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