Marginal Revolution U Brings Something New to Online Ed

Joshua Gans lets the readers of his Fortune Magazine column in on a little secret. Nowadays, when academics get together, they are not talking about the topics that used to occupy their attention: grades, students, last year’s Christmas party hijinks. Instead, they are talking about the wide-ranging impact of the next big thing in higher education: digital learning.

Gans, who is an economist, says that for him, interest in online education is more than academic. More than any other development in recent decades, online education has the potential to completely upend the way universities function. Since Stanford University launched its first massive online open course experiment a year ago, other prestigious universities have rapidly made their own similar moves. From edX to Coursera, schools that want to dabble in digital instruction without straying too far from the traditional paradigm have a lot of options.

Gans, however, doesn’t believe that these consortia are where the true revolution in online education will spawn.

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

The Marginal Revolution University, launching this week, is an outflow of the popular Marginal Revolution community run by two George Mason University economics professors — Tyler Cowen and Lex Tabarrok. At first glance, MRU doesn’t differ much from other MOOC providers. Development Economics, the first MRU course uses the same instructional approach – a set of slides with a voice over – offered by Udacity, the online education provider founded by Stanford University MOOC pioneers. Those who are looking for a revolution in presentation are likely to walk away disappointed.

But those who are looking for a revolution in presentation are also missing the point. MRU is modeling itself not on edX or Coursera but on Khan Academy. The goal is to have students using the MRU videos as educational tools in addition to their traditional course work.

 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.

Another thing that makes MRU revolutionary is hidden under the surface. Running the site doesn’t require any outsized financial investment or even technical know-how. Using the open-source platform Drupal and hosting their videos on YouTube, Cowen and Tabarrok laid down a road map for any professor, expert, or just a devoted amateur to follow their lead and unleash their passion for sharing knowledge onto the world.

10 4, 2012
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