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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.