Who will on-line education help?

Matt Yglesias has an analysis and a hypothesis:

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, proprietors of one of the finest economics blogs on the Internet, are launching a cool new venture that they’re calling Marginal Revolution University aimed at doing online economics education and launching with a course on development economics.

It’s pretty clear that big change is coming to the higher education space through digital technology, but it’s also worth asking who’s going to really benefit from this kind of change. The key winner, it seems to me, is someone who’s intelligent, focused, and motivated but whose parents don’t happen to have much money.

There is more analysis at the link.  Matt makes this very good point:

Last but by no means least, some of the biggest winners here will be people living in poor countries where the basic logistical barriers to accessing quality higher education are often very high. I suspect it’s no coincidence that development economics—a subject likely to be of particular interest to that demographic—is where MRU is starting.


I suspect it’s no coincidence that development economics—a subject likely to be of particular interest to that demographic [poor countries]—is where MRU is starting.

Do doctors study cancer more deeply or do cancer-patients? I suspect motivation to study "development economics" is pretty low in the poor nations (outside of the UN / Worldbank / thinktank elite).

I think, poor people would rather study something more practical (electronics, nursing, accounts, programming, welding, etc.) that lets them make money......

@Rahul and yet I suspect that Alex and Tyler probably dont have the ability to teach a nursing or electronics course. This is what they can do!

For example, think about what Raghuram Rajan has the potential to do in India. Imagine if there were more like-minded (and educated) people making policy decisions throughout the Indian government - and not just super-qualified geniuses dropped in from the US of A. With a billion people there are plenty of wide niches for training like this!

It's great that Alex and Tyler are teaching this course; I'm only skeptical of Yglesias' analysis.

India is one of the few countries headed by a reputed economist ; also there is no shortage of extremely well-educated people in policy-making positions ...but none of these guarantee the best policies . Agree however that any such training opportunities are great.

"Do doctors study cancer more deeply or do cancer-patients? "

Brilliant question. Cancer patients 'pass through' the cancer treatment process and hope to come out the other side and never look back. It gets down to division of labor. But a little knowledge on the part of the patient can help them avoid rabbit holes and poor doctors. You have to be smart enough to choose the right advisors.

As a patient advocate, I found out I knew a lot more about gastroparesis than most gastrointestinal doctors, and that was mainly from Internet searches. Also, the FDA did not allow the doctors to tell us about the drug domperidone even if they knew about it because it was never approved by the US FDA because of failing Phase 2 testing in a particular way, but widely used around the world.

What would an economics curriculum geared to the practical realities of young pre-elites in the Third World look like? Introduction to Rent-Seeking, Advanced Bribery, Optimal Strategies for Gaming NGOs, U.S. Immigration Law, Swiss Banking Regulations, . . .

Actually a fair number of cancer patients study cancer more than most doctors.

Though probably not more than most oncologists.

You and Matt should do some research on Western Govorners University. They specialize in helping low income and previously less successful students. They employ mentors whose role is to keep in touch, provide motivation, and answer general questions students might have about the program.

Another strength of WGU (and Khanacademy to a lesser extent) is that they are available 24/7. I think a big weakness of MRU and other upstarts is that they still cling to the old model of starting and ending terms at set calender dates. This is automatically segregating a set of students who can't keep up with the pace of the rest of the class. If the MRU were automated the way Khan and WGU are then they can serve students who take twice or three times as long to grasp the fundamentals of a derivative (for example) than the median student.

'If the MRU were automated the way Khan'
Shh - Khan Academy is a real thing, with an amazing array of world class teachers covering a broad array of necessary subjewcts. MRUniversity is likely a minor eddy in the never ending stream of ever so intentionally obscurely financed projects which are funded for reasons that are never quite as apparently obvious as those motivating something like archive.org, Project Gutenberg, or Khan Academy.

Or, what robust institutions do is let others blaze trails and prove out viable business models and suffer the trial-and-error costs and then use their superior status and reputational capital (particularly in the case of education) to pre-empt competition from upstarts.

I have to admit, some part of me hoped that you also spent time at archive.org blathering incoherently about their funding sources and hinting darkly that they are motivated by unseen, insidious puppet-masters. However, that is a bit like wishing someone else had herpes just because you have it.

Yes, Brewster Kahle is very insidious...

Especially when the videos are from non-development economists (hence why the blegs earlier in the year of what to read). I literally was laughing when I saw this posted.

Which suggests that MRU is a success already. Who says development econ is best explained by development economists?

"The key winner, it seems to me, is someone who’s intelligent, focused, and motivated but whose parents don’t happen to have much money."

