November 8, 2012

What if two professors at a university launched their own university? Would the first university cheer them on?

Surprisingly, it might.

At least that is the case with George Mason University, George Mason economists Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok and the free online education platform they have launched called Marginal Revolution University.

It’s another twist in the high-speed development of massive open online courses: Entrepreneurial professors are creating and promoting their own MOOCs.

The MOOC movement is emerging as a disruptive force in higher education, as The Post reported last week. Universities everywhere are pondering how to react and whether the rush to open courses up to the world, free of charge, will threaten the institutions in the long run.

But many professors aren’t waiting. Some are posting courses — free and for charge — in an online portal called Udemy.

Cowen and Tabarrok have created a free-content Web site, MRUniversity.com, that will host several MOOCs. One might argue that MRU is not exactly a university because it is not accredited and it does not award degrees of any kind. But these days, even the definition of a university seems up for grabs.

The idea for a MOOC platform, Tabarrok said, sprung from a blog called Marginal Revolution that the two economists have authored for years.

“A big part of what Tyler and I like to do is communicate to the public,” Tabarrok said. “We think economics is important. It can save lives. It can make the world a better place. Literally the lives of billions of people hang on better economic policy. We want to make the lessons of economics available to as large an audience as possible.”

The first course from Cowen and Tabarrok, called development economics, drew more than 3,500 student registrations in its first week in October, Cowen said. Many are from India: New Delhi and Bangalore ranked among the top 10 cities of origin for visitors to the course.

The course covers geography and development; food and agricultural productivity; water economics and other topics. Videos are short and sweet, averaging about five minutes each. Cowen said they are designed to be easily viewed on mobile devices.

More courses are coming in early 2013, Cowen said, on the euro zone, Mexico, the economics of media and other topics.

None of which means that Cowen and Tabarrok are aiming to ditch their day jobs at GMU. They love being professors, hanging out on campus, talking with students.

“MRU will continue to grow,” Cowen said. “It’s not either/or. I enjoy the face-to-face. I don’t want to give that up under any circumstances.”

So what are the economics of this MOOC platform? Tabarrok said MRU is simply a Web platform they created. It is neither a for-profit company nor a nonprofit organization. It has no venture capital. It is getting behind-the-scenes support from one technical expert at the Mercatus Center at George Mason, a research center that Cowen leads, dedicated to the study of markets.

The center and George Mason are listed as supporters on the MRU Web site. But GMU has provided no direct funding.

Angel Cabrera, president of GMU, said he doesn’t feel threatened in the least by MRU.

Cabrera said the role of the university — in this case, GMU — is under constant discussion as MOOCs flourish. He envisions a university with numerous faculty entrepreneurs pushing online projects. He is content to be a cheerleader for experimentation.

“It makes me think,” Cabrera said, “how do I integrate the MOOC? Not how do I defend from it.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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