Yes, you read that right. Contributing editor Vlada Limic continues her series of columns on workSHOPS, WORKshops and a neologism: learnering

Workshops (by which I mean workshops) will be organized as long as there is available funding for them. The reader is welcome to ask if this is a chicken-and-egg problem, but I wish to move on. My last column described a particularly simple workshop format, which will be called learnering here. Please disregard the deliberate typo, and note that the word does not refer to any currently practiced form of scientific meeting.

Are learnerings feasible? Undoubtedly there are thousands of highly qualified potential participants—but talent is clearly not the only requirement, otherwise workshops would be already organized on a regular basis. Indeed, there are other important factors to consider, and many questions come to mind. Would there be a critical mass of mathematicians and statisticians motivated to participate in a learnering? If so, where would the funding come from, and how would it be distributed/spent? How could young researchers (graduate students, postdocs) benefit from it? Is learnering an improvement over workshop in terms of advancing intradisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary research? In particular, would science improve significantly more if the same people met at a learnering instead of at a workshop?

At this point it is difficult to give (or even anticipate) answers to these or similar questions. One can still make the following observations:

i) In terms of material resources, the learnering format does not require any new investment. A small classroom with good blackboard facilities is sufficient for the final meeting, and this can be found at any major university during term breaks. As for the longer preparatory stage, we are already well equipped with internet, Skype or phone.

ii) In terms of travel and accommodation expenses, learnerings and workshops would carry the same cost per (invited) participant.

So it makes sense to ask for funding which would be available globally rather than centrally. Some conditions and restrictions specified by the (academic, governmental or continental) sources of funding are inevitable, but they would likely be very similar to those currently set for workshops. I expect that releasing funds on a first-come-first-serve basis should be optimal, with possibly some constraints built into the algorithm.

Even though our community has an enormous potential in terms of abundant human resources, most of us are (close to) overloaded most of the time, often with tedious administrative tasks. While benefits of any learnering participation are clear, the possible time and energy input from each of us is limited. Indeed, this is one of the major differences between learnerings and workshops: while one could potentially attend (and speak at) 52 different week-long workshops per year, efficiently participating in more than two or three different learnerings per year seems quite hard. In any case, the funding provided should not incur additional heavy administrative tasks for the co-organizers.

A weekly graduate student seminar is nowadays commonly held in Mathematics or Statistics departments. Its participants are peers who typically already spend a non-trivial amount of time together, and are used to learning from each other. So it should be particularly simple to change this seminar’s format to resemble that of a learnering. More precisely, the seminar could run on the same weekly schedule, and the same topics could be covered, with the difference that $π_i$ would help $i$ learn the topic chosen by $π_i$, and $i$ would then lecture on it [see my previous column]. There is no material cost involved in applying this change, and I believe the graduate students would benefit much more from this practice than they do from the current one.

I am sure that there are ways to find funding for learnerings — even in a year from now — provided our community shows a strong enough interest in the experiment.

Before putting time and energy into any fundraising, I would like to invite all the IMS-ers and all our colleagues in Mathematics, Statistics and related fields to fill out my SurveyMonkey (SM) questionnaire.

I am counting on you to help me spread the word.

The questionnaire contains seven questions (with some subquestions), of which most are multiple choice. There is as much room left for comments as the basic SM package allows. Anonymous participation is possible, but contact information (e.g. email) can be included.

While SM specializes in market surveys, and cares about bias, A/B testing and randomization, this is not my concern here. I simply decided to use their free* tool, in hope of collecting data in support of learnering.

If we’ve communicated by e-mail in the last few years, the first batch of invitations (in late April) should include you. Anyone else wishing to participate should send a message from their (preferably university) account to my address below, with “Learnering survey” as the title. I will typically not reply to this message, but will instead use a SurveyMonkey engine to generate a unique invitation and send it to the e-mail address provided.

I intend to report the results of the survey later this year.


* SM is free for small questionnaires aimed at a moderate-sized audience