But even for kids whose parents do have money, they'd be much better off with the degree and most of the money that would have been otherwise spent. Suppose a well-off family would have paid, say, $80K to put a kid through 4 years at a state university. Wouldn't the kid be much better off with both the degree and $60-70K left over (to start a business, pay for post-graduate education, and/or make a down-payment on a house)? If online education does take off, one of the problems that universities may face is that their price-discrimination practices no longer work. What if the families with money -- who are currently expected to pay full retail -- are among the first to start bailing out of the system?

"Unfortunately, what's harder to see is how these trends are going to benefit the marginal college student in the United States. The kind of person, in other words, who these days tends to start a college career—typically at an unselective school—but all-too-often ends up dropping out."

Well, one obvious way they might be helped is in not running up a lot of student loan debt before dropping out (and struggling to service that debt while working in a low-paid occupation). The 5-year graduation rates at non-selective schools are pretty awful (as low as 30% or worse at many 'directional state' universities).

Wait, what? I thought the key winner would be society at large because education is not signaling nor primarily internalized benefits...

I think sometimes MY's brilliance is like the 4-wheel drive capability that gets you stuck deeper in the woods.

So, assuming limited time resources, should a US high school student learn language X(?) or should they teach someone else English?

Aaaaand... can we confirm any part of that hypothesis?

So are you guys doing any specific marketing/outreach to the aforementioned people-in-poor-countries-with-basic-logistical-barriers?

Last I checked, there a bunch of good economics books out there--including by Cowen and Tabarrok. Any motivated student can buy one and learn on their own. If he doesn't have money, he can check it out from a library, or in a 3rd world country, buy a "pirate" version (certainly anyone there who can afford an internet connection can afford some photocopies).

Can someone explain to me how cheap access to those textbooks has revolutionized higher education and the world?

I had this discussion last night about our Kindergartner. It's not that learning "B" is useless, it is just useless in school because this week they are learning "A." Let's say I buy C&T economics, then I go to a school using Mankiw economics. I have pre-learned a lot of economics, maybe better economics, but for the signaling component I've wasted some time. If everyone came in to Kindergarten knowing A, they'd just start at B and the conversation moves to B versus C. So, one must consider the separate, related, and overlapping components of learning versus education versus signaling.

I can see how C&T teaching econ in a video *might* be better than reading their textbook (for the motivated student it might be similar or reading might actually be best). My point is that I don't see it as radically different. Each might just an incremental opportunity for people to learn economics. Yet I heard claims (maybe not you and maybe no C&T) that the more recent one will change the world.

How does MRUniversity allow the motivated person to signal? Since you mentioned signaling I am curious.

Apples and oranges. Online education includes actual pedagogy, especially in its more advanced incarnations.

I think I have to state the obvious here by pointing out that the only people who will really benefit from online education are the investors and private companies funding these "online education" scams. Call me old-fashion, but real learning takes place in a classroom, not in your underwear while eating a Hot Pocket. Much like the LAPD, I'm prone to my old way, I guess: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2012/08/31/lapd-cop-slams-nurse-traffic-stop-celebrates-fist-bump/

"not in your underwear while eating a Hot Pocket"

What is so anti-educational about Hot Pockets?

What is so anti-educational about underwear?

Fairly sure I had a few classes in college where people attended in pajamas (maybe not quite underwear) and ate Hot Pockets in class.

As far as I can recall, I wore undewear during almost all of my college classes (under my outerwear, of course).


It's all signalling

One potential loser: Scientific research conducted by brick-and-mortar universities. http://filedrawer.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/national-labs-for-all-the-sciences/

There's a famous quote something like "Education is most effective when it is least necessary". So this (or any other approach) won't ever overcome that issue. But these online tools are a good economic leveler for motivated people of ability. This type of thing and the Salman approach of online grade school and high school topics as well gives poor kids a chance to supplement whatever bricks and mortar education they are getting, not replace it.

The idea that unmotivated, uninterested people of little ability can be somehow forcibly educated is a fantasy that somehow never goes away. Besides the obvious empirical reasons to believe it, I'd argue that low teacher salaries early in the educational process are a market signal that education for many people is largely ineffective.

Lack of motivation, lack of interest, and even lack of (demonstrated) ability are not exogenous. That's the whole point of online education. Really, that's the whole point of ANY pedagogical innovation. The object of online education is to improve the marginal student's likelihood of success -- to move the dial slightly -- not to ensure that 100% of the population can get a degree.

The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous."

- Gibbon

Matty's second point comes straight from this very interesting, informative article. http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/septemberoctober_2012/features/_its_three_oclock_in039373.php

Last but by no means least, some of the biggest winners here will be people living in poor countries where the basic logistical barriers to accessing quality higher education are often very high.

