MRUniversity provides tutorials on how to create course videos.

Two George Mason University economics professors have started a free educational site that seeks to answer a simple but far-reaching question: Why are some countries rich while other countries are poor?

Marginal Revolution University, known as MRUniversity, launched Oct. 1 as a hub for teachings on developmental economics, starting with a study of India’s economy.

The site is part Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), as it offers college-level teachings at no cost to anyone with an internet connection, but it strays from the traditional MOOC model by inviting students to share educational material—studies, reports, and videos, for example—to supplement the online lessons on developmental economics.

MRUniversity’s inaugural course, taught by George Mason professors Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, will be 45 hours long, broken into five-minute videos. Students will be encouraged to interact daily not just with the professors, but with fellow students, who are expected to submit course-related content.

Cowen said he expects MRUniversity’s classes to draw a large international contingent, as have MOOCs like Khan Academy and Coursera, which has formed partnerships with a multitude of elite universities this fall.

For more about how MOOCs are changing the higher-ed landscape, see:

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More than 11,000 people have pre-registered for the online school’s first course, Cowen said. The professors have yet to advertise MRUniversity outside of two short blog posts.

“The ability to understand the fundamentals of development economics and the reasons why some countries are rich while others are poor is critical to students the world over,” Tabarrok said.

The demonstrated worldwide hunger for knowledge—even if it doesn’t lead directly to a college degree—was the impetus for MRUniversity, Cowen said.

“Our driving force was noticing that higher education is changing and wanting to be on the right side of history and to get economics teaching into the hands of everyone who wants to learn about it,” he said. “[Developmental economics] asks a central question and we think a huge market is people aboard partly because they don’t have that much access to this level of content.”

The economics professors designed course delivery with an eye on access.

Lectures will be available via MP3 if students don’t have bandwidth to view videos posted to MRUniversity’s website. The professors also will host frequent virtual and live chats with students.

The online university even provides a detailed tutorial explaining how students can make videos that others can view and discuss on the site.

“Our goal is not merely a series of one-to-many lectures but also a many-to-many learning experience,” Cowen said.

Asked why there is a glut of people seeking economics education without working toward a certificate or degree, Cowen pointed to the success of his Marginal Revolution blog, which has drawn a consistent online audience for 10 years.

“We have a quarter million readers a day who don’t get any credit for reading what I’m writing, but they still do,” he said. “[MRUniversity] is fleshing out that space.”

For more about how MOOCs are changing the higher-ed landscape, see:

17 more top universities offer free cyber courses

Free online courses for college credit? Sort of

Popular video forecasts the end of traditional higher education

Online education advocates and economics educators alike were abuzz about MRUniversity’s launch. Bryan Caplan, another George Mason economics professor and blogger for EconBlog, wrote that his colleagues are going to tap into a worldwide demand for economics knowledge that, until recently, was available only to college students in a brick-and-mortar setting.

“A business idea doesn’t have to precipitate a revolution to add tremendous value. Even if online education tops out at 1 percent of the higher education market, and MRUniversity captures 1 percent of that 1 percent, they’ll be rich,” Caplan wrote. “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.”

Caplan said MRUniversty’s business model isn’t strictly a money-making venture. Cowen confirmed this, saying he and Tabarrok haven’t profited from the launch of the MRUniversity website.

“It won’t be a strong substitute for brick-and-mortar education. It won’t directly make a lot of money,” he wrote. “But it will breathe new life into the timeless subject of economics.”

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