s educating people.
Callaway: What percent of the people you are educating are North Americans?
Levin: So about a third North America—U.S. and Canada, about a third are other advanced economies or developed economies, and about a third developing countries, and so it’s very evenly distributed. And like I said, it’s throughout the age distribution, it’s surprisingly pervasive throughout the age groups and demographics. Now, yes—most people that are over 25 are college educated, that are using our platform, but you would expect that. This is access to the highest level college information, but you know, if 20 percent of our people have never been to college, that’s 20 percent of 10 million. That’s still a lot of people who are getting access to high-level education for the first time.
Callaway: Tony, you talked about how The New York Public Library is working with Coursera. How do you envision in your library of the future helping Rohini solve a problem like no access to books for children in India?
Marx: Well, when we—because we are the largest public library in America and we are where the publishing industry is headquartered, and because we have lots of friends in the author community, we can break some logjams and make some deals. So we got e-books allowed to be lent by libraries by all the commercial publishers—that was about two years ago. And then we said we want those to be offered nationally, and now we’re talking to the World Bank about what that would look like in developing countries, where the possibility of a physical library is, you know, is not going to happen, and probably that would be a silly thing to do. It would be, like, just jump over the landlines and go right to cell phones, right? Same idea. And of course the revenue that a publisher would lose by having books lent in Botswana is so small that it should be possible to make a deal, and whether Botswana ends up paying for it or the World Bank we will see. But again, it’s content, but it has to be connected to a global collaboration on curation, on discussion, and you know, this is all going to mix together, right? And institutions are going to be changed and threatened I think in some ways, and I don’t think that’s entirely bad, right?
Callaway: Are you encouraged by the way this is going?
Nilekani: Yeah. No—I can—this is the future. We have to be able to get digitally to people what they would not be able to get physically, and we have to make it in such a—I hope—in such a way that—I hate to use this word—but you know, there should not be one-directional flows of information. So it cannot be just the English reading—the English elite that is then sending stuff down to the rest of the world. We have to have an architecture by which this world—our world—and I’m including myself in that—also is able to receive. So because—so I don’t see so much of that architecture in place yet, but I guess the first stage is to give access to those who don’t have access, and then to create the right architecture so that information flows always in multi-directions. Otherwise you are going to get a new form of—well, dare I use the last-century word ‘imperialism?’—a knowledge imperialism of a different kind. So it has to be architected right this time.
Callaway: Speaking of multidirectional flows, why don’t we take this time to open this to questions? Who’s got the first one?
Audience: Actually I’d like to jump right on the point you just made, because it seems to me—and also to the point that Tony made—that the other direction may be the easiest one to architect, because if you want to move something from Mexico to the U.S. or India to Argentina, there have not been economics for there at all, those books were never being translated before, and once you get over that—so you are not actually attacking anyone’s economics to be able to move them, it’s typically been more in the other direction.
You know, do you see—how would you imagine—or actually maybe between the two of you I’d like to hear from Tony—how do you negotiate those deals with the publishing houses to change rights which they’ve typically been slow to do?
Marx: So I’m not entirely proud of the answer to this, which is libraries have some friction associated with them. A third of New York depends on the public library to be able to read, and they accept some inconvenience. If I want to read a book, I buy it, right? I don’t go to the library, I want to keep it. I don’t want to have to return it in two weeks. The friction in effect works as a means test. I’m not an economist, but I learned something. And so you get to separate the market and protect the revenues of the industry, right? And in fact they’re selling more because the library’s buying licenses and word of mouth from the library helps to spread, right? Those kinds of—I mean, the question of how much friction is the right friction is fair to impose. It partly depends on how much revenue you have to spend, right? If the library became so easy to—right?—to borrow from, (a) we’d probably put the publishing industry out of business instantly, because no one would ever buy another book again, right? And that’s not in anybody’s interest, right? Or the taxpayers of New York would be subsidizing, you know, hugely, people who don’t need the subsidy, right? And diverting resources that would be inefficient. And so we have to find those right deals, but I think that is possible at this point. And again, as it was said, the technology is there, right? So the rest is, you know, figuring out how to work together.
Kao: Thanks. I’m John Kao, I’m the CEO of a company called EdgeMakers, which is focused on building innovation capability in young people. So recently I was in Colombia, and I was invited to go to Medellin, which we associate with the drug cartel and Pablo Escobar, and they took me actually to Pablo Escobar’s neighborhood. I was expecting an armored car, but instead it was a cable car, it was a delightful ride, and the community was absolutely delightful. And I said, “Why did this happen?” And they said, “Well, it’s because we put in a network of libraries,” and in fact the strategy in Colombia for urban renewal has been placing libraries in strategic locations in the city, and moreover, redefining the role of a librarian to be kind of a social change agent with tremendous emotional intelligence and diagnostic skills and so forth, to make new stuff happen.
So I guess my question to the panel is how do you see this notion of libraries as vehicles of social change? Is it a model that could work in other countries? If so, what should a library be able to do? I mean, should it be a classroom, a maker space, a community center? And what should librarians be qualified to do in that context?
Callaway: Do you want to take that?
Griffiths: Sure. The answer is yes.
Librarians do. Libraries have played these multiple roles. In the United States they are playing increasingly interesting roles in communities. They are places where communities can come together, almost get to know themselves as communities. It’s more than just access to content, the materials, the books, the other materials, it’s everything else that goes in there. It’s a place that’s always been seen as a fairly neutral—I’m talking about public libraries—been seen as a fairly neutral place. So immigrants have been able to go there and get there one piece of ID, which is a library card, because they feel comfortable going there. Libraries have opened themselves up—and people prepare their taxes. I mean, you can go and get your taxes prepared. They’ve become job training centers. So whatever the community needs, the library potentially could play that public, civic, social role. And we have—I think research libraries are a little bit different, but I do think we’ve seen in many countries—and I think in the technologically enabled world, where we have access to electronic materials, the technology is there to provide the kind of social environment and social interaction that we’ve just heard described in ResearchGate. So you don’t have to have a physical place for people to come together, they can come together for a virtual place.
Marx: If you leave aside the research libraries—that’s a slightly—they’re coming together because of technology, but there is still a distinction. If you think about neighborhood libraries, right? I do think that it’s crucial to recognize that they are essential particularly for poor people, right? Who don’t have they can’t—people who can’t spend $6.00 to hang out in Starbucks, who don’t have computers at home, who can’t afford the books or the digital subscriptions, right? So when we are—we are teaching coding classes in the South Bronx and Harlem. Never happened before, right?
Audience: In libraries?
Marx: In libraries, sure. The—because the industry is looking to diversify and wants talent, and we’re there. Right? We already have the facilities and the brand and the—or we’re doing Coursera—we’re going to try, it’s going to be hard—in some of those neighborhoods, because Rick’s—I think one of the challenges of Coursera is it’s harder for people who don’t have a, you know, a formal background in education, maybe don’t have economic resources, and yet it should be a great tool, but they need to have a way to support each other and come together, the blended learning model. And again, we can do that. I do think it’s worth noting that the library has always been particularly essential and will be essential even in the access and technology fronts of protecting people who don’t have resources otherwise. So in that sense it is biased as a civic space towards those people, but it’s not exclusive to them.
Nilekani: Yeah, it’s—
Callaway: Go ahead.
Nilekani: Sorry—just very quickly. In some sense the work I’ve been doing subsequently is a kind of—just trying to pay back my tribute to the American public library system, including The New York Public Library. When we had very little cash and we were here for seven years on my husband’s work in the ‘80s, I spent as much time as I could in the public library. It was free, and I got most of my education there. It was like a Coursera at that time.
And—honestly! And it’s really—and I saw that real diversity of American life in the public libraries, and I sincerely hope that no matter how much digitization comes about, the cultural space that is the public library never goes away.
Callaway: Next question.
Janow: Thank you. Merit Janow, dean of the School of International Affairs at Columbia, and we’re introducing our first online degree program with Americans, Brazilians, probably Indians, and Chinese, and I guess the question I have been puzzling on—and I think you might have perspective around this—is how do we maximize the externalities to the university of developing this capacity, pedagogically, intellectually? And I wonder if you have some thoughts around that.
Levin: The universities get a lot of value from their participation in online education, I think. Now, you’re talking about probably a closed course model with selective admissions. Of course we’ve found that—some of our partner universities find that half the throughput for those courses on which they are making revenue is—it comes from somebody previously taking a Coursera course and learning about the program.
So we are literally, truthfully the best lead generator that universities have discovered, in terms of to their higher-priced programs. So that’s a very palpable value return on investment that universities make in putting those courses out there for free, or virtually for free on Coursera.
Brand recognition, name, search engine, optimization—try a topic that you think is of high relevance today and go onto Google, and odds are not low that you’ll find on the first page a Coursera course comes up. So for example if you want machine learning, there’s Wikipedia and Coursera. Financial markets—seventh entry on the Google page is our course on financial markets that Bob Shiller at Yale teaches. Data science? First entry—before Wikipedia—is at Johns Hopkins, a sequence on Coursera. So we’re getting traffic, we’re an aggregator, and that’s drawing eyeballs to you. So Stanford, for example, told us that they had 2 million learner emails for online education. We’ve provided them, interestingly, with 2.1 million emails from Stanford courses on Coursera. So those are some of the—if that’s what you are saying, if I’m answering the right question—what value do universities get?—they get quite a bit, actually.
Janow: Thank you, those are very practical suggestions—
Janow:—of attracting attention. I’m pondering though a little bit more in terms of intellectual spillovers to other parts of—you know, as a knowledge creator—that’s what we’re really all about, is knowledge creation, and if we’re going to invest so heavily in an online, you know, it has to have positive externalities at home that are beyond economic—
Levin: So intellectual?
Janow: So I’m just continuing to puzzle on making sure that what we’re doing is succeeding.
Levin: Well, I mean, I can answer that a couple ways. First there’s the research on pedagogy that you are able to do online with large data—with essentially large datasets of learners now that really helps improve the curriculum at home, as well as online. So people who have been teaching courses for years without realizing that certain questions they’ve been asking are actually not—are really getting noise as answers, because they are poorly worded. You find that out very fast if you look at the data on the internet. So there are some practical consequences for one’s teaching, I think.
There’s also the possibility of using the learner population out there for research purposes, and it depends on the field—that wouldn’t be as practical probably in chemistry as it might be in social science, but you know, you have now access to maybe 10,000 people in your course, you can do some—you can do randomized experiments, you can do all kinds of things to learn from them.
Callaway: All right, another question.
Cook: Maybe because we are in the information technology industry, there’s a real focus on intelligence as defined by—oh, I’m Scott Cook—intelligence as defined by knowledge, or information. What about all the other forms of intelligence—the skills, the how to write or analyze or code, how to speak and persuade, how to lead? Where—how are you and your efforts—or where do you see bright lights in helping humans grow in those dimensions?
Levin: I could do that one too, but all the answers to those questions are in the books in Tony’s library.
Callaway: But that’s a good point—so the social skills that you can’t get from an online course or in a library.
Audience: Learning leadership from a book is like learning golf from a book.
Callaway: That’s the problem with my game.
Levin: Why do so many business leaders write leadership books? Is it for vanity?
Marx: So I do think in the—increasingly people are coming to libraries, for instance, for collaboration—right?—rather than individual study. They can do that on screen, they can do that at home, they can do that in the library, and in that collaboration they are learning various of the skills you described. I would say another skill that you didn’t list that I think is essential is learning to live across the differences of this country—or even better, of the world. And if the library is a place where people come—I sort of think of it as like the subway—I know that sounds strange. It’s the one—those are the two places where all New Yorkers mix, right? And if you add to that the sort of understanding that comes from reading more diversely and having access to all that information, that’s also a crucial social skill of learning how to live with each other, right? And to respect each other, and I actually think civic space—whether it’s subway or library—is crucial for that skill as well.
But there are some skills that we are probably not teaching, and maybe we should.
Callaway: I put in all this information, and I’m throwing this to you, Ijad. I always thought of, you know, scientists as a very competitive group, right? Keeping their information quiet, fighting on different continents to see who discovered something first. But you’re saying that this has really unleashed something beyond that, a sense of sharing and promoting things for each other, so there are some skills that can be developed, or at least understood better by this type of sharing.
Madisch: Yeah. Skills, it’s a very, very important topic. Like, one big learning we had when I started it, I thought that connecting scientists with their disciplines is the main thing to do, but it never—it didn’t work. Like, people did not write comments, they did not share anything—it was very strange, it was—“Damn, why didn’t people—” like, if I am a viral researcher, why don’t I share anything with them or write a comment to their question? Then over time there were, like, groups of people talking more and interacting more, and it came down that they were connected by their skills, not by their research area. It was a pretty interesting finding.
Then we rebuilt the product—everything around skills, because if you think about it more and more, it’s also logic, right? Like, if you for example are doing DNA sequencing, in the end it doesn’t matter if you sequence a virus, a bacteria, or a human being, it’s a technique. And the problems you are facing, it’s a problem you are facing in all these different areas, so connecting them through their skills is a pretty important part.
And this whole competitiveness—I’m not sure how this came—like, if you decode this, how people—like, usually—as you know scientists are very isolated, they are trying to keep their stuff in their own four walls. But why is it like that, right? Is it because of religions? You know, like hundreds of years ago as a scientist if you would go out and present your ideas maybe you would get killed, right? So maybe this shaped our behavior—how to share with others, right?
But now being more open, giving them—and that’s the point—giving them a chance to publish immediately the results—so that’s something that is in the current world, it’s bad, right? If you submit your paper to a journal it takes a couple of months until it’s getting reviewed. Some political decisions also could result in a delay of the publishing of this article, so it’s a huge disadvantage for the scientist. So giving them something where the speed is—you know, I’m really obsessed with speed, because I think this is something where people just have to be—you know, we cannot wait, yeah? And if you give them a way where people can give feedback immediately, then of course it’s in their interest to do so, because they want to say, “Okay, I was the first person who found x, y, and z,and I think that will change also the behavior of being competitive in the future.
Griffiths: Well, I think it varies by field in science. There are some fields in science that have been very open for a long time. I’m told by an upper atmospheric physicist who thinks sharing data—it comes down off satellites and they share it worldwide, and then they collaborate on what the results mean. And there are other areas where they are not quite ready to make their data and results available until they’ve really made sure that it’s, you know, up to snuff, and it’s ten years later and they’ve been working on things.
But the push towards public access and open access publishing and open data, and the funding agencies now moving in that direction is going to create a much more open world. The World Bank recently co-sponsored Open Access Week, and we had—the opening session was focused on Generation Open. And the good news is it’s going to be the young generation of people who are going to push the institution—all kinds of institutions—to make change, because they want to collaborate and work in these new and interesting ways.
Callaway: Question over there.
Audience: How are overpriced research publications reacting to ResearchGate?
Madisch: I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?
Audience: How are the overpriced journals—I’m talking about the journals—how are they reacting? What’s their—
Madisch: What do you think?
Nilekani: They love you.
Madisch: No, of course, you know, it’s—yeah, I could talk about this for hours, yeah? But it’s of course, it’s a problem for them, right? Because the system—how does it work right now? I always called it the researcher’s life cycle: you, as a scientist you do research, you create data, you use the data to publish something in order to get money—grants—in order to do research again. And part of the cycle—which is maybe not really a part—is this publishing part, right? Where you publish in a journal. Which, if you go back, if you look at the three things that a journal did in the past was distribution, quality control, and—what was the third one? Distribution, quality control, and reputation. Right? And these are the three things, and if you look at it, quality control—we know that the peer review is not perfect, and it’s really far from perfect, right? Distribution—how is content distributed today? It’s not the journals anymore. What’s good, like, 100 years ago you had to take your horse, putting your paper on it and riding, and then going to Göttingen … right? And then putting it into the library. All these things changed, right? So the third thing—reputation. This is the only thing right now, is the thing—why the journals are still alive, is the reputation, because as a scientist you think, “Okay, if I publish in ‘Nature,’ it’s cooler because I have a high impact factor, and then I get a lot of money for this again, I can get money in order to do research again.”
So I think these things will change, and they are going to change, and they are changing already. So the publishers have to find a new—they have to do something new, right? It cannot be this whole, “Oh, I’m a publisher, and doing these things that I have done in the past,” they have to be something new. And if you look most of the publishers have digital units now, they are doing, they are trying to, like—before I started ResearchGate “Nature” did their own social network for science. It never took off, and I always ask myself why didn’t it take off, right? Because if I would be “Nature,” you have the reputation to build this, but maybe people want something independent, something new, right, which is not connected to an institution basically who has a specific interest why they are doing it. So they have to find new ways to survive. If not then I think publishers won’t be—like, scientific publishers—won’t be here for a long time.
Callaway: What is the business model of ResearchGate?
Madish: So that’s a cool thing. We are not about content, and not about selling content, so one thing we have is recruiting. So you know, the positions, like, job positions—it’s a very transparent market, so you can post your job offers, like for example NASA or Harvard. So okay—“We are looking for a scientist with this skill set,” and you can put this into our system and we recommend this to the right scientist.
The next thing we are going to work on will be conferences, so scientific conferences to enable them to market their conference to the right audiences. And the third thing—which is one which I would really like to do soon, but research-wise you can’t do it—it’s a marketplace for scientific products and scientific services. So imagine—you know, we have so many devices in the world lying around everywhere, right? If you go into a lab they are—institutions we have, like, tons of devices, and other institutions, they don’t, but you don’t need the device. You don’t have to pay a million dollars to buy the device. You could just say, “Okay, I want to have one sequence. I want to get that sequence by University X.” And so I want to build a marketplace where you can offer—where everyone can offer their services and products they have, including the biotech world and the biotech—the corporate world, which I also want to change from thinking—into one place where you can get the feedback about these things in addition. And this is only three things I want to make money with.
We are already doing money with the recruiting, that’s going already pretty well. We started that a couple of months ago, and it’s taking off, so yeah. But all my investors basically don’t care about when we are making money, that’s something like—last year Bill Gates invested, and of course you know he is rich, so, you know, he doesn’t care, we don’t need the money fast.
So why it’s for us important because we can build first the product before we monetize. And because it’s important to do this first.
Levin: That’s great.
Callaway: We have time for a few more questions.
Metcalfe: Thank you. My name is Robyn Metcalfe, I’m with the University of Texas at Austin, and I have one comment and one question. So the comment is back to your question about externalities and how you would use online courses. By the way, how many people in the room have taken an online Coursera or a TedX? Interesting. So we all as academics play around with that, our curiosity, you know, a little bit. So one of the courses—I’m a food historian—and so I took a course trying to find something on this topic, and it’s always problematic for something else—we’ll discuss that with the question—but one thing that I found that was really interesting was that in the coursework online there was this one course that I had found that had to do with food markets and food marketing, and the class at one point in time was all sharing food prices in all of their cities around the world, so there was sort of an instant sort of real time comment about what was going on in markets price-wise, which I thought was—you don’t get that in class, okay? You know, from Dubai—I mean, all over the world. So I think there really is a great potential there for that kind of, you know, building that into the class.
The question I have has to do with interdisciplinary education, because I think universities are really broken in that way. As a food historian I have an appointment in the History Department, in the School of Architecture, in the College of Natural Sciences, because they don’t know what to do with a food historian. So especially if you want to see your scholarship or topic as across a bunch of disciplines, you can’t even build an academic career on that basis, because if you are in the history—if you are an historian your tenure will be based on your writing, but if you are in the science department that doesn’t matter. So the system itself doesn’t really nurture and encourage that sort of path of interdisciplinary thinking, and even in conferences like this, or whatever, you just know that the innovative ideas come from the intersection of normally unrelated disciplines. So in really moving forward some innovative thinking, how do we get our universities and our system to really support and really walk the talk about interdisciplinary education?
Callaway: Hm. Who wants to take that one?
Levin: Well, I’ll just make—it’s more of a comment than a question I think—but I think you are right, universities don’t do the greatest job in creating the right kind of incentive environment for interdisciplinary work, because often they’ll throw resources at it, they’ll say they want to do it, but when the decisions about your academic survival are on the table it’s departments that do the voting, and you have to satisfy the disciplines. It’s tough to be truly interdisciplinary in that research setting.
That said, you know, one way that strong interdisciplinary scholars have survived is by writing things that appeal to the public, and then they have reputations that would make it embarrassing for the university not to promote them and not to advance their work, and the online teaching can be another vehicle for that. There’s a lot of—such people are inherently interesting, and so putting good examples of interdisciplinary courses onto some of these digital platforms I think could be a way to help the people establish their reputations, secure their livelihood.
Griffiths: Yeah, if I could just add to that. I do think that it is sometimes hard for institutions to think about structures that are needed. It’s hard to put structure into place, because adding structure tends to add costs, like adding a corner in a building. Every time you add a corner it adds cost. It also adds cost for the individuals involved, because there has to be, first of all, there is a sort of intellectual overhead in working with people across disciplines, and getting to understand the vocabulary and the mode of inquiry in different disciplines, so you can become truly multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, or whatever term you want to use.
So I think it’s hard, and I do believe that, you know, most institutions are trying to make moves, but they are trying to find what makes sense for them, for the mix of strengths that they have, strong interdisciplinary activity is based on strong disciplines. So that’s important, because I do think sometimes people will worry about, you know, we don’t want to dilute the individual disciplines in order to create the cross disciplinary activity. But I do see institutions saying, “Well, we’ll create some here, and we’ll create some here.” You know, “We’ll pick an area and say we’re going to be strong and encourage interdisciplinary activity in that area.” But the dilemma ultimately are those existing structures for decision making in terms of hiring tenure promotion, where do you belong, what’s your home, who do you affiliate, who determines, you know, the quality of your work and your career track, so those are very difficult to overcome.
Callaway: I would love to take a course in food history.
Metcalfe: Yes, it’s very interesting.
Callaway: We’ve run out of time, unfortunately. I want to thank all of the panelists for a really fascinating discussion, thank you very much.