Huffington Post covers Marginal Revolution University

The very good article is here, excerpt:

Cowen said the Internet has changed so many aspects of our lives, so “Why should education stay behind?

“Education is changing rapidly and we want to go to our graves feeling we were on the right side of history, so-to-speak,” he said.


Queue up an ill-informed, maniacal retort from prior_approval.

How long will he make us wait?

While we wait for prior_approval, let me add that "online education" is an oxymoron, combining the worst of television (too superficial and shallow) and Cliff Notes (no real transmission of knowledge, just facts) -- MRU is no exception

Ha! Again, sitting at a major university, allegedly getting a graduate education, which really entails educating my advisor on what is going on in the lab and on the interwebs.

You should have worked harder and gotten into a better program.

Not to steal anyone's thunder, but this sentence caught my eye:

"[People] don't have to pay $50,000 a year to Harvard," Cowen said, "you can go online and get something for free."

It's carefully worded, so we're not to see the two as perfect substitutes, but it got me thinking what's missing online. I like the idea of online education, but I liked the idea of blogs too. It's the democratic access, the low barriers to entry that I find so appealing. Yet the Harvard education (or really any university education) isn't entirely about the faculty in the classroom, it's as much about your classmates (questions in class, study groups outside class and networks after graduation). How does online education replicate the classroom interactions among the students? Blogs fall pretty short on conversations in the comment section, so I would expect something similar in online courses. There is a social dimension of learning that seems to be a real challenge online.

And what about a diverse faculty? There is a stated intention in the article to have other lecturers, but really is anyone other than a 'close cousin' going to lecture at MRU...someone else's online platform? (The biggie blogs don't seem to have a lot of guest bloggers either.) I would worry about the celebrity economist disease spreading to online ed too: I have benefited greatly from a mixture of econ profs including Marxists, libertarians, neo-Keynesians, Supply-side liberals, etc. (Yes, the segments on the various thinkers is great, but each would have run the course differently.) Economics is not an open and shut discipline, learning from one perspective makes it seem more settled than it is.

I am not saying online can't be done well and it may well be better than nothing and it may fill in some gaps left by universities, but I am skeptical of how close that "something" is to Harvard.

Claudia, I always sympathize with your posts, and this one is no exception.

But look, the name schools have a formula: Admit those with lots of money, some IQ, and a good chance to make it in American politics. On-line can reduce the cost of delivery, so those with much IQ, little money, and zero chance of making it in American politics, have better odds.

And there is no doubt that variety can be delivered more cheaply, as well.

In any case, a competition is ensuing to FIND the right way of on-line delivery. We shall see.

Dismalist, I would not have picked a name school for the comparison. I don't know anything about being at those kind of schools. I happily went to a second-tier (not top) liberal arts college and then a top 15 (not top 5) PhD program. In both cases finances led me to turn down objectively better schools, so yes, cost is important. And, on my Fulbright I took classes essentially for free at a large German university and it was not life lesson in 'you get what you pay for.' The competition online is encouraging, but cost and economies of scale shouldn't be the only dimensions. I just hope online ed does not develop a 'too big to be wrong' analog of the 'too big to fail' among banks. But as you said, we shall see.

Physical presence, networking, and co-mingling are simply over-rated and over-priced. And at any rate, you can do what we are doing right now on-line anyway. Not that the big names can't do it themselves, and they will, though it will be through much kicking and screaming and grasping at sentiment.

"And at any rate, you can do what we are doing right now on-line anyway."

Well save the online students now. What are we doing here? The comment section is not a conversation it's a bunch of click-by missives. Some are thoughtful blurbs, some are crass rants from smart people, and some are geek jokes...fine, but it rarely resembles like a conversation. Once I got excited when I saw a lengthy back and forth in the comments, but then I saw someone called them out as the same person posting under two names, sigh. Offline it's a little easier to spot (and avoid) solo conversations. There's nothing wrong with the comment section, but it's more like entertainment than education. And I disagree, peer interactions are not over-rated or over-priced, not around here at least.

You're right that Tyler and Alex aren't explicit about their goals. Personally, I see this project as more similar to their blogs or op-eds than to an actual degree; an easily digestible, pithy, and entertaining means of changing people's priors regarding economics issues. MRU isn't meant to prepare students for a career in economics, as far as I can tell, so networking and diversity of faculty opinion are not as relevant. It seems more reasonable to see an MRU video as an extended, content-rich MR blog post. I agree that Tyler's Harvard comment is confusing; it ignores the value of the network, faculty contact, methodological rigor, and (above all) the credential. I assume that an upper-division undergraduate Harvard course in developmental econ requires calculus and statistics; do MRU classes present the material at this level of rigor?

Discussion of assessment reminds me that the "movement" is splintering rapidly; MOOC observers rarely seem to discuss this. There appear to be at least two approaches: the open-access, general-interest course designed mostly for personal edification (Coursera), and the more technical (and technology-focused), rigorous, assessment-heavy course designed to one day appeal to employers (Udacity). MRU seems to be following the former rather than the latter, which is fine, but is certainly not a substitute for a Harvard education.

"Is anyone other than a 'close cousin' going to lecture at MRU?" Hey, this is Tyler Cowen we are talking about, not Paul Krugman.

The videos could be a little longer.
5 minute videos are a little too concise and limited.
Eg: When there is a discussion on Green Revolution, one is curious to know more about its impact on actual economic growth and impact on farmer incomes. Also how did it impact cropping patterns in India and Pak..Something that wasnt covered in the video.
I agree you do point to more detailed I guess the student should take initiative to seek them out.
But still, it would be good if the online videos themselves whet greater interest by delving a little deeper.

I thought the first few videos were terrific - .i.e the Introduction and Geography sections. Very analytical.

Why go to Harvard spending tonnes of cash rather than learn free online? Well, for the very reason so forcefully presented by Tyler himself: "The reality is that most education requires the physical presence of other human beings. The flesh-and-blood instructor motivates students better ... our proximity to both the leader ( the professor) and the peers ( fellow students) means that we end up more interested, more focused and more able to succeed in later life... interpersonal connection is so often what motivates"
"The Age of the Infovore" page 113

Well, I would argue that it's more contingent upon the individual himself. Perseverance is just as important as intelligence.

No man is an island...peer groups are a big deal too. Interpersonal skills can be just as important as individual skills like perseverance and intelligence.

Why rant? As Ramagopal's comment above notes, the viewpoint of the general director of the Mercatus Center, whose support for MRU is undoubtedly critical to its current existence, and that of an actual faculty member of an actual university are notably different. One could reasonably speculate that one of them has different goals than the other.

Understanding that difference is worth learning, online or not. It doesn't take ranting, just knowledge.

Note to self. Activate anti-leftist squad in Germany-ASAP!

Here is one way academia works. They kind of let you do your thing. Otherwise you'd already be gone. If they like it, they co-opt it. If they don't they quash it or quash you. Mostly they just ignore it or misunderstand it. It is way lazier and less intriguing and more evil than some conspiracy theory.

I quite enjoy watching and discussing the videos with my son (high school age) and think that the short, focused format is well suited for this introductory course. Thanks very much Tyler and Alex!

"we want to go to our graves feeling we were on the right side of history": what a very Left side of history remark.

Whichever way history runs, when you go to your grave you are on the wrong side of it.

You're way too witty to be a grad student in chemistry

I doubt that online education is really what you will be thinking about when you "go to [y]our graves":

The videos are informative. But given the opportunity I would prefer listening to Tyler in "flesh and blood" rather than online.

To a first approximation, any argument that the existence of online courses will supplant a real-life university education is also an argument that the existence of books and correspondence courses will do the same thing. But of course that never happened. I don't see this parallel addressed much. Is the belief of online-ed enthusiasts that watching videos of lectures is so much more pleasurable to most people than reading an account of the same lecture that many more people will go for the today's video option today than yesterday's books+correspondence option? If not, why all the excitement?

The "video is more interesting than books" thing is one argument. There are a few others:

More Collaborative Learning -- Motivated students can peer tutor each other on discussion boards moderated by TAs and students can earn "badges" or other recognition (think "top reviewer" status on Amazon or Yelp) by helping their peers. There are a few other pedagogical ideas here (e.g., co-operative online whiteboards, videoconferencing) but, AFAIK, most of the buzz revolves around discussion forums.

Adaptive Learning -- Course materials can change based on your competence. E.g., Knewton. This is also applies to assessment, e.g., how the computerized GRE now changes the next question you get depending on how you've done on previous questions.

Better Simulations -- There are certain things that just can't be done in a correspondence course, like lab work. Some universities are experimenting with online science labs (results are mixed, but the tech is improving) that allow you to get closer to an actual face-to-face experience than previous online tech or correspondence.

I'm sure there are more.

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