The Plan: Smashed and Surpassed
A few years after the Internet opened for business, people began to speculate about its use as an alternative to the physical classroom. As technology improved over time, and face time and group meetings became viable, the idea seemed ever more promising.
But as with all technology, it was useless without a precise plan in place that meets human needs and passes the test of economic viability. This is the stage that is hidden from public view — and the stage in which dreams come head-to-head with reality.
In the case of the Mises Academy, the thinking and planning stage lasted fully 10 years. An early release would have meant a massive waste. We would have spent vast time, labor resources, and money on a project that did not meet the human need at either the producer or consumer level. Both professors and students have opportunity costs for participating, and those have to be compensated.
What is the model to make it happen? That was always the sticking point. In the years between 1997 and 2010, thousands of online academies came and went with little to show for the effort. Why? Nothing worked out for either the supply or the demand. But, just as with any market sector, there is a point to failure. It shows what not to do, which, in a world of infinite possible paths forward, is important information in the process of finding the right solution.
After watching and learning and adapting, the Mises Academy finally opened its doors in March 2010, 16 months ago. It has been a wild success, by which I mean that both the supply and the demand are there and the technology is suitable for making the exchange possible. We found the solution, and we are making it happen. It is a beautiful thing to observe.
However, that does not mean that there have not been surprises. Building something requires that you have a vision going forward about what the results will look like. We know that the results will in fact be very different from the prediction, but it is impossible to know in which respect the results will diverge from the plan or the final shape of what will emerge. Every startup like this ends up being a leap into the unknown.
You try to leave the discovery process as open as possible, and also create a platform that can adapt to new information as it comes along. You can plan and plan, but in the end Mises is right: "Progress cannot be organized." So there must be room to adapt: "The creative spirit innovates necessarily. It must press forward. It must destroy the old and set the new in its place." The capacity to adapt ends up being more important than even the ability to plan ahead. We all love planning, but if that's all there were to making progress possible, it would be easy. It is the adapting that is the tricky part.
Let's look at the plan, then the reality, then the adaptation.
Expectation #1: We thought most students would be the usual matriculating college students — as in students as we've always known.
Reality: It is an unusual college student who is willing to take time away from studies and socializing to pay for another class that is rigorous, requires reading, and adds to the stresses already associated with being a student. It happens, but it is rare. Perhaps 20 percent of the attendees are American matriculating undergraduate students. Many foreign matriculating students attend, bringing the total to 30 percent. We are also likely to attract high-school students, who are seeking intellectual stimulation, and graduate students, who crave relief from the nonsense they are getting in their usual classes.
What about the rest of the class-taking population? They are extremely diverse: software CEOs, American workers for multinationals stationed in far-flung places, homeschooling parents, military officers looking to understand the real world, firemen and paramedics, estate planners, Wall Street financial analysts, English-speaking professors teaching in foreign countries, physicians, technology consultants, systems admins for major corporations, warehouse managers and workers, and many more.
In fact, with the thousands who have already taken classes in the academy, there is probably no country, occupation, or station in life that has not been represented in some form among the Mises Academy student population.
Perhaps this is not surprising in retrospect. But we had not anticipated this going into the project. The definition of student has changed — or perhaps it was unknown until recently. It is not a specific demographic. Anyone and everyone can be a student at any point in life.
I must say that it absolutely takes my breath away to know that the whole of the world's population is the fertile ground for these efforts (with allowances for language differences), that 250 people from 250 different spots on the earth can simultaneously gather to study a classic book in the Austrian tradition written perhaps 50 years ago — and under the guidance of a faculty member who can live and work anywhere.
If the professor is travelling, he or she can easily lead the class by just opening a laptop in a hotel room or even a quiet coffee shop. On the other side of the fiber optics sit hundreds of students from all over the world — it could be a small hut in rural Australia or an apartment in a skyscraper in Toronto — eagerly awaiting the next lecture or discussion.
This can and does really happen in our time, right now, every day, in the Mises Academy!
The adaptation here was not hard. We just changed our thinking about our mission. And when we looked at the student introductions and the forums, we found precisely what we wanted. The students are all fired up on the ideas that the Mises Institute represents every day. They are well read, super passionate about ideas and learning, dedicated to new forms of thinking about economy and society, and hungry to know and read more under the guidance of a professor.
Many people have noted that the Mises Academy has made possible an ideal in which the professor is the first among equals amid a student population that is buying the services directly from the teacher, without the interface of a gigantic state bureaucracy. What this means is that the professor is teaching to attentive listeners, getting feedback from 100 percent of the people there; and thus the joy that comes from trading in commercial life can in fact be carried over to the academic marketplace. In our times, for something like this to happen is just remarkable.
Expectation #2: The Mises Academy will offer 60 or 100 different classes on every subject.
Reality: This is not necessary, possible, or even desirable. The setup time for one class is much more extensive than we imagined, and offering fewer classes in a digital world actually economizes on the impressive scalability of the digital media. Unlike the physical class, which can only accommodate a certain number, the digital class can hold 1,000 people with no strain at all. This means that one class can do the work of 100 classes in the physical world.
In other words, the scalability advantage is vertical, not horizontal. Again this is obvious in retrospect, but it was not obvious going into this. The adaptation has been to do less and do it really well. We stopped hoping for endless choice and starting to hope for high quality among a few offerings. We now have teaching assistants to help set up classes, monitor lectures and office hours, and help the professor make the class a fantastic experience for everyone.
Expectation #3: The digital environment will necessarily be colder and more mechanical than the physical one.
Reality: The social environment is happy, warm, inviting, and thrilling because everything that happens is voluntary and united on a single focus. Also (and this was something else we hadn't expected) people are making friends from all over the world, engaging with each other in the forums and chat rooms, and pretty much talking amongst themselves around the clock every day for the whole duration of the class. They share ideas, readings, tips, reflections, experiences, and more. It turns out to be a great way to build a global network of friendships!
The adaptation here was to stop trying to make the Mises Academy like a physical university classroom and realize that there are huge disadvantages associated with the physical experience we've all had and massive advantages that come with learning in a digital world, not only academically but socially as well. We added forums and networking opportunities of all sorts and let the culture of each class shape itself according to the preferences and ideas of the customer-students.
Expectation #4: We wondered if we would have teachers willing to commit without a guaranteed student population and compensation.
Reality: As it turns out, we have a wonderful faculty that is willing to take the up-front risk in exchange for the opportunity to push forward the boundaries of education. Each class they offer really amounts to an entrepreneurial action, like opening a business. They must be involved in design, promotion, and customer-service support. It turns out that they love breaking out of the bureaucratic mire of the typical college structure. They love the fun that comes with teaching to an audience of people who have made the choice to be there, and they are happy to explain to a listening world why people should sign up.
The adaptation here was to embrace and love the uncertainty that comes with opening a class with no guarantees for anyone. No one knows if a class will have zero or a thousand, and that very risk factor leads to excitement and innovation in promotion and teaching. Now we have a faculty in place that is united in this spirit — which also happens to be the same spirit that is driving forward the world of commerce today. Who better than Austrians to warm up to the idea of introducing a direct producer-consumer relationship in teaching?
We've been very open about our model and software. Why has it not yet been copied by others in our sector of life? I think this is the reason: it takes special people to embrace entrepreneurship.
Expectation #5: It would take many years before the Mises Academy developed its reputational capital to compare with the prestige of a physical institution.
Reality: People who have taken, completed, and received good grades in a Mises Academy class are finding huge advantages to listing this on their résumés and applications. This type of thing says to a potential employer or academic institution: "I'm a technologically savvy self-starter who is wiling to try new things, learn new things, and do new things even though no one is standing over me to demand this of me — and I excel in unconventional environments."
This is precisely what employers and graduate schools are looking for in a person. And this is why so many students are listing the Mises Academy as their school of choice in their Facebook profiles and why our classes are appearing in so many résumés and vitas. We've been told by many hedge-fund managers, Internet startup companies, media firms, and others, that graduates of classes from the Mises Academy are their best workers and thinkers.
This kind of information spreads fast these days. The adaptation here was to stop thinking of the Mises Academy as an experiment in a future form of learning and realize that the future is here now. The Mises Academy is playing a huge role right now in the world of ideas to connect professors and students in new ways and make new forms of learning possible. This learning is not just for self-improvement. It is a path toward professional success as well.
So in all these ways and more, we've been amazed, surprised, and impressed, not at how the "plan" worked, but rather the opposite: the plan did not work as expected; it has been blown up and surpassed by something more grand, productive, adaptive, and beautiful than we ever imagined. Once again, we can't help but be grateful to know that the plan didn't come to fruition. Our minds are too limited, too biased, too stuck in the past to imagine the things that human action can make on its own, provided we are ready to embrace the environment of freedom to let it happen.