Category Archives: Teaching

How I Produce My Videos

Every now and then, someone asks me how I produce my YouTube lectures. Rather than answering each of these questions individually, it’s sensible for me to take a moment, create a single answer, and make it a good one. Hence this post.

There are two overall themes: (1) anyone can do it and (2) it is way easier than you probably imagine.

First off, you need something to record your lectures. I use CamStudio. It’s free, and it’s efficient. You simply highlight the part of the screen you want to capture, hit record, and stop when you are done. It will pick up whatever you do in that region and also grabs the audio from your microphone. It also takes very little time to process the file, which is a plus.

Everyone has a monitor, but you need one with great screen resolution for CamStudio to pick up enough to shoot your videos in HD. I have a 23″ LG model. It’s a bit excessive, though–as long as you have a decent external monitor that has 1080p resolution, you’ll be fine.

I use PowerPoint for the most part since it is straightforward. Every now and then, I switch to Beamer because I need to do fancy things with math or grab something from my various academic writings, but that is rare. I shoot the videos from PowerPoint’s standard editing view rather than from the presentation mode so I can keep track of what will appear on the following slides. However, I make sure to increase the size of the slide as much as possible (and put it in widescreen rather than the ugly 4:3 standard) so I can keep the resolution high.

The slides normally come from lecture material I am presenting in class or have presented in previous semesters. This cuts down heavily on how much time I dedicate to this enterprise.

You. Need. A. Nice. Microphone. Don’t believe me? Compare these two videos:

(Also, note the difference between widescreen and 4:3.)

The first one uses a crappy $5 microphone I bought at RadioShack in 2007. The other uses a Yeti Blue microphone. And it is glorious:


Its $100+ price tag might look shocking, but I haven’t regretted the purchase for a moment. It has two major pluses over the prior RadioShack setup. First, it is amazing at filtering out feedback and background noise. You can basically hear my voice and nothing else, and that was not the case before. Second, you can plug earphones into the microphone to hear yourself as you talk. While it is disconcerting at first, it really helps you understand how the end product is going to sound. In fact, part of the audio improvement between those two videos is because I have developed my “radio voice” over last couple of years. I would not have been able to that without the microphone.

Pop Filter
I don’t have one yet, but I probably should. These help differentiate your B’s from your P’s.

Filming and Editing
From there, I pretty much press record and read what’s in front of me. I have a rough idea where things are going, but normally the lecture you hear is the first one I have completed. (A lot of takes don’t actually make it to completion because I did something stupid along the way.) In the rare instance I combine two separate takes, I use YouTube’s video editor. It’s a simple splice between the two cuts, though it can be tricky to get it so that the flow stays natural.

That’s basically it. Like I said, it isn’t as difficult as it may seem. The delivery takes practice, but presentation practice never hurt someone’s academic career.

Game Theory 101 MOOC Completed

My Game Theory 101 MOOC (massive open online course) has been completed for Fall 2012. Conveniently, you can watch the entire series below, find the playlist on YouTube, or take the course via Udemy.

The course covers basic complete information game theory and has an accompanying textbook. Enjoy!

P.S. Here’s a (partial) list of the things it covers: prisoner’s dilemma, strict dominance, iterated elimination of strictly dominated strategies, pure strategy Nash equilibrium, best responses, mixed strategy Nash equilibrium, matching pennies, the mixed strategy algorithm, calculating payoffs, battle of the sexes, weak dominance, iterated elimination of weakly dominated strategies, infinitely many equilibria, extensive form games, game trees, backward induction, subgame perfect equilibrium, tying hands, burning bridges, credible commitment, commitment problems, forward induction, knife-edge equilibria, comparative statics, rock paper scissors, symmetric games, zero sum games. Okay, that was a fairly complete list.

Whose Online Education? The West versus The Rest

A while back, I started uploading full courses on Udemy, one of those free-online-education-for-all websites.[1] The results have been…not at all encouraging. I know this is a small sample[2], but I currently have four reviews between the two courses. They average out to exactly two stars. Yikes!

Is it me? I don’t think so. I checked my YouTube statistics. This year, my videos have received 1388 likes and just 80 dislikes, or roughly 95% positive. Strangely, the quality my videos on Udemy is much better than the average quality of my videos on YouTube; the Udemy videos have all been shot recently with a professional microphone, while the YouTube videos are a combination of those and some with flat terrible sound quality.

So what gives? I think the answer is in the type of students looking at each of these videos. Most of my YouTube viewers are American, British, Canadian, or Australian. I hypothesize that these students have long university lectures, get bored, and prefer finding their material in short clips. They are the YouTube generation indeed. I have long understood this to be my target audience, and have correspondingly made sure to keep my videos under ten minutes whenever possible.

Udemy, meanwhile, does not keep statistics like YouTube does, but it is safe to say that I am looking at a completely different audience. Udemy emails you whenever someone enrolls in your course, and the names very rarely sound English. And, if one the reviews is indicative of anything, they want longer lectures:

Lectures should be longer, and it’s fundamental the presence of more examples. The topics starts and ends very soon, and it’s really hard to catch something concrete.

I think this highlights a strange dichotomy in online education. From what I hear, free online course offerings (Coursera, MITx, Udemy, etc.) draw a bulk (and perhaps a majority) of their students from places without access to affordable, quality educational institutions. They replace primary teaching. In the United States, Canada, Australia and Western Europe, online education supplements preexisting university education[3] or is used as a form of entertainment, not unlike watching PBS documentaries. Westerners dread clicking on 60 minute videos, either because they just want you to get to the point so they can complete their homework assignment or because faster paced clips are more entertaining. Any extraneous information is just that: extraneous. If you aren’t providing them with the answer to their particular problem, it’s time to move on.

It will be interesting to see how online education evolves over time. Currently, institutions like Stanford, MIT, and Yale essentially replicate the offline experience online. This seems to draw more international viewers. My niche has been providing the short clips, and I have pretty much monopolized that market for game theory and am currently trying to do the same for international relations. I suspect my method is ultimately the better way to make money (by running more ads and selling books to Western people with more money) and to draw people to attend a particular university (again, since Western people have more money).

I will not speculate about normative implications here. The former strategy certainly seems most benevolent, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, everyone else seems to be going that direction, so I will be sticking to the short (but financially prudent) clips.


[1] Udemy allows instructors to charge for courses, which puts an interesting spin on the concept of free-for-all.

[2] I once complained when Game Theory 101: The Complete Textbook got its first review, which was one star. But all reviews since then have been four or five stars, so it is now sitting pretty at 4.3 stars overall. Note that 4.3 rounds up to 4.5, so it actually appears better than it really is.

[3] I am not referring to online institutions like University of Phoenix here, which could be the subject of a different rant altogether.

Course Websites on Udemy

I’ve begun putting full courses on game theory and international relations on Udemy. Udemy creates a nice interface and is much better than YouTube at integrating course work. Check them out:

Game Theory 101 on Udemy

International Relations 101 on Udemy

Content still being loaded up at time of blog entry.

Why Are We So Bad at Teaching Math?

Today’s New York Times had an interesting op-ed by Andrew Hacker arguing that we should abandon algebra from our high school and college core curricula. This is not a great idea. (See John Patty’s response if you require convincing.) That said, one reason Hacker wants to drop algebra is because we as Americans suck at it. Fair enough. But why are we so horrible?

I think our math education system is to blame. Confession: I got B’s and C’s in my high school math classes. After scoring consecutive C’s in pre-calculus in sophomore year of high school, I abandoned math entirely.

Think about how ridiculous that is. The author of the world’s most popular game theory textbook (a full year at number one!) could barely get through high school math classes.

In retrospect, I sucked because I was unmotivated. I failed to see how math remotely related to the things I was interested in, and so I put in the bare-minimum amount of effort. In my defense, no one ever bothered to tell me why I should care. Instead, I just got logarithmic functions and tangent lines thrown at me for the sake of throwing them at me.

American may be bad at math, but I wonder how much of it is a lack of effort. When I became a senior in college, some of my political science professors sat me down and told me it was time to learn calculus. (The terror!) I got straight A’s in the three quarter sequence. I don’t think I grew particularly smarter over the five years math was absent from my life. Rather, taking advanced political science courses convinced me that math is necessary to understand the world, which in turn gave me the motivation to put in the hours to learn calculus.

Ultimately, I blame the system. High school math teachers are overwhelmingly former college math majors. For whatever reason, these people find math inherently interesting, and they teach like this is normal.

It’s not. Most of us need a reason to care. We should not expect teenagers to naturally gravitate to seemingly unrelateable subjects.

I wrote my game theory textbook accordingly. Most game theory courses begin with some abstract explanation of expected utility theory. BOR-RING. I really do not care about expected utility. Neither should you. Strategically interdependent situations are actually interesting. Expected utility theory is only important insofar as the study of strategically interdependent behavior requires it. Thus, I start with actual games and sweat the small stuff later. I think that is one of the reasons the textbook has found an audience outside of people taking game theory courses.

Surely high school math classes can find a similar way to make math relatable to teenagers.

How to Read Academic Articles

My students in Introduction to International Relations at the University of Rochester are now preparing for their finals. As always, most–if not all–of them are behind in their readings. I think a major reason students fall behind here is because they do not know how to read academic articles properly. Then again, it’s not their fault. For some reason, no one ever directly teaches this vital skill to undergrads. Hell, I don’t believe I knew what I was doing until after I graduated. Oops.

Anyway, here is your triage for finals week:

  1. Read the title. (Seriously.)
  2. Read the abstract.
  3. Read the introduction.
  4. Read the conclusion.
  5. Skim the rest. (If you have time or really want to learn the topic, read the rest.)

Let’s go through the rationale of each step of the process. I’ll be referring to my paper on optimal pitching strategies to make the point clearer. Also, it’s scientific fact that baseball makes everything better.

Step 1: Read the Title
This sounds silly, but it really works. Many tests ask students to identify the author of particular quotes from assigned readings. If you just read the title to all of the assigned readings, you can at least connect buzzwords from the quotes to the titles.

For example, the title of the linked article is Breaking Balls with a Runner on Third: A Game Theoretical Analysis of Optimal Behavior. At this point, we have not read the paper at all. But we still know a lot about what is going on. The subject is breaking balls (curveballs or sliders) with a runner on third base. The author (me) will use game theory to tell the reader something. Thus, if the quote on the test says anything about breaking balls or game theory jargon, we will know who the author of the quote is despite having done no real work.

Step 2: Read the Abstract
I didn’t know what an abstract was until senior year. This is not a good thing. If you are actually going to read an article, the abstract is the single most important paragraph. Read it.

I think the temptation to skip the abstract stems from its location in articles. They appear at the top of the first page or on the title page all by themselves. They are very skipable. But it’s fundamentally stupid to overlook them. Let’s read mine:

Whenever a pitcher throws a breaking ball with a runner on third base, he risks allowing the ball go past the catcher and allowing the runner to score. In this article, I analyze the optimal behavior of the players in such a scenario. With decent control and competent catchers, the pitcher throws breaking balls at the same rate he would if the bases were empty. Knowing that a wild breaking ball will occasionally score from third without a swing, the batter anticipates more fastballs. Yet, because the batter throws pitches at the same rate, the batter’s ability to guess the correct pitch is the same in both instances.

You wanted a summary of the article? Behold, I just gave it to you! Moreover, I did it in ten lines. At this point, you know exactly what I am discussing and what I will prove in the article. If you memorize this information, you can provide relevant discussion of the reading. Usually, undergrads do not need to do anymore. You also cannot see whether my argument holds any water, but that does not become important until you are a graduate student. (In case there was any doubt, my argument is rock solid thankyouverymuch.)

Step 3: Read the Introduction
The introduction is usually the abstract but with a little more information. Sometimes you find motivating examples (not the case in the linked article) and other times you will see a summary of the organization of the article, which gives you a better idea of how the author progresses with his argument (also not the case here). Regardless, the information-to-words ratio is still very high, so you cannot skip the introduction.

Step 4: Read the Conclusion
Children learn to read through works of fiction. Fiction requires the reader to go page-by-page through the novel. This is not the case with non-fiction. Yet most people will plow through an academic article just as they would The Hunger Games. That’s a mistake.

Like the introduction, the conclusion maintains a high information-to-words ratio. Conclusions usually summarize the contents of the article in a couple of paragraphs before providing ideas on how to expand on the research. Normally, “ideas on how to expand on the research” takes the form of admitting to weaknesses in the argument and guesses on how to shore up those problems. For example, I admit that my analysis is pure theory and there is no data to demonstrate that people actually behave in the way I expect them to. So if you are looking for ways to criticize the work, the author basically hands you ammunition on a silver platter.

Of course, if you read the article page-by-page, you probably got bored well before you reached the conclusion and thus never read it. Skipping from the introduction directly to the conclusion avoids this issue.

Step 5: Skim the Rest
Seriously, you aren’t going to get much out of everything in between the introduction and conclusion that you would not have gotten out of what you have already read. Skim everything else, only stopping if you find something interesting. (Some examples/case studies and graphs/charts are good reasons to pause.) Unless you find the research fundamentally interesting or you need to write a thesis on the subject, the nitty-gritty just is not worth your while.

The brilliance of this method is that it you know exactly what you should do given the amount of time you have to study. Waited until the last half hour to start studying? Bust out the syllabus and read over the article titles. Have a couple hours? Go through the abstracts. Half a day? Now you can get the introductions in. A full day? Do the conclusions as well. One week? Now you can fit in everything. (Or just read the intros and conclusions. Inevitably, this turns into six days of Call of Duty and one day of studying, but whatever.)