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6 September 2012

Marginal Revolution launch an online university

Development Economics, the first course, begins in October.

By Alex Hern

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.

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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?