Online Upstart’s Goal: MOOC Lectures That Go Viral

Donald J. Boudreaux’s five-minute video lecture on the evolution of human prosperity—complete with slick animation, studio lighting, and killer graphics—looks seamless. Making it, he says, was anything but.

“It was hard,” says Mr. Boudreaux, an economics professor at George Mason University. “There were a lot of takes.”

In all, he spent two full days filming the four lectures that compose his new course, “Everyday Economics.” The result—produced by a professional film studio in San Francisco—is undeniably chic. In the winding path online education has taken, it marks a turn toward video lectures so short, scrumptious, and simple they can stand alone, and perhaps even go viral.

“For this type of material, let’s face it, we’re competing with BuzzFeed,” says Alex Tabarrok, a fellow professor at George Mason and co-founder of Marginal Revolution University, the site offering Mr. Boudreaux’s course. Mr. Tabarrok and another George Mason professor, Tyler Cowen, started Marginal Revolution University in late 2012 as an independent, online platform for economics education. Back then, they touted how easy and cheap it was to slap their bare-bones lectures on the internet.

Now they’re looking beyond the chalk-and-talk format. “We’ve got to be cutesy,” Mr. Tabarrok says. “We’ve got to use all of the technology.”

Using a high-production-values format for online lectures isn’t exclusive to Marginal Revolution University—far from it. Large providers such as edX and Udacity feature similarly stylish videos. But Marginal Revolution University’s evolution—from one-man-band videos to clips resembling Saturday Night Live shorts—suggests that even upstart online providers are ditching the lecture-hall style.

Equally intriguing is the notion of online lectures that leak into the Internet mainstream. In many ways, Mr. Boudreaux’s course, which started on Wednesday, is the perfect test case for that concept. The class addresses basic economic concepts using everyday language. Its videos would look as much at home on a Facebook wall as they might in a syllabus. Just as important, they purposely require no prior knowledge.

“The expectation and certainly the hope is that they’d be stand-alone,” says Mr. Boudreaux.

The course is also piloting a call-and-response model where user response drives content: Mr. Boudreaux will add new videos based on the most common questions he receives from students. Marginal Revolution University’s push to make courses more interactive also reflects industry trends. Carnegie Mellon is developing MOOC technology capable of identifying students’ learning patterns and intervening when necessary. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame are working on software that can read students’ facial cues and adjust material based on looks of confusion or boredom.

Mr. Tabarrok says those advances all point to a future in which cyberlearning is more personalized and student input matters more. “The way I see online education going is actually back to the Oxford tutorial model, where the person had an individual tutor,” says Mr. Tabarrok.

Whether this latest course will move the sector toward that vision, however, remains to be seen.

“I’ll tell you in a few weeks,” he says with a laugh.

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