Epistemic status: I have spoken to 3 other people who did the program at around the same time (in different cohorts), and their experience around the sessions was similar to mine
I undertook the Intro to EA virtual program in December 2021. I'd assess my understanding of EA prior to the course as 'medium' - but weighted much more towards the global health and wellbeing side of things.
There was very little barrier to entry, the application questions mainly centred around choosing what time slots worked best for you.
This works well in getting many people to apply but there was a problem of attrition. There were 6 others (excluding the facilitator) in our first session, but by week 4 it was down to 2-3 others in each session.
I don't know what the optimum group size is, or if there is scope to merge groups in later weeks after people have dropped out. People I've spoken to have said that by later weeks it was just them and 1 other person.
On the application I did choose the option to be put in a cohort with others local to me but I ended up with quite an international group. We were spread across Austria, Nigeria, Australia, and Indonesia, which I think worked much better than if I'd been placed with others in the UK, for reasons which I'll come to.
The reading list was excellent, I appreciated it being broken down into required and then recommended readings, and with reading time estimates.
In particular for a topic like 'Emerging Technologies' which I knew the least about, and wouldn't have known where to start, it was comforting to have this organised collection of the most important readings on the subject.
Getting physical copies of Giving What We Can and The Precipice via EA Books Direct was amazing. I'll admit I have shared that order link with some of my non-EA friends so that they can get copies themselves. I'm not sure if I wasn't meant to, but thought it better to ask forgiveness than permission - if this was wrong of me please let me know.
These were hit and miss. At their worst we went round in a circle all talking about the reading, with no real discussion or disagreement. This was particularly true in the earlier weeks, for instance on the topic of 'the effectiveness mindset' there was not much to disagree on.
While our facilitator did have some broad conversation starters, I wonder if in these earlier weeks there could be some other activity during the session like some kind of game or debate.
The weekly sessions were at their best during the weeks where the material was less cut-and-dry. For instance when talking about expanding our moral circle, it was interesting to hear and discuss the views of participants from other cultures. Likewise there was more scope for disagreement and discussion around the more speculative existential threats.
Our facilitator was excellent - got people to open up while also challenging points of view, and bringing up relevant other materials on topics people found interesting.
There is a pretty active Slack group with past and present participants from all cohorts. It's almost too active, like I would love to see those discussions happening on the EA forum or somewhere else more public.
Minor technical gripes
The reading list is shared on Google Docs which I have nothing against in principle but made it hard for me to accomplish two things:
- Copying the data out of it into my personal note taking software (Joplin). Google Docs doesn't make it straightforward, either by downloading the whole document or copy and pasting directly.
- Going back to the reading list to see if anything has changed since I last looked at it. The reading list is a living document which is great, but Google Docs' change history is not the cleanest.
My ideal solution would be a markdown document on git(hub), or any other solution with:
- An easily transferable data format
- A clearer way to suggest, discuss, and track changes
I also didn't like the use of URL shorteners, I prefer the full URL to jog my memory as to whether I had read the article before or not.
I highly recommend the intro to EA virtual program (in fact I know of one person who has undertaken it after hearing me talk about it) but in terms of how useful I found different parts of it, my ranking would be:
- The reading list
- The accountability - knowing that you have a session every week to discuss the reading list forces you to actually knuckle down and do the reading
- The sessions