What is the Future for Marginal Revolution University?

By Eric Wearne

Add another entrant to the growing number of free online education start-ups (see here or here).  Marginal Revolution University comes from Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, two economics professors at George Mason University (and hosts of the economics blog Marginal Revolution).

Eric Wearne, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

MRUniversity was announced at the World Bank meeting last week.  According to Tabarrok,

“Here are a few of the principles behind MR University:

1. The product is free (like this blog), and we offer more material in less time.

2. Most of our videos are short, so you can view and listen between tasks, rather than needing to schedule time for them.  The average video is five minutes, twenty-eight seconds long.  When needed, more videos are used to explain complex topics.

3. No talking heads and no long, boring lectures.  We have tried to reconceptualize every aspect of the educational experience to be friendly to the on-line world.

4. It is low bandwidth and mobile-friendly.  No ads.

5. We offer tests and quizzes.

6. We have plans to subtitle the videos in major languages.  Our reach will be global, and in doing so we are building upon the global emphasis of our home institution, George Mason University.

7. We invite users to submit content.

8. It is a flexible learning module.  It is not a “MOOC” per se, although it can be used to create a MOOC, namely a massive, open on-line course.

9. It is designed to grow rapidly and flexibly, absorbing new content in modular fashion — note the beehive structure to our logo.  But we are starting with plenty of material.

10. We are pleased to announce that our first course will begin on October 1.”

The first course will focus on Development Economics, with other to follow quickly.  One unit of this first course will cover India, including:

  • History of the East India Company
  • Was British rule good for India?
  • Private education in India
  • Economic research on the caste system in India
  • The timing of Indian economic reforms and the boost in Indian economic growth

Some observers think MRUniversity may be interesting, and maybe some people will learn more about economics, but that it will not succeed as a business venture or disruptive force due to barriers to credentialing.  Tim Worstall of the Adam Smith Institute writes,

“What we really want to know is whether online courses can replace, not just augment, the current university system. And I don’t think any set of online courses is ever going to get the chance. They won’t be accredited, it won’t matter how many you have you’ll never be awarded the piece of paper which is a degree. For those who have the power to award such degrees now know very well that they will be swept away if that does happen. Thus we’ll have a great deal of institutional reluctance to allowing that to happen … Another way to put this is that almost all innovation and productivity gains come from entry into and exit from markets.  We’re all the cheerleaders for the entry part but no one seems to be making the exit happen: far from it, huge amounts of energy seem to be being spent on preventing exit.”

Worstall may be right, but that would be too bad.  MRUniversity is the latest in a growing number of organizations willing to post high-quality educational materials online, for free.  We may not know the optimal method to follow with online learning yet, but it doesn’t seem to be for lack of trying.  The next move may require the market to spontaneously choose to start valuing “degrees” from places like MRUniversity, or it may require accreditation agencies to start blessing them.  State governments could also find ways to explicitly recognize skills mastered through some of these organizations, and independently verified.  Either way, the main barrier to a major market disruption caused by these online course systems seems more likely to be a lack of an officially recognized stamp of approval than anything else.

(Eric Wearne is a Georgia Public Policy Foundation Senior Fellow and Assistant Professor at the Georgia Gwinnett College School of Education.  Previously he was Deputy Director at the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.)

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