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Disrupting Online Ed: Mason Economics Professors’ Videos Get Global Views

July 17, 2014

By Buzz McClain

As the higher-education universe struggles with creating and marketing the new field of massive open online courses (MOOCs), the economics professors at George Mason University are already proving to be disruptors.

Everyday Econ image

Mason professor Don Boudreaux makes a point, in fact, several of them. Watch out for those arrows. Photos courtesy of Marginal Revolution University.

A new online video course called Everyday Economics elevates the staid MOOC pedagogy with crisp production and briskly moving scripts that supplement classroom course work. The video was produced by the Mercatus Center at George Mason and posted at the independent Marginal Revolution University founded by Mason professors.

In an effort to start a conversation and perhaps catch additional clickthroughs, future topics addressed by Mason professors will be suggested by Mason students or fans of the videos. Talk about flipping the classroom: The audience is now shaping the course.

Mason economics graduate student Roman Hardgrave, who is also director of Mercatus’ online strategies, produced the videos, writing the scripts in collaboration with professor Don Boudreaux. A San Francisco-based production company added the animations and sound effects that heighten the viewing experience and keep the audience engaged.

For Hardgrave, who explored filmmaking earlier in his career, it was an assignment that combined his passions. “It’s a combination of storytelling and economics,” he says. “It’s fun to come up with ways that entertain but teach at the same time.”

Everyday Economics illustrates how economics affects just about every aspect of life. The four- to five-minute videos, which are as addictive as potato chips (bet you can’t view just one), demonstrate Mason’s and Mercatus’ “evolving video capabilities,” Hardgrave says. “Students are now more and more into video, and we felt this was the right product for communicating our content. This is the next step in online education videos.”

So far, viewers have been looking in from around the world, at the tune of 160,000 views and counting. “There’s a lot of traffic from places like Poland and Hungary,” Hardgrave points out.

In fact, Hardgrave recalls Boudreaux’ lectures fondly when he was the professor’s student. But he would have enjoyed having the video series for reference. “It’s so nice to have the correct explanation at hand and watch it again,” he says. “You can rewind it and pause it and control the speed. It’s like having a personalized lecture.”

The idea of viewers deciding future topics is a way to engage the viewers “and get people talking,” Hardgrave says. “We have people interacting and talking about it. Ideas range from things like ‘should I buy local?’ to more controversial subjects than what we’ve covered so far.”

New courses will arrive periodically as the videos are completed. “There are so many ways to apply economics to everyday life, it’s fun to pick the next topics,” Hardgrave says.

More Boudreaux videos should be posted in August. The next series, by popular demand, will feature influential Mason economics professor and Mercatus Center director Tyler Cowen describing the economics behind food. Cowen is author of the book, “An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies,” and is an avid food blogger. Hardgrave says the course should be on the website in the fall. Meanwhile, those with a question for Cowen, raise your hand.