MRUniversity Aims To Bring Economics Education To The Masses

10/08/2012 04:01 pm ET

Two George Mason University economics professors are teaching on a new campus: in the cloud.

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have launched MRUniversity, named after their blog, where they'll enter the booming world of free online education alongside projects like Coursera and companies such as Udacity and edX. But Cowen and Tabarrok plan to do things a little differently. For one, they want other people to contribute their knowledge to the curriculum, much like they would on Wikipedia.

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

Setup costs were minimal for the two professors: They make course videos at home on an iPad with a $4 app called "Explain Everything," then simply upload them to YouTube. They also had some help building the MRUniversity website.

The first course in development economics will "provide the equivalent of a 45-hour course in a series of narrated videos broken into short segments (most no longer than 5 minutes) that can be taken as a complete syllabus or in separate lessons," according to the MRUinversity website. Cowen said a MRUniversity student won't see the professors' faces online, instead they'll see "something like a blackboard." There will also be quizzes and user-submitted content.

Over time, the hope is to have guest lecturers, so that Cowen and Tabarrok aren't leading every video. They also want users to submit multiple types of content, including questions and answers, documents, PowerPoint presentations, and their own instructional videos.

They chose to start with development economics because they hope to provide access to education on the subject to people living in developing countries via the Internet.

"We want to see where it goes and modify accordingly," Cowen said. "The end goal is to have created a site and a resource bank where people go for an economic education."

But according to Bryan Caplan, another professor of economics at George Mason, Cowen and Tabarrok could potentially make a pretty penny while doing some public good.

"Even if online education tops out at 1% of the higher education market, and MRUniversity captures 1% of that 1%, they'll be rich," Caplan wrote in a blog post. "And it wouldn't surprise me if they can do better in less-developed countries, where conformity norms don't work so heavily against them. Even if MRUniversity never makes a dime, moreover, it will supply the public good of economic education that the world so sorely needs."

Either way, there's no shortage of appetite for free online courses: Some 1.5 million students have enrolled in classes offered by Coursera since it launched earlier this year, according to NPR.

This effort by the two professors brings George Mason into a rapidly growing field of online education. Notable institutions, including Stanford, Caltech, Oxford, Princeton, the University of Virginia, Emory, the University of California, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania and others have announced some sort of involvement with massive open online courses -- or MOOCs.

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.