Online education experiments at the margin

[This post was originally published at on 1st October 2012]

Psst, you want to know what academics talk about these days? Not research. Not annoying students. Not even exceptional students. No, they talk about online education. And for economists like myself, they talk about it a lot.

The reason is that we economist academics know which side our bread is buttered on. While, like all other academics, we may extoll the virtues of fundamental research we do, what pays the bills is the education service. And we know that at Universities that service is pretty much the same as it always has been. Lectures are given to relatively large groups of students, professors pick a set of assessment and then they enforce the rules. To be sure, professors today worry more about student ratings than they did in the past. But while in business schools that may impact on your employment prospects, there is no great risk faced elsewhere. And the comforting news is that the traditional way of doing things makes professors themselves the scarce resource. It is basic competitive strategy: if you know you are scarce you can afford to live more comfortably. If you teach a specific set of subjects, chances are you are the only one in your institution who can do so.

Now take one look at online education and you can see the issue. Your students, previously beholden to you to learn a particular subject, potentially may be able to select the ‘best in breed’ from the world. To be sure, a professor can still point to the problem of how to assess performance. But cost-minded University administrators and, more worryingly, cost-minded students may wonder whether a professor’s salary is worth paying just for accreditation.

English: American economist Tyler Cowen

That is enough to spur conversation and concern. Academics chose their path for the quiet life. Facing the same pressures of technology that the rest of the world faces is disconcerting. While I don’t want to dwell on it here, the jury is still out on whether professors will become non-scarce. But I did want to focus on one thing: the University administrators are more interested in online education than ever before. And I suspect they don’t have more spending in mind. What they see is perhaps an opportunity to cut costs but also a reason to protect their market position. Because if professors are scarce, it is not a stretch to see Universities as scarce too. And that scarcity is itself now under threat.

What Universities have done is moved relatively quickly to tick online boxes. MIT and Harvard (and now Berkeley) have their edX initiative. Dozens of Universities, including my own, have signed up to CourseRA. Apple have long sponsored a platform called iTunes U. But it is safe to say that while these have generated much interest and lots of students, as I have written before, they are very much low cost extensions of existing lectures. They have a way to go before they are really revolutionary.

In my mind, the more interesting experiments in online education are coming from platforms that are not tied to traditional institutions. Udacity is a great example of this. Its videos are fresher and the feedback is tied more closely with those videos. It has a slick, Silicon Valley feel to it. However, when you look at what they are doing, they are less grounded in traditional academics; that is, people with academic street cred. That may turn out to be irrelevant but it is equally plausible that that matters.

Today, a new experiment launched. It combines the independence from University sponsorship of the Udacitys of the world with the academic street cred of, say, CourseRA. Marginal Revolution University (or MRU for short) has been developed by two GMU economic professors, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok. You might think that with a name like that they are looking to revolutionize education. Maybe they are but the name comes from their existing brand as co-founders of the Marginal Revolution blog; one of the most widely read economics blogs.

When you look at MRU, it does not look that much different from other online education courses. Its first course, Development Economics, features relatively short videos (made both for consumption and also because it is easier to produce small videos to avoid ‘scaffolding’ issues). But they are PowerPoint presentations with a voice over. Yes, that can replicate much of the classroom experience but it does not necessarily make it more exciting. But exciting is not what I suspect Cowen and Tabarrok are going for. They want impact. They want students to watch these videos and then come to class informed. In other words, their goal, like that of the Khan Academy, is to make the classroom more interesting and to do that they want to take away the material. The hope is then engaging discussions could become the classroom norm. And in the process, if millions of students without access to classrooms can take away what they currently give, then more’s the better.

Indeed, Cowen and Tabarrok want their lectures to be shared. It is as if they are a free online textbook. There aren’t even ads. The idea is for professors around the world to pick and choose. In other words, Cowen and Tabarrok are producing to be shared rather than sold. This is something that is becoming increasingly powerful — indeed, I have written a book on the subject. Cowen and Tabarrok know that they can put their lectures out there for free and that provides the opportunity for impact (TED has a related idea). But they also know that in competing for attention, they need promoters. And what better promoters than their academic colleagues around the world.

What is most significant about MRU is that Cowen and Tabarrok have done it themselves. This is not an initiative of George Mason University; although one suspects they are pleased with their


professor’s notoriety. It is their own doing. They have control. And what is more, and this should worry all the VCs funding education initiatives, the technology has allowed them to launch this venture cheaply. Their videos are hosted by YouTube. Their site was coded using Drupal which is an open source platform for easy web design. Moreover, unlike WordPress (that I have favored and spent much time learning how to design with), it can be scaled relatively easily. So they don’t need much in the way of resources to do this and neither do other professors.

But also significant is that these economists are doing it all for fame rather than fortune. Fame is the traditional academic driver although for most of us, it is fame in a small world. Cowen and Tabarrok are shooting for more. That makes them more like rock stars than professors but more to the point, for those who are hoping to make money from online education (including the University’s efforts highlight above) this is surely the big disruptive threat. It is one thing for online education to make academics less scarce in their own institution, it is another thing entirely for academics to be less reliant on their institutions.

The way MRU have done this should get my colleagues talking. It will hopefully get them away from “what is our University going to do?” to “what can I do?”

To finish, I do have some quibbles with the MRU approach. First, they have not taken advantage of speed in thinking about learning. As I have written elsewhere, videos command a snappier mode that just doesn’t come up in traditional lectures. Second, and related to this, MRU have the ‘play’ button as front and center in their logo. But I think that the most important button for online education is the pause button. We should expect students to use it and to use it for issues that are idiosyncratic to each one. My point here being that I hope that MRU really have the mindset to break away from some of the traditional emphases in education.

3 Replies to “Online education experiments at the margin”

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