Will the Real MOOC Please Stand-up

Marginal Revolution University created by  professors Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok is the latest entrant into the MOOC market and is the real thing. It’s a Massive Open Online Course that appears true to the pedagogical principles described by MOOC founders Stephen Downes and George Siemens — connected learning where knowledge is constructed in real-time through a dynamic network. Coursera, Edx and Udacity are pseudo MOOCs. They are courses, and are certainly massive, often drawing thousands of students, yet they are trying to apply traditional, old-school methods to a new format [MOOC] that ends up looking nothing like the old or a new educational experience.

How MRU is Different
The pedagogical principles in MRU’s course look to be grounded in the learning theory of connectivism developed by Downes and Siemens. Connectivistm is based on the concept that knowledge is not acquired but constructed and adjusted by the learner through connections that occur when the learner interacts with nodes in a network. Nodes can be a video, online discussions, Webinars, or conversations on Twitter, Facebook or through blogs. MRU emphasizes connected and dynamic learning, and their motto embodies it – learn, teach and share which also mirrors principles of the connectivist model.

A Catalyst for Learning
Knowledge is not static in the connectivist model which is what MRU clarifies in its orientation video. Knowledge, the narrator explains is often uncertain and that the content presented in the course is merely a starting point for further investigation. and not the definitive answer. In other words, the professors of MRU are taking themselves out of the equation. They infer that the course content is the catalyst for further exploration, which is how Downes introduced CCK11, a MOOC course, change.mooc.ca now in its thirty-fifth week.

“What is important about a connectivist course, after all, is not the course content … [sure] you can’t have a conversation without it — but the content isn’t the important thing. It serves merely as a catalyst, a mechanism for getting our projects, discussions and interactions off the ground. It may be useful to some people, but it isn’t the end product, and goodness knows we don’t want people memorizing it.”  Stephen Downes (2011)

This is just the beginning for MRU, Cowen and Tabarrok also want course participants to contribute to the curriculum, to help build the course, and they hope for a ‘bank’ of user-generated content. This is yet another parallel to connectivist pedagogy, an emphasis on knowledge construction and learner contribution. And whom do the creators envision as course participants? — Professors using it as their own material, national and International students, or ‘curious’ adults (Tracy, 2012).

Screen Shot of ‘How To Interpret the Videos’

The Content
I spent a couple of hours on MRU’s website, watched several course videos and couldn’t help but be impressed. I appreciated the simple, short videos narrated with power points which are similar to Khan Academy videos. The inclusion of an orientation or how to use section introducing the philosophy of the course is also helpful as it outlines what to expect and how to use [the content], learn, and contribute.

I have completed a course through Coursera’s platform, and though I enjoyed the experience, I appreciate MRU’s format; it appears more flexible and open with potential for expansive learning. I felt Coursera was in a box; it did not seem conducive to exploring and expanding beyond the walls of the course. Coursera’s course design, and not brick-and-mortar classrooms in this case created ‘walls’.

Why MRU?
What are the motives of these two accomplished economics professors? After reading more about each, and exploring their blog, Marginal Revolution, the drivers don’t appear to be monetary but stem from a passion for education, economics and sharing. And they do share, with an award-winning blog that has an estimated quarter of a million readers with content that goes beyond finance and economics. Noted also is that Cowen and Tabarrok have declined substantial offers to take their blog from its advertisement-supported WordPress platform to traditional media sites (Tracy, 2012). Cowen’s statement from a recent interview captures the essence of their mission for MRU:

You can think of this,” Cowen says …“as a marginal attempt—a marginal revolution, so to speak—to get education to be more about learning. (Tracy, 2012)

What Next?
The future of MRU is open according to its founders, dependent on the response from users [consistent with the connectivist approach]. There will be more to come no doubt, not only because George Mason University is part of this initiative and a supporter, but because the format is unique, and I believe is just what higher education needs.

Watch the introductory video featured on MRU’s website.

Further Reading
Interview: Star Economists Launch the Upcoming Marginal Revolution University, Wired Academic
A Blog Hopes Its New Online Course Will Be More Than Marginal, Marc Tracy
Marginal Revolution University,  Website
Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, Stephen Downes

17 thoughts on “Will the Real MOOC Please Stand-up

  1. Very Interesting article stressing on the way how MOOCs have to be done. MOOCs are rather becoming a free easy access to huge content of resources than a platfrom for learning. MOOCs like course era and udacity fall in this category. If I am taking a course in either all I do is go through list of chapters and take quizzes in them and I get a certificate. There is no knowledge building, there is no knowledge sharing and there is really no community based learning. Think of a class where you are the only pupil, you read from the blackboard and write a test everyday. We will drop from that class isn’t it?.A real MOOC for me is something of this sort (MRU) where the participants get to build contents together and share to others and learning is basically through connections. This concept of connectivism is how MOOCs were initially designed and they had great potential. This is CMOOC. The way udacity and other MOOC sites present now are more towards XMOOC which stress more on contents. XMoocs although are a great opportunity I think will not last long as they lack on the motivation and community front. I would like to hear your comments on this.


