Tyler Cowen, a star economics professor at George Mason University, isn’t interested in making money off the online university he co-founded last fall.
Instead, Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, who also co-write the popular blog Marginal Revolution, have a simple motto for their growing series of online courses, branded as Marginal Revolution University: “Learn, Teach and Share.”
“We think learning on the Internet, like blogs, is not something you can charge for,” Cowen said.
Many others, of course, have -- about one-third of enrolled American college students take online courses, scores of colleges of colleges and universities have readily charged those students for the online courses they offer, and now startups, like Coursera, are looking to make money off online classes, too.
But Cowen and Tabarrok are aiming for a less-affluent global audience and have reached into their own pockets to back the university, which they have no plans to monetize. Cowen said content from MRUniversity, as it's known, could provide material for a for-credit class, but he doesn't imagine it being used as a substitute.
Instead, Cowen said, among other uses, they want to reach students in countries who can’t pay, and also help professors at other institutions flip their classrooms by using the recorded lectures from Marginal Revolution like a textbook. To do that, Cowen said, professors can ask students to view videos before class from MRUniversity. Then, during class, the professors can use class time for things other than broad lectures. If this happens, the Marginal Revolution courses become video textbooks for students.
With some support from George Mason, including technical help and a teaching assistant who dubs some videos into Spanish, Cowen said MRUniversity is attracting tens of thousands of viewers. Cowen said he's following in the footsteps of Khan Academy, which also inspired the former Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun -- who taught an online course so popular it prompted him to found Udacity, which is now hoping to shake up higher education.
So far, the MRUniversity audience may mostly be well-educated people who come to the site after reading the professors' popular blog or seeing shoutouts from other influential online personalities.
Cowen wants to expand that audience. Already, one instructor in Kenya is distributing MRUniversity courses on disk because the bandwidth is so slow and he uses it to teach classes in rural areas, Cowen said.
“We would like to see much more of that,” Cowen said.
The top three countries with users on the site are the United States, India and the United Kingdom.
“Even if all we ever did was have a bigger presence in India, we would feel it was worth it,” Cowen said.
His goal is to put online in the next 5 to 10 years an entire series of courses that cover the basic sweep of his field.
“Over time we want to do more and cover a big part of the basics of what is taught in economics,” he said.
There are already guest professors, including one who put together a class on Mexican economic policy, but Cowen thinks he and Tabarrok can cover a pretty big chunk of the field on their own.
The videos\ segments on the site are short, including quizzes, and the courses are designed so that material can be added as economists revise their view of the world. This allows the site to stay ahead of textbooks, something MRUniversity is not afraid to tout.
An introduction to the site says, “We try to get you to the very edge of the research frontier, so a lot of our material is based on unpublished working papers or papers published in the last few years. This is in contrast to some textbooks, which give you a kind of static, baby version of what you’re supposed to memorize and they hold back the real truth for later years of study.” (Cowen and Tabarrok co-wrote a textbook, too.)
The costs are slim. They use PowerPoint and an iPad app that costs about $3 to create videos and YouTube to host them.
“It’s way cheaper than people think or would have thought not too long ago,” Cowen said.
The ends of videos include reading suggestions. One, which suggested that viewers use Google to learn more about a term, drew some criticism. "Of course, Google will be used if we want some more information, that goes without saying!!" one user said on the site, suggesting more detailed references might be helpful. Other videos do, in fact, include detailed references, including pointers to reliable but free online content as well as citations to content that requires money to access.
But, over all, Cowen said he’s spent years thinking of information as free because of his blog.
“I think it’s a natural kind of leap to think you can expand from blogging and do this other thing,” Cowen said.
It is time-consuming. Cowen, who continues to teach at George Mason, said this week that working on the site is now taking up much of his day. He said some topics are easy, but that others will require five or six hours of reading to make sure he nails one minute of recorded content.
He, for one, isn’t too worried about the idea that star professors like himself will create a single course to rule them all and crowd out the need for other professors. Blogs quickly established a pecking order, but Cowen said that doesn’t mean other voices are shut out, noting the innumerable blogs that exist alongside Glenn Reynolds’s mega-popular Instapundit blog.
“I would be surprised if it were just one course or just two or three courses [in the future],” Cowen said. “If I think of what we’re doing, it’s just hard for me to imagine that everyone would want us.”
And he doesn’t think online is going to replace traditional colleges.
“Keep in mind, when online comes along, in-person will not go away or anything like it,” he said.
Indeed, much of his content is aimed at helping professors flip the classroom, which is how Cowen is planning to use his own content for his own class at George Mason this fall. He said students would watch his recorded lectures and then come to class and they would talk through the material.
Still, Cowen thinks he is going to be well-positioned for a shift toward online, if nothing else. He said the vast majority of academics he polls at conference have nothing going on online. But he thinks that will change.
“We think we’re the tip of a much bigger iceberg, most of which doesn’t exist yet,” Cowen said.