15 October 2012

An Education Revolution Starts with Economic Development

The George Mason University economics duo of Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok may be best known for their economics blog, Marginal Revolution. The two Economists stand at the forefront of innovating how the discipline of economics is learned and shared. They blog at at relentless pace with little or no financial gain, a rather curious pursuit by men steeped in economic theory. However, the site has grown to become one of the more popular blogs with over 50 million visits to date.

Cowen's book The Great Stagnation represented another step towards experimentation. The 128 page book was published in electronic form first and came in at a reasonable price of $3.99. The duo took it further with the recent launch of Marginal Revolution University. The aim of MRU is to make education, better, cheap and accessible. The online platform is intended to reach a large audience. That means that it is low-bandwidth optimized, lessons are quick and to the point, there are no advertisements and it is free.

"We think that learning economics is important. We think learning economics can make the world a better place," explains Tabarrok in the introductory video, answering why the two are taking the time to create a free platform.

The first course from MRU launched at the beginning of the month and focuses on Economic Development. "We're asking what is perhaps the most important question in all of economics. Why are some countries rich while other countries are poor?" states Tabarrok. "For billions of people that is a life and death question, and we think that economics has something to add to that question."

The course is divided into 22 sections that include a series of videos. Subjects range from Migration to Corruption. A final section will focus specifically on India and its path towards development.The first four sections a completely published along with the corresponding practice questions for each section. By far the most interesting section available right now is one titled People.

Important thinkers in the field of economic development are highlighted with lessons that explain their theories and relevance to the field. What makes it great is that it allows for the expansion of understanding in terms of influences on economic development. The Sachs-Easterly debate grabs attention and the randomistas are making their own waves, but there are plenty of other thinkers like Sen, Rodrik, de Soto, Ostrom and Shumpeter who are all important in the discussion of theory.

As a development nerd, the course is exciting because it covers what I believe to be a very important field. More importantly, MRU lowers the barrier to access for engaging in the subject of economic development. A seasoned aid professional and an undergraduate student can both use the platform to learn about aspects of economic development that they did not know before.

What will be most interesting to monitor with the release of MRU is the question if it is able to reach people in low-bandwidth parts of the world. The transformative potential exists, but it is still a matter of getting the information to people and for them to then consume it. Higher education is a subject that garners less attention that many others when it comes to development. Despite that, it is very important and MRU could play a role in supporting higher education.