  2. Thank you for the informative post Debbie. A little about myself, I am a graduate student from Arizona State University and I am enrolled in a course called Technologies for Online Learning Communities. It is really interesting that the topic(Connectivism, based on the paper – “The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC by Jenny Mackness, Sui Fai John Mak, Roy Williams”) I took as a case study in my course has been implemented in reality by professors Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok through Marginal Revolution University. As stated by Stephen Downes and George Siemens, Connectivism has four major characteristics namely Openness, Autonomy, Diversity and Connectedness and Interactivity. These four characteristics act as pillars for contributing, building and sharing of knowledge. It is an wonderful effort for making the users steer the MOOC, by contributing to the curriculum through creating their own courses and in the long run building a bank of user generated content.

    Looking at the MRU, I believe it is lacking the ‘Diversity’ characteristic in terms of the course topics currently being offered. Most of the courses are related to Finance, Economy or Trade etc. My perspective is that diversity is one of the important factors that affect knowledge building/sharing and introducing that into MRU will bring in a drastic change. My suggestion would be – It would be great if the creators of MRU can bring in a diverse curriculum by encouraging/motivating professors and scholars from various disciplines to participate and contribute to MRU. I am not sure how feasible it is to implement my suggestion, but it is just a food for thought.


  3. Debbie, nicely put – the content is not what its about. I strarted a very productive e-learning design conversation some years ago by asking them: “OK, so you present the students with a lot of content, which you help them to understand. But what is it that you want them to DO with the content?”

    I am currently in week two of a “machine-MOOC” (on Python), which is disappointing – it looks like no more than a e-resource with study groups. A fancy version of a DIY- e-book club, you might say.

    I also really like your take on connectivism: “knowledge is not acquired but constructed and adjusted by the learner through connections that occur when the learner interacts with nodes in a network” – I am a bit sceptical about connectivism’s theoretical aspirations, but no matter. This looks like a great hybridisation of the best parts of connectivism and constructionism.

    A group of us have been participating, designing, and researching MOOCs for some time, and we have a recent paper (forthcoming) in IRRODL which might be of interest. It is based on a new 3D typography of learning ‘footprints’, which tries to describe the dyanmics of ‘open’ (or ’emergent’) learning in MOOCs as well as several other learning spaces. It is availabe as part of the SEAD curriculum project, here: http://seadnetwork.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/williams_footprints.pdf


    1. Roy, your paper is interesting. It provides a challenging view of course design. Most intriguing is the ‘footprints’ approach to curriculum design which suggests that curriculum is not static but needs to be adapt, morph to the learners pattern of learning and encourages exploration beyond the prescribed curriculum. “This new topography of learning is a different kind of curriculum. No longer static, it is likely to be emergent at least in part, even if the overall design is prescribed; and it can be specifically designed to enhance emergence”.

      Also interesting is the idea that learners can learn without interaction with class peers, or even the instructor – if I interpret your paper correctly, students can move beyond the prescribed curriculum, or even the course boundaries and connect with other content sources to learn. I agree with this concept, as this moves learning beyond the traditional boundaries, yet presents a challenge for assessment in the traditional sense. Even content cannot remain static, or can curriculum prescribe the same learning outcomes for each learner. Thanks for the link to the PDF, and for your comment Roy.


  4. “Noted also is that Cowen and Tabarrok choose to keep their blog commercial-free, declining revenue generating advertising.”
    I read their blog regularly and wonder how you can say it is commercial- free. It even says “advertise here.”


    1. Hi Dale,
      Thanks for you comment. I stand corrected, the blog site of Cowen and Tabarrok does appear to have advertising, but I believe this is advertising that benefits WordPress, as per the article I used as a source for this post which states “What’s in it for Cowen and Tabarrok? No money, at least not directly. (This is less surprising than you’d think: over the years, the two have declined ample sums to take their blog from its advertisement-supported WordPress platform to traditional media sites.)” by Marc Tracy. http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/107877/blog-hopes-its-new-online-course-will-be-more-marginal#. The Marginal Revolution blog is a WordPress site, and if the blogger(s) chooses not to pay a fee to keep the site advertisement free, then WordPress will advertise. For instance, I do not have advertisements on my [Wordpress] blog, but I pay WordPress a yearly fee to keep this blog free from advertisements.

      That being said, I will contact Cowen and Tabarrok to try to get clarification.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.


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  6. Thanks very much for sharing. So I too ended up spending a good bit of time roaming around the MRU website. Quite impressive approach. I like the versatility in the system. Will be quite interesting to see where this goes.


    1. Hi Robert. Yes I thought so too. Different and interesting based on the other approaches I’ve seen in the MOOC world. So much going on in higher ed! Never a dull moment.

      I am enjoying reading your blog and following the progress of your students! Keep us posted on the progress of your class on ‘Reality is Broken’. I just ordered the book through Amazon. I’m looking forward to reading it. Thanks for commenting Robert! Debbie :)


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