“After the Gold Rush”: MOOCs, money, and the education of Richard McKenzie (CHE)

June 05, 2016

On February 21, 2013, Richard McKenzie stood in a California yacht club and prepared to address a modest audience. He was there to talk to members of a local Rotary Club about massive open online courses, or MOOCs, a technological wonder that would soon shake the windows and rattle the walls of college campuses the world over.

A few dozen people had shown up. Mr. McKenzie, an emeritus professor of economics at the University of California at Irvine’s business school, was there to warn them: Don’t buy the hype.

This was not the message Mr. McKenzie had planned to deliver when he pitched the talk two months earlier. Back then he had been convinced that the free, online courses were about to change higher education, and also his own life.

He had spent the fall and winter watching the registration count for his course “Microeconomics for Managers” the way most economists watch a stock ticker. It climbed by hundreds per day: to 10,000, then 20,000, then 30,000 — more students than he had taught in 45 years in the classroom, and more than were enrolled on the Irvine campus.

It had stoked his ambition. Nobody knew what kind of fame or fortune might lie in store for those who staked out territory on the right side of the revolution, but as far as anyone could tell, the potential was huge.

“There is the bragging rights that go with the new course (‘I can now teach tens of thousands of students a quarter’),” the professor wrote that winter in an email to a colleague, as well as “potential financial benefits” from the sale of textbooks and other course materials.

That was before everything fell apart. Before he became overwhelmed by the unwieldiness of a massive online classroom. Before the chief executive of his university’s corporate partner badmouthed him. Before his bosses took her side. Before he lost his intellectual property, then his dignity. