Picture: CHRIS THURMAN
Wits University. Picture: CHRIS THURMAN

ONE of the most exciting developments on the internet over the past few years has been the rise of the "moocs" — an acronym that expands into massive open online courses.

Ever since Coursera and Udacity were spawned by Stanford and edX by Harvard, giving university education away freely via the internet has attracted a fair amount of hostility from less elite tertiary institutions.

Looking at how giving news away via the web has decimated newspapers, I sympathise with university lecturers worrying about their jobs. The distrust of moocs seems to have lessened because universities have shown themselves smarter than press barons at monetising the web. As the mooc critic linked to above article pointed out, it’s just a new form of distance education — something the University of SA (Unisa) has been doing since 1946.

While moocs started free, there has been a growing trend to encourage students to pay for courses in exchange for credits towards a degree. As someone who studied maths and statistics via Unisa many decades ago, I was familiar with the term invigilated exam, but the mooc equivalent, proctored exam, was foreign to me. Mooc proctoring involves using your computer’s camcorder linked to the university’s facial recognition software, along with software able to identify you by your typing, to verify it’s really you doing the assignments and exams.

Looking at Unisa’s website, it does seem to be trying to present itself as a competitor to Coursera, edX and Udacity. I may be doing Unisa and other local universities an injustice since my knowledge of what they teach dates back to the 1980s, but I can’t imagine the courses they are charging for are on par with those the world’s most elite universities are offering for free (assuming you don’t want pay to receive a credit).

The most recent mooc I completed was Stanford’s Game Theory II: Advanced Applications. What impressed me about this course was how "contemporary" the syllabus was — instead of teaching the ideas of long-dead scribblers, it gave an overview of the theories of Nobel economics laureates ranging from 1972 winner Kenneth Arrow to 2014 winner Jean Tirole.

The syllabus included 2005 Noble economics winners Robert Aumann and Thomas Schelling, who is credited with coining the term "collateral damage".

As University of the Free State rector Jonathan Jansen warned in one of his excellent columns, that local universities will end up as collateral damage if the spoilt brats of deployed cadres continue to chase their funding and best staff away.

Perhaps because the US primaries and our local elections are topical, I found Arrow’s theories on voting systems particularly fascinating. He is one dozens of contemporary economists and mathematicians who have contributed fairly easy-to-understand views on our complex world.

Learning the theories of modern economists is an eye opener, and it would be nice if these ideas found their way into our public debate rather the tired old arguments of whether we should revert back to feudalism or 16th century mercantilism. If more of our politicians knew about "Pareto efficiency", they might consider enlarging the pie before fighting over the spoils.

The Stanford professors giving the game theory course are able to teach all this "hot off the press" material because they really know their subject. Sadly, these important ideas from living economists won’t appear in the textbooks used by second- and third-tier universities for decades — especially if, as Prof Jansen warns, academics of that calibre move to elite universities.