Marginal Revolution launch an online university

Development Economics, the first course, begins in October.

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, editors of the hugely popular economics blog Marginal Revolution, have long been advocates of the potential of the internet, and IT more generally, to disrupt the business of education. Now they're putting their money where their mouths are, and launching MRUniversity.

Cowen lays out some of the principles:

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.

5. We offer tests and quizzes.

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

The real question for the nascent university – which is building on Cowen and Tabarrok's actual jobs at George Mason University in Virginia – is whether it can prove some of its founders' theories on higher education correct. There is, after all, no doubt that the course will be informative, entertaining and widely subscribed.

But there is widespread belief that the true value of education lies in its signalling effects, not actually in the knowledge imparted. So when an employer demands a BA, they don't actually care about whether someone knows English Literature to a degree level, they just want to hire the sort of person who does – smart, hard-working, focused and so on.

This is often the hurdle that online education fails to clear. Despite the fact that distance learning can be just as good at imparting knowledge as a traditional university education, the signals it gives to employers remain below-par. But Cowen particularly has been outspoken in his belief that that needn't be the case.

This, then, is his opportunity to put that belief into practice. Obviously, with just one course on offer, nobody is going to be getting a full degree from MRUniversity any time soon – but will people put it on their CVs? And will employers actually care if they do?

MRU's logo.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt