October 1st, 2012: Development Economics at Marginal Revolution University

MRU is up and running!  Find out why two economists, Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen, are offering economics courses for free.

Their first course is Development Economics.  The class covers everything from basic facts about poverty and prosperity to the specific variables (education, migration, property rights, good water, and more) that are related to economic growth.

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September 28th, 2012: US Department of Ed. releases 3 year student loan default rates

The U.S. Department of Education today released official FY 2010 two-year and official FY 2009 three-year federal student loan cohort default rates. This is the first time the Department has issued an official three-year rate, which was 13.4 percent nationally for the FY 2009 cohort, a slight decrease from the trial three-year rate of 13.8 percent for the FY 2008 cohort. For-profit institutions had the highest average three-year default rates at 22.7 percent, with public institutions following at 11 percent and private non-profit institutions at 7.5 percent.

“We continue to be concerned about default rates and want to ensure that all borrowers have the tools to manage their debt,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “In addition to helping borrowers, we will also hold schools accountable for ensuring their students are not saddled with unmanageable student loan debt.”

The Department is in the process of switching from a two-year cohort default rate to a three-year measurement as required by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. The national two-year rate rose to 9.1 percent for the FY 2010 cohort, from 8.8 percent in FY 2009.   Read more at the Department of Education Website

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Some thoughts on Coursera

For the last couple of months, we’ve been testing out Coursera. We’ve enrolled in courses like Greek and Roman Mythology, The Affordable Health Care Act, Introduction to Finance, History of the World Since 1300 and a few others. Here are some of our thoughts about the platform.

We love that Coursera is helping to “democratize” education by increasing access to education for those who can’t afford it or aren’t able to get into the Coursera partner schools. However, Coursera hasn’t yet solved one of the fundamental problems with traditional college education, which is that most college lectures are really hard to sit through. In order for Coursera to do more than simply increase access to education, it needs to address this problem. How can it do this?

To begin with, we need to think about why college lectures are, in fact, so difficult to sit through. We think there are two obvious reasons. The first is that they are too long. Most humans are incapable of staying focused on one thing for much longer than 15 or 20 minutes, especially when they’re being bombarded with emails and text messages. The second reason is that most college professors just aren’t great orators. There are, of course, some very talented professors who have a magical ability to captivate their students’ attention for long periods of time, but these people are few and far between.

So what can Coursera do to make its platform more engaging and thus, more effective? First of all, it should break up all the lectures into more manageable pieces. It seems to be doing this with some of its courses but it should do this consistently with all of its courses! This may, in some cases, require professors to change the structure of their lectures. Second, it should limit its course offerings to professors who are really good. The beauty of MOOCs is that they solve the scale problem — they allow you to give thousands of people access to one professor. Allowing every college professor onto the platform defeats the purpose. Based on our (granted somewhat limited) survey of the courses on the platform, we think Coursera can do slightly better job of filtering what professors/courses end up on the site.

All this being said, we do see some cool things happening on Coursera. For example, some courses are offering “certificates of completion.” This helps deal with the oft-discussed certification issue. We also saw some great interactive features in some of the lectures and some innovative ideas related to evaluation/grading.

We’re sure the folks at Coursera will continue to experiment and come up with more effective pedagogies than a video of the traditional college lecture. We’ll be keeping tabs on them.

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Dropout Nation (PBS Frontline) Aired September 25th, 2012

Frontline aired an excellent piece about students (at a public high school in Houston) who are struggling with the pressure to stay in school and the forces that pull them away. Below is a preview. You can watch the full program online here.

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September 19th, 2012: Coursera adds 17 more university partners

Today, Coursera added 17 universities, which doubles the number of their partners.   Four of them are international schools (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, University of British Columbia, and University of Melbourne).  Brown University and Columbia University have also joined the mix.   Coursera is now offering 200 courses and serving over 1.3 million students.

An interesting bit from a NY Times article on this:

The caliber of Coursera’s partners — Princeton, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania were among the original partners — has given it credibility and cachet in higher education circles, so much so that some university presidents have begun to fret that it will reflect badly on them if they fail to sign on.

“You’re known by your partners, and this is the College of Cardinals,” said E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State, one of the new partners. “It’s some of the best universities in the country.”

Mr. Gee, whose university will offer two courses from its College of Pharmacy, said he had some concerns about giving away content with no revenue stream in sight.

“That does keep me up at night,” he said. “We’re doing this in the hope and expectation that we’ll be able to build a financial model, but I don’t know what it is. But we can’t be too far behind in an area that’s growing and changing as fast as this one.”

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Daphne Koller gives a TED talk about Coursera

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More Free Education: Marginal Revolution University

The proliferation of free online education platforms continues. Today Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok (both economics professors at George Mason University) announced the launch of Marginal Revolution University, an online education platform for economics. From their blog:

Here are a few principles behind MR University:

1. The product is free (like this blog), and we offer more material in less time.
2. Most of our videos are short, so you can view and listen between tasks, rather than needing to schedule time for them.  The average video is five minutes, twenty-eight seconds long.  When needed, more videos are used to explain complex topics.
3. No talking heads and no long, boring lectures.  We have tried to reconceptualize every aspect of the educational experience to be friendly to the on-line world.
4. It is low bandwidth and mobile-friendly.  No ads.
5. We offer tests and quizzes.
6. We have plans to subtitle the videos in major languages.  Our reach will be global, and in doing so we are building upon the global emphasis of our home institution, George Mason University.
7. We invite users to submit content.
8. It is a flexible learning module.  It is not a “MOOC” per se, although it can be used to create a MOOC, namely a massive, open on-line course.
9. It is designed to grow rapidly and flexibly, absorbing new content in modular fashion — note the beehive structure to our logo.  But we are starting with plenty of material.
10. We are pleased to announce that our first course will begin on October 1.

Point 2 suggests that MRU will be more like Khan Academy than Coursera or other platforms, which by and large just take the traditional college lecture and put it online. We’re really interested to see how points 7 and 9 work as there aren’t many platforms that have experimented with user-generated content. One thing the post does not mention is certification, which remains a barrier to the adoption of free online education as a substitute for traditional forms of education. Salman Khan and John Henessey have discussed this issue and some platforms are beginning to try and tackle it (e.g. the edX certificate). Cowen and Tabarrok make no mention of certification in the announcement. It will be interesting to see if they address this at all when they launch. Stay tuned for updates on MRU.

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