TLDR: We piloted an intro to EA fellowships where people don’t have to do readings at home, similar to how AIS university groups are doing AGISF with in-session readings. My very rough guess is that it is probably not preferable to the at-home reading version, but has some advantages and could be used in some situations. Pros and cons, as well as potential uses, are discussed.
This is the 4th post in a sequence called Experiments in Local Community Building. You might be interested in reading Onboarding students to EA/AIS in 4 days with an intensive fellowship and Consider splitting your fellowships into two parts to increase sign-ups as well.
What, how, and why:
The age-old question of fellowship facilitators: how can you get people in your group to read the materials before the session? One solution to this problem is to make them read it during the session itself.
Inspired by how some groups are running AGISF, we made our EA intro sessions longer from 1-1.5 hours to 2 hours and readjusted the curriculum so that people can do the readings during the session - spending ~1 hour on silent reading, and ~1 hour on discussions, with ~20-minute intervals.
You can find our adjusted curriculum (with notes for reasoning transparency) here and printing materials here, but I really don’t recommend just jumping ahead and changing your fellowship format to in-session readings. Apart from some of the obvious benefits, it has drawbacks as well, and after trying it a few times, I think I personally have a preference for at-home readings for EA fellowships, although, for our future fellowships, we will try to accommodate particularly busy people to take part in an in-session reading group.
Here I will outline the Pros and Cons of in-session reading fellowship compared to at-home readings as I see them. Please note that although we have run this format a few times, most of what I will write here is still speculation using common sense, as we just don’t have enough data to draw strong conclusions. I will try to state my confidence in each of the claims.
I also expect there could be plenty of community builders who would draw different conclusions, so I encourage you to comment on this post!
People don’t have to prepare for a session
The obvious advantage is people don’t have to prepare for the session, and you don’t have those awkward situations where one or more of the participants can’t really contribute to the conversation.
Slightly better attendance (maybe?)
You could also speculate that this will mean that people are also more likely to show up, as they won’t skip the session due to not having time to read the materials beforehand. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough data to say anything confidently about this, but our subjective experience was that although this might help a bit, people will skip sessions for other reasons, so you shouldn't expect this to solve all problems relating to attendance.
You can run intensive fellowships
I have written about the pros and cons of intensive fellowships here. I think it might make sense to do a zero-homework version for the intensive week, but I’m not fully sure. I recommend reading the linked post and making up your own mind!
You get to cover way less materials
The intro fellowship is a lot of reading, I think the required reading for the first 4 sessions is around 300 pages. If you do the readings in session, you will cover much less. I also think there is some additional value to people reading at home, as in that case, they can go on “clicking journeys” that lead from one article to the other. Of course, you could argue that they can do that anyway if they care enough.
Printing is inconvenient
We actually printed out some copies, it was expensive, heavy, and inconvenient, so I think it would have been better just to ask people to bring their laptops from the beginning. That said, there is still value to printing maybe 1-3 copies, so you can accommodate participants if they can’t bring a laptop. If you do print some copies, I would recommend not binding all the sheets into one big “book”, but putting the readings in a big ring binder and numbering them such as Week x reading y, etc., this way you can more easily swap readings as the intro curriculum evolves, as well as replace damaged sections.
Feedback from participants and facilitators
The feedback we got from participants was pretty mixed, we generally found that for groups who did the readings in-session wished that they could have more time for discussion and that they could do the readings at home. For groups that did at-home readings, people often weren’t able to prepare and wished we had in-session readings. Oh well :)
My sense is that facilitators generally preferred the at-home reading version, as that way you don’t have to worry that much about not being able to cover all the readings in time. They also told me that when the discussion is really good it’s always a bit unfortunate to have to go back to readings - I guess balancing this can be tricky. If you would like to get a feel for it you can read our facilitator reflections of in-session reading groups here (just note that some of them are AIS groups).
The only strong conclusion that I would draw is that if your group seems very motivated, consider asking them if they want to do at-home readings.
When should you use at-home vs. in-session readings?
Regardless of whether it’s an EA/AIS (or any other) course, here is a general rule of thumb I would recommend at the moment:
1. Generally go with in-session readings if the materials are technical, so people will understand them better if they get to talk them through right after reading.
Example 1: Weekly AGISF course for people who are not familiar with AIS
2. Generally go with at-home readings, if the readings are accessible enough that people can recollect the main arguments pretty well.
Example 2: Weekly intro to EA fellowship for people not familiar with EA
3. If the readings are difficult, but your group members are knowledgeable and motivated enough to be able to have a high-fidelity discussion about them, then I think having at-home readings is preferable.
Example 3: The most motivated participants after finishing AGISF come together to do the 201 Course. Everyone carefully reads the materials at home and writes down some of their confusions to discuss during the sessions.
Example 4: A group of people who regularly read LessWrong come together to do AGISF
4. If for whatever reason you can’t expect your participants to do the readings at home, then consider using in-session readings.
Example 5: You get to engage policymakers about existential risk and you want to be conscious of their time, so if you want them to read some materials, you do it during the session.
Should you switch your intro to EA fellowship to in-session readings?
My tentative conclusion is no but with some caveats. If you feel like your participants are really motivated to learn about EA, but just simply don’t have the time, then I think it makes sense to accommodate them.
On the other hand, if you feel like people don’t care enough, to prepare (or even show up), then I think it might make sense to just disband a given discussion group.
Strictly speaking, this is not the topic of this post, but I thought this is worth mentioning that in the past I have often felt that I really have to make sure that each group finishes the program. And if people are not showing up, then I must be doing something wrong. After all, successful groups have a lot of people finishing the intro fellowship, right?
Of course, you should make sure that facilitators get proper training, however, some fellowship groups never get off the ground, even if the facilitator is doing a reasonable job. In such cases, I think it is okay to ask the question of whether it’s worth continuing the group, especially if the 1-2 most motivated participant(s) can join another group.
Things we might try in the future:
In the future, I want to test whether it would work to have in-session readings for the intro fellowships but have each attendee read a different text and summarise it for the group for discussion. This way you would get to cover more materials and maybe get people to pay closer attention while reading. I can think of several pitfalls of this approach too though, so I’m not sure if it’s worth the time to modify the curriculum. We will see, I will write an update if we end up piloting this.
Another thing that would be nice to try is having a “hybrid” version where participants are expected to do readings at home, but you also do some during the session. This way if someone doesn’t have time to prepare, then they can still contribute to the discussions but you have the benefit of getting motivated people to read more.
Overall I’m glad we ran this experiment and learnt a lot from it, will might end up using a mixed version in the future, where particularly busy people are accommodated with in-session readings. If you have any questions you can reach out to me at email@example.com. If you want to run your own in-session readings fellowship please keep the downsides in mind, and coordinate with your mentor!
Thanks to Milán Alexy for reviewing the draft of this post.
Arguably people can use their phones, but I would recommend giving them paper instead, as the screen is small for some of the graphs, and people just get more distracted with messages, etc.
Totally not what we did. Totally not regretting it. Yup.
I had to ask ChatGpt what these are called in English x) In case you are not sure, these are the things I mean: