Many of you may know I am leaving MobLab and headed back to Florida State. In this final post before the transition, I want to stroll down memory lane and recount how I joined MobLab. To tell this story, we must go back to Fall 2008. I was in a Research Scientist position at FSU and also taught some classes. One class was a special topics course, taught in the economics department, called the “Economics of Compassion”. The course was co-designed and co-taught with Mark Isaac. That semester I was approached to teach a special section of that course to the Social Justice Living Learning Community (SJLLC) at FSU — about 30-40 self-selected students with a passion and desire to make the world a better place. The folks at the SJLLC understood that, if you want to change the world, you better start with learning how it works. That’s where economics comes in. My job was to put parameters on people’s utopias.
In that class, we covered a wide-variety of topics related to poverty in the United States and the developing world: the history of charity and public assistance in the United States as well as philosophical conceptions of justice. It was a fun class. Because they were freshmen, and didn’t have any background in economics, I made an extra effort to do activities and experiments to make the economics more relatable to students.
Fast forward to 2011. Walter Yuan (MobLab CEO) was visiting the FSU campus and looking to demo MobLab. Since the SJLLC class was about to cover our unit on price controls, I had them participate in double auctions. One with price controls, the other without. It was one of the most memorable educational experiences I ever had. The baseline showed a smooth convergence the equilibrium prediction. The double auction with the price ceiling was chaos. Once the frenetic burst of trades stopped, buyers started yelling at sellers, “Post some asks!” and “Why aren’t you selling anything? We’re posting bids, why aren’t you doing anything?” The sellers of course shot back, “If we sell [at the max price] we will lose money!” It was chaos! I remembered that visceral reaction, the frustration, and the silence as all students waited with no trades happening … tick-tock, tick-tock, until the clock timed out. They felt the shortage. Students would stop me on campus (sometimes years later) saying they remembered playing that game.
Around the same time, I was listening to an archived episode of my favorite podcast, EconTalk. This podcast featured an interview with Milton Friedman. Because of the recent SJLLC experience with the double auction, one particular exchange stood out:
Russ: I feel we’ve made some progress [on price controls]. I’d like to think it’s because of economic education, obviously coupled with a great deal of experience . . . [But, these recent examples of not using the price mechanism] seem to be a paradoxical pattern.
Milton: There’s nothing paradoxical about it . . .A large fraction of the population had personal experiences with [price controls] . . .Twenty or thirty years from now, after there is nobody living who had experience with price controls, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it come back again.
This was a remarkable insight. Once I write it aloud here it will seem plain, but, at the time it really was eye opening: There is an important role for experience and feeling in learning. This made sense. In high school, we learned about the Rhetorical Triangle. Every good argument relies on three components: logic, emotional appeal, and credibility. These were like three legs on a stool. If you only have one or two out of the three, the stool is less useful. My own lessons suffered because they lacked that experiential component. To this day, I think the best games are the ones that frustrate students. For example, people remember being the sucker who chose Cooperate in the Prisoner’s Dilemma when their partner chose Defect. Beyond emotional appeal, experiments are fundamentally for theory testing and help to give reason for confidence or skepticism about a theory. This helps with credibility.
Later that year I would join the PhD program at FSU. Over those years I still kept in contact with people at MobLab and when I was on the market in Fall 2015 Walter invited me to dinner with future MobLab colleagues and our advisor, Al Roth. It was a terrific dinner and I could tell that MobLab was a family and had a genuine vision for helping to change education. A couple months later, my wife and I decided it was best to take the plunge with MobLab. What a ride! The team has been great and I’m proud of how we’ve developed the product in the past two years. While there are too many things to list, here are a few highlights:
There is a lot to look back on and be proud about. MobLab is going to continue to do great things. Incidentally, MobLab is hiring for economics, data science, sales, and account management. If you have good students to refer to MobLab send them our way. MobLab has been successful for two reasons (1) The people on the team are smart, hardworking, and really care about what they’re doing, and (2) MobLab represents the future of education. What do I mean? In our research lives, we develop models and design experiments (or think about ways to get experiments out of observational data). We are engaged in theory testing. But, we don’t engage students much in this scientific method or interplay between theory, experiment, and data. Many instructors are starting to see this is an area we can improve. That’s why MobLab will grow. Not only that, experiments are also fun! Not just for students, but, for us teachers too. They create an energy around learning that’s contagious.
Given all my glowing statements about MobLab, why am I leaving? I miss the classroom. I miss seeing the light bulb go off for students and see them get passionate about economics. Also, I miss doing research and there are some projects I’m very excited to start. I love MobLab and I am grateful for the past couple years and looking forward to using it in my own classrooms for years to come.