1. Education has always been cheap, it is diplomas that are expensive.

2. Youtube videos on how to grow crops better make a better stove etc. would seem more valuable than classes. Most of the value of classes comes from diplomas.

I hope that these students in one of Detroit's abysmal public schools (of which I am a grad -- from before they went completely under) may benefit from online education also:


Maybe the middle class-to-affluent people who have the money/connections study abroad will be the main beneficiaries. This is still a very good thing, considering the high costs of that study. It may also reduce the amount of brain drain due to foreign graduates deciding to live in the West rather than bringing their skills back home.

One basic logistical barrier that few of these initiatives take into account - which, to their credit, Profs. Cowen and Tabarrok seem to be considering, if in a limited way - is that for many of those in the developing world, internet is slow. Flashy, largely video-based instruction requires a lot of bandwidth. And that bandwidth is prohibitive: on a bad day, which occurs more often than you'd think, it can take 10 min. or (much) more to load a 3 min. video. Streaming video is a pipe dream.

It's true that today, many more people have access to the internet than ever before, and in a few years that internet will be pretty fast. But right now, for a lot of people (and even for me, in a privileged place at a medium-size NGO in Uganda), the internet bandwidth requirements of "heavier" online applications are too great for most of these (otherwise great) programs to be useful. I'm excited about the direction online education is heading, but I'm not sure that some of the overheated claims - about the impending global "democratization" of education in the form of freely available university-level courses online - are warranted.

A suggestion: for MRUniversity, allow students to download all course videos to their computer. Then students will be able to set up the laptop overnight, download as many videos as they need, and watch them at their leisure throughout a study session.

(Caveat: If I've missed something about the format of MRU, and my suggestion has already been incorporated into the plan, then great! I pledge to retract my critique instantly.)

"Matt Yglesias has an analysis and a hypothesis"

Now there's a sentence that'll give you the shudders.

My knee jerk would be that a suite of classes could be designed to assist the poor in America. Family budgeting, basic savings strategies, job search and interview skills and so forth cannot be made accessible enough. Leaders in the developing world may be able to use primers on potable water and malaria and sanitation. These sorts of classes aren't higher education but would maybe have the largest effects.

Something like development economics is going to interest already educated people looking to add educational depth or breadth.

Most importantly, Tyler will be able to create a new generation of development economists who agree with his point of view on how development economics works (which I also tend to agree with).

Do you assume people automatically agree with their professors' points of view?

Will Online Education Help?

Help with What.

Let's compare online education with a book, say one that is a little controversial. With a book, if you call yourself an expert, other experts will be able to read the book, and specifically comment about it, pointing out the page number that there was an error, easily quoting the error, etc.

Now, let's instead have an online lecture on the same topic over many weeks.

Ask yourself these questions:
1. Will an expert who already knows the subject take the time to listen to the online course (doubtful);
2. Will an expert take the time or be able to quote the passages in the online lecture that he/she disagrees with (doubtful)

3. Now, ask this question: if there is likely not to be a meaningful critique, how valuable is the online education.

Universities who take their classes and put them online are screening the content of the online education because it is their reputation that is at risk. But, if an academic outside of the institution and without the institution risking its reputation, as it were, creates an online course independent of the institution, will there be an assurance of quality.

So, instead, let me frame the question a different way:

If the educational institution supports the online class, it is likely that there is screening; if the academic simply puts on a class outside of the institution, there is no screening and even the audience will not know if it is good because there are no experts who would likely spend their time watching an online course to critique it.

As they often say on this website,

Caveat Emptor.

First there are a lot of non controversial material that the audience would find self evident or could test on their own. Programming classes, math, etc. If the material might have some controversy why would it not be viewed by other experts? Experts are discussing each others blog postings and if something with some controversy is mentioned in an online course it could just as easily be brought to the attention of an expert.

Have you ever sat through an online class? Anyone good enough to critique one is unlikely to watch one. It takes time.

I literally didn't understand this part from Yglesias:

The key winner, it seems to me, is someone who’s intelligent, focused, and motivated but whose parents don’t happen to have much money.

Any motivated student is going to benefit, sure, but even unintelligent, unfocused, unmotivated students should benefit if it costs less for them to find out they are not college material. Does Yglesias really think the current model serves these students well? One almost gets the impression that Yglesias thinks it a good thing that the intelligent, focused, and motivated, whose parents do have money, are subsidizing the wastage of time by the bad students.

So if somebody wants to study but can't afford it, they'll benefit from free education? That's profound.

your blog is seriously very good and i am
thinking about that since long time but
if any body want to know about the IT education
and the any exam information and if you want
to increase your skill please visit


The benefit to the kid in the developing country may not be what they learn in the course, but the way they're able to leverage what they learn into a better application to an American, Canadian, or European university.

Comments for this post are closed