The Evolving Journey for MOOCs: Marginal Revolution University and Others Take the Lead

Since the start of the higher education “eLearning” craze in 2006, MOOCs and other web-based open education initiatives have taken off and developed into an industry of its own. Simultaneously, the online open learning space has also grown increasingly competitive and noisy with the influx of subjects, courses, and higher ed providers. This phenomenon, coupled with the never-ending controversy on the value and problems of MOOCs have made it even more difficult for open learning providers to carve out their own niche.

However, providers like Marginal Revolution University (MRU), an online economics education platform affiliated with George Mason University, have been able to adapt to the changing landscape and reach a much broader audience. Here’s a snapshot of what they’re doing right:

1.Shifting to SPOCs (Self-Paced Online Courses)

Early MOOCs resembled distance learning courses. Those who were enrolled had strict homework and quiz deadlines, content was delivered according to a pre-set schedule over the course of a semester, and interactions between course takers were minimal. MRU was an early adopter of the SPOC model, where learners have the option to either enroll in the 16 main courses or access lecture and videos under specific topics as needed. Rigid online learning structures have proved to be a poor fit for the majority of learners, and as a result taking MOOCs has become a much more flexible, on-demand experience. Increased enrollment and better academic performance both indicate that shifting to the SPOC model is a great move for MOOCs.

2.Micro-learning and Edutainment: From Heavy to Lite

Anyone who has sat through a 3-hour afternoon class in college knows how excruciating that experience can be. In a world where attention spans are getting shorter and education providers are constantly competing for attention, MOOC providers have to do much better than hour-long lectures and clip-art PowerPoint slides to survive. MRU first started experimenting with micro-learning lectures back in 2012 by breaking down economics lectures into bite-sized pieces. Beginning in 2014, MRU revamped their video production process and took an “edutainment approach; most notably by introducing high-quality animation shorts to slowly replace traditional, lecture-style content. Their new videos have been known to reach over 100k views on Youtube, proving that MOOC providers can also capture and engage beyond their target audience.

One of MRU’s most popular videos, an introduction to the applications of the Demand Curve.


One of MOOCs’ biggest advantage over traditional, institution-based learning is its ability to serve a broader audience. Students outside of the US account for approximately 73% of those enrolled in MOOCs, and this number continues to grow. The international appeal of MOOCs led to a rise in foreign-language MOOC providers such as XuetangX and FUN, and this also calls for large MOOC providers to make their content more accessible to international audiences. MRU in particular called upon their student community to help translate their most popular videos into different languages, while other platforms have made an effort to include multi-lingual MOOCs from universities across the world. Though 3 out of 4 MOOCs are still taught in English, we’ll definitely see grand-scale internationalization efforts across MOOC providers in the upcoming years.

4.Exploring Corporate Partnerships

Skeptics often bring up financial reasons as one of the biggest challenges MOOC providers currently face: if MOOCs are meant to be truly free and “open for all,” then how can institutions continue to find financial support to create these courses? How can host platforms and institutions monetize? For starters, many MOOC platforms are finding success with corporate partnerships. The “Big 3” MOOC providers Coursera, Udacity, and edX started venturing into the corporate learning business and establishing one-to-one hiring programs based on MOOC certificates, pathways, and degree programs. Other providers are partnering with corporations on platform development and data analytics support and producing sponsored MOOCs to help with recruiting and talent development. While there are still ongoing debates about corporate involvement in MOOCs, corporate partnerships can be beneficial for MOOC providers financially and help them gain more recognition as companies start hiring more MOOC graduates.

About Marginal Revolution University (MRU)

Founded in 2012 by George Mason University economics professors Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, Marginal Revolution University is building the world’s largest online library of free economics education videos — currently weighing in at more than 800 videos. Whether it’s an overview of micro and macro principles, a “duel” between leading thinkers, or a primer on the rise and fall of China’s economy, MRU’s videos bring viewers up to speed on what they need to know about economics. MRU is a non-profit, offering free and easily accessible resources both at and on YouTubeTo learn more about MRU’s quest to create high production quality educational videos, listen to their interview at SXSWedu 2016 here.

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