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Teaching an Online Mises Academy Course

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01/10/2011Stephan Kinsella

I've already taught one Mises Academy course (Rethinking Intellectual Property: History, Theory, and Economics) and have another one starting later this month (Libertarian Legal Theory: Property, Conflict, and Society). For those interested in this budding private initiative, the goal of which "is nothing short of reinventing economics education," I thought I would recount some of my thoughts on my experience with it so far.

First, I have to say that the IP course was a pleasure to teach. I was a bit intimidated at first by how to approach it — Should I wear a suit? What if my dogs bark? How much time should I leave for questions? I pestered Tom DiLorenzo and Bob Murphy and Peter Klein with questions on how they had approached their courses. They gave me helpful advice, tips, PowerPoint templates, and so on. It turns out that suits are not needed! DiLorenzo told me he may do a lecture in one of his courses from the beach. That is how cool and amazing this technology and system are.

I learned the technology easily with the help of Jeffrey Tucker and Daniel Sanchez, both involved with Mises Academy. Mises Academy currently uses the DimDim web-meeting service, which permits the professor to flip through a slideshow that all the students see — or even to share other media like YouTube videos (which I used a few times to show the students some of Nina Paley's Minute Memes videos). DimDim also provides a student-chat-room window open on the side, which the students use to chat with each other or to pose questions to the teacher or the teaching assistant. (For a good example, see "Nullification: An Overview," below; my first lecture, "Intellectual Property in History," is also below, but it shows only the slides and audio.)

I had originally planned to ignore the chat window and take up questions in a Q&A session at the end of the lecture. However, I found that I was able to scan the chat window while I was lecturing and see an occasional question pop up among the students' chatter. They were usually on topic; there was no reason to wait till later — so I would pause to address that question or to clarify. It was very similar to a student's raising his hand in class during a lecture to make a brief and pertinent comment, to ask a clarifying question, or to request elaboration on a given point. It worked very well. During the 90-minute period, I would usually lecture for about 50 minutes and take questions for 30 or more minutes (with a short break between) — and we often went past 90 minutes; I usually stayed until the questions petered out.

It was gratifying to see the students typing things like the following at the end of the lectures (these are from the actual IP-lecture chat transcripts):

  • "Thank you, great lecture!"
  • "Thanks, excellent lecture."
  • "Great job."
  • "Great lecture!"
  • "Thank you, Sir. Great lecture!"
  • "Thanks for an excellent talk."

And, at the end of the sixth and last lecture, "Thanks for a great course!"

These heartfelt and spontaneous comments reminded me a bit of times past, when students would applaud at the end of a good lecture by a professor. In this sense, and contrary to what you might expect with the coarsening of manners and the increase of informality in typical Internet fora, for some reason the new, high-tech environment created by Mises Academy seems to foster a return to Old World manners and civility — which is very Misesian indeed! Perhaps it is because these students are all 100 percent voluntary, and they want to learn. They are much like students decades ago, who were grateful to get into college — before state subsidies of education and the entitlement mentality set in, turning universities into playgrounds for spoiled children who often skip the classes, paid for 10 percent by parents and 90 percent by the taxpayer.

I noticed this civility in the chat room: there was no sniping, negativism, or incivility. None. The students were respectful and polite; friendly to and jocular with each other; youthful and exuberant (though not all were young); obviously eager to learn; appreciative of my lectures and my responses to their questions (in the course evaluation one student noted, "The instructor was fantastic and very knowledgeable and answered every question asked"); and they are even appreciative of their fellow students' answers to their peers' questions.

What was remarkable, also, was that the IP course had 70 students from 15 countries (and students from 6 countries are already signed up for my upcoming Libertarian Legal Theory course, with more sure to join). The old guard pooh-pooh new-fangled technology and the Internet, ebooks, MP3 music, etc. They say that online courses are not as good as real college; ebooks are not as good as paper books; people are not "communicating" now like they used to. They miss the static-ridden vinyl LPs or cumbersome CDs, and they bemoan the "reduced musical quality" or "digital harshness" of MP3 music.

This is a the-glass-is-one-fifth-empty way of looking at it. The glass is, instead, four-fifths full. Ebooks are an additional choice; paper books will be around as long as people want them. Digital and Internet-available information is good and is helping to spread the word, and the Mises Institute's open-information approach is wildly successful.1 People are blogging, emailing, and chatting — that's communicating. They are making friends and networking on Facebook.


And, as the Mises Academy experience shows, aspects of the university and classroom experience can be found in a digital setting — with some advantages and, yes, some disadvantages. But so what? Trade offs are part of life. True, the students are not with each other or the teacher in person. But they communicate in different ways, make friends in other countries, and — for a very low price — are able to attend and take a course that is targeted at their interests (and available in recorded form for missed lectures), all with 100 percent free, online reading materials. Some of the criticisms of the Internet, social networking, digital music, and online teaching remind me of the condemnations by opera snobs of the live, HD streaming of opera and other concerts to movie theaters around the world — a great boon for those who otherwise would be unable to experience the performances at all.

There were even a few technical glitches the first few lectures, but the students, amazingly, didn't mind or complain at all. They were cheerful — a real pleasure to interact with.

Now that I've done it once and am familiar with it, I am really looking forward to doing it again. I know I will improve, with the benefit of what I learned last time, and the technical aspects of the web hosting service will continue to upgrade and improve as well.

It was, all in all, a great experience. I can't wait to see how the Mises Academy grows and improves over time. It already offers courses in a diverse range of departments (see "Messages from the Professors"):

This is going to be a great year for the Mises Academy!


Stephan Kinsella

Stephan Kinsella is an attorney in Houston, director of the Center for the Study of Innovative Freedom, and editor of Libertarian Papers.

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