• August 21, 2014

Welcome to Star Scholar U., Where a Personal Brand Is the Credential

Welcome to Star Scholar U 2

Keri Rasmussen for The Chronicle

Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason U., helped build an online-education site, Marginal Revolution U, based on a blog he runs with Alex Tabarrok. "In part we did it just to show it could be done—that you can have a Web site which looks nice and works," Mr. Cowen said.

A new kind of university has begun to emerge: Call it Star Scholar U.

Professors with large followings and technical prowess are breaking off to start their own online institutions, delivering courses with little or no backing from traditional campuses.

Founding a university may sound dramatic, but in an era of easy-to-use online tools it can be done as a side project—akin to blogging or writing a textbook. Soon there could be hundreds of Star Scholar U's.

Two recent examples are Marginal Revolution University, started by two economics professors at George Mason University, and Rheingold U, run by the author and Internet pioneer Howard Rheingold. To be clear, these professors are using the word "university" loosely—they award no credit and claim no spot on any college ranking. And they probably won't become rich through their teaching. But the gambit gives them full control over the content and delivery methods. And it offers their personal brands as a kind of credential.

A key inspiration has been Salman Khan. The former financial analyst opened his Khan Academy six years ago, a Web site with short lecture videos that are now supplemented by online quizzes. It's a self-service operation, intended as a resource both for students and for instructors who want to use the material as part of their traditional courses. The site sent a subversive message to reform-minded professors: You don't have to wait for your university to change; you can teach in new ways right now—on your own.

Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun said he was inspired to start his online-education company, Udacity, after hearing Mr. Khan at a conference, and the professors who founded Coursera, another new platform for online coursesrovider, also say Khan Academy influenced their project. Udacity and Coursera have quickly become the largest providers of what have been dubbed massive open online courses, or MOOC's, and together they have attracted more than two million students for courses taught by leading professors in a range of fields. In many cases, the star power of the professors has been as much of a draw as the elite universities they teach for.

One of the founders of Marginal Revolution University, Tyler Cowen, watched professors and colleges rushing to form partnerships with Coursera and Udacity and decided that he could do the same type of thing on his own. Mr. Cowen already runs one of the most popular blogs about economics, called Marginal Revolution, which draws about 200,000 visitors a day. So along with the blog's co-author, Alex Tabarrok, he built an similar online-education platform, with some technical help from a center at George Mason, where both he and Mr. Tabarrok hold positions in the economics department.

"In part we did it just to show it could be done—that you can have a Web site which looks nice and works," Mr. Cowenhe said. "You really can create your own course in a very cheap way."

And since it can be done, expect to see more professors get into the act. And stay tuned: Even people with more experience as actors than as academics are winning over students in new video-based classrooms.

How to Build a College

Here's how easy it is to build your own online university these days:

Mr. Cowen said that he records his video lectures on his couch at home, using an iPad app that cost about $4. The software records his voice as he narrates a series of slides and drawings, then creates a video that he can upload to YouTube. He typically spends about an hour making each five-minute lecture video.

The first course at Marginal Revolution University, called "Developmental Economics," consists of about 200 short videos, on topics that include "labor market regulation," "corruption indices," and "the economics of Bollywood." Most of the video lectures are paired with multiple-choice questions that test comprehension.

Mr. Cowen hopes the site will become a library of explanatory videos about economics, not all of which will be organized into courses. He pictures a day when professors routinely make videos to explain their latest research findings to supplement their scholarly papers. "In less than five years most papers of every note will have a five-minute video," Mr. Cowen predicts. "People can view it, rewind, rewatch, relisten. You can show it to classes."

He and his co-author have also written a textbook together. Mr. Cowen says making videos seems like another natural way for professors to share their knowledge with colleagues and the public. The professors say they have no plans to charge for anything on the site or to sell advertising. They say their main goal is to reach audiences in other countries that may not have access to higher education.

George Mason University is credited as a "supporter" of Marginal Revolution University, and it has lent some technical help. But all the editorial control rests with Mr. Cowen and Mr. Tabarrok, who say they hope to add videos made by a wide range of economics professors around the world.

I asked George Mason's provost, Peter Stearns, what the university gets out of the deal. "The only way to respond is with reasonable candor," he said. "This was their baby, they did it. They told us about it—central administration and also their own dean—only when the project was well advanced." Since then, the institution has encouraged the spin-off university and wants to learn from it, the provosts added, but George Mason will probably also build its own free online courses "that will be more clearly ours in terms of institutional backing."

For Howard Rheingold, meanwhile, starting Rheingold U was not about teaching the masses via video. He keeps his classes small, capping enrollment at just 30 students, and focuses on putting the group to work in creative ways. During a weekly video lecture for his current course, called "Think-Know Tools," he asked two or three students to seek out and post supplementary links, two students to write up short summaries of those resources, another student to write a summary of the online discussion, and had others take on other roles. In between the live video sessions, students use software Mr. Rheingold developed called Social-Media Classroom to collaborate on projects. "One thing I'm thinking about is the process of organizing and refining and distilling knowledge," Mr. Rheingold said.

He charges $300 per student for his six-week courses. His overhead is low—he pays about $500 to Blackboard for a license to use the company's software to run his live video sessions. His goal is to cover the cost of his time, not make a huge profit, he said. "I don't want to charge $500 to $1,000 for it and rule out some of the more interesting people to participate," he explained.

Mr. Rheingold's specialty is online communities, and he has written several popular books about the social impacts of technology, including his latest, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. He characterizes himself as an independent scholar rather than "a career academic," although he does teach as an adjunct at both Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley.

Will this be a new type of opportunity for contract faculty to strike out on their own? "I don't think this is going to be a hugely popular thing," he said, "because of its uncertainty." He compared it to being a freelance writer rather than on a staff—being your own boss can be a lot more work and hassle.

Teacher as Performer

Salman Khan never taught at a college before starting his online-video academy, so it figures that he has inspired other outsiders to try teaching via the Web.

One example is a 35-year-old video blogger named John Green. He and his brother Hank started out making witty, low-budget YouTube videos on a variety of topics, with the goal of teaching while making viewers "feel cool."

Millions of people watched their videos, and that got the attention of YouTube executives. Last year the company approached the Greens, who call themselves the Vlogbrothers, and offered them their own Web series, with a budget that let them hire a team of animators to illustrate their educational videos.

The result is called Crash Course, with John teaching world history and Hank teaching biology, in 12-minute segments released every few days.

The video lectures are full of irreverent jokes and sight gags reminiscent of The Daily Show and Conan O'Brien. All of it is free to watch, and it is supported by advertisements that run before each video.

I was curious how John described himself—as teacher, or, as they say in Hollywood, talent?

"You mean who am I to teach world history, because I am a complete fraud on that front?" he quipped. He admits he doesn't have the credentials to call himself a professor, so he doesn't. He has a B.A. in English from Kenyon College but little expertise in the subject he's teaching. He hired his high-school history teacher, Raoul Meyer, to write the content of the episodes. Mr. Green's role is to add jokes and otherwise translate the material into a form that will keep people watching online. He said he picked world history as his focus because it is "clearly the funniest" subject and it let him pick areas that interested him without pretending to be comprehensive. "It's such an outlandish idea that you can teach the history of the world in 600 minutes," he said.

He wouldn't give details about how much each episode, filmed in a studio in Indianapolis, costs to produce, but he described it as "expensive."

Mr. Green stressed that Crash Course videos are not intended to replace college lectures. "We want to get people excited about going to class," he said.

But the project, which has been effective in attracting millions of viewers, raises an important question. If carefully prepared video lectures become the norm, why should professors deliver them? Why not hire an actor to read the same lines?

Until then, Mr. Green has a piece of advice for professors producing videos of their lectures: "Man, talk faster."

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