Political Animal


September 09, 2012 9:48 AM Time to Give Online Education a Shot

By Ryan Cooper

Given that we just released our College Guide issue (probably our most famous product), I would be remiss in not mentioning that Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have a new online education project, MRUniversity. Here’s how Tyler explains it:

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.

I’ve signed up. It sounds about my speed (and price), and development economics is something I’ve always wanted to study from my time in the Peace Corps. Mostly, I’d like to see how they manage the online model. I’ve made a few halfhearted attempts at learning subjects via things like the MIT open courses, and never got around to it. A real benefit of the university model is the motivation provided by fear of failure, social pressure, etc. (This kind of pre-commitment by talking about it online might help in that regard.)

Also, I’m well familiar with the MR brand of economics and politics. I think there’s little danger of being transformed into a Mercatus Center scholar. I’m more curious to see how it works than anything else. What do you think?


Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • jjm on September 09, 2012 11:12 AM:

    My guess is that whoever started this one up was unaware that up through the 1980s, "MR" was slang for the mentally retarded. Unfortunately, an education that gets picked up as a side issue between other tasks and is not deemed important enough to forsake those other quotidian tasks for strikes me as being in a completely different category from what education has meant since Socrates and the ancient Hebrews.

  • paul on September 09, 2012 11:23 AM:

    Although someone like Ryan is mostly immune to the Mercatus point of view, this kind of piecemeal delivery system is really perfect for establishing talking points in the minds of people who are not listening carefully and engaging in critical responses on the spot. It makes me think more than a little of the way that Rush Limbaugh and Fox News seem to always be on in the background of certain venues, where people are also attending to other tasks.

    I'll be interested to see what points the quizzes focus on.

  • exlibra on September 09, 2012 11:48 AM:

    [...] 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.

    Sounds like the perfect recipe for producing that legendary title, "Jack of all trades, master of none".

  • micromeme on September 09, 2012 12:04 PM:

    seems a bit of a waste, TC has already demonstrated that he makes quick arguments without fully stating the case for and against. latest example is the riff on gold-standards. He made the pitch that since US GDP growth was great in the century before 1918 (while we were on gold standard) that therefore it must have value. several of the commenters in the thread caught this one and pointed out that gdp/capita was not actually better over his period in the nineteenth century that it has been since FDR broke away from it. now what kind of academic thinks to himself which should I use to make my point GDP or GDP/capita? and chooses GDP for that one, without properly commenting that the alternate choice contradicts his point?
    if you take a course from someone you need to believe that they will present all relevant points of their arguments, otherwise you have to do a lot of work checking for deception and who has time for that?

  • buddy66 on September 09, 2012 2:51 PM:

    I'm signed up for a Cousera class that starts tonight, but I quit earning degrees decades ago; I just want to see how it goes. I tutor a couple of foreign students via Skype but that is a different model, more Oxdbridgian than the current online models. Love it or loathe it, online Ed is the future.

  • tt on September 09, 2012 3:43 PM:

    MRU is koch funded

  • parsimon on September 09, 2012 4:42 PM:

    Agreed with those upthread who observe that 5 minute segments really aren't going to teach you much, frankly, without being so selective that the goal of any given teaching has to be questioned.

    From another angle: since when do we need to see educational content characterized in such a way, as something you'd scarcely want to put aside other tasks for? Grr.

  • T-Rex on September 09, 2012 6:50 PM:

    If these are going to be like the TED lectures, fine. If people are actually going to take these courses for college credit, well, you'll figure out the problem soon enough. My friend, someone has to grade papers and exams and answer individual questions. And then what will you do?

    This idea is no newer than the invention of the post office. It's just the new version of correspondence courses, which also worked reasonably well as long as each instructor had a managably small number of students.

  • alix on September 10, 2012 2:50 AM:

    I just have to keep saying-- you guys keep acting like online education is this frontier and only these Wild West organizations are offering it. In fact, MANY state community colleges and state universities are offering online courses for a low tuition, and the schools and teachers are fully accredited, and you will end up with actual college credit.

    IT's fine to go with something like this if you aren't really talking about college and college credit. (Though I'd look first at the UK's Open University, which has more interesting courses, IMHO. http://www.open.ac.uk/

    You are doing your readers no service at all if you don't explain that there are courses available just for your intellectual interest, but if you want a college degree out of this, there are many venues connected with accredited universities, which offer college credit courses for a low price. For example, I teach at a community college, and all the credits are transferable to one of the 4-year state universities. The online courses get the same credit as the in-person classes. My state universities also offer online courses. And many other state Us do too.

    If you just want intellectual challenge, try above. If you want college credit, please first contact your state university and your state community college system. We really aren't behind on this. I've taught online for years (and, btw, I'm a real college teacher-- taught 10 years in-person classes first).

    We're actually kind of at the vanguard, amazingly enough.

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  • Steve P on September 10, 2012 11:00 AM:

    I guess "University of I Don't Know Where" was copyrighted by Glenn Beck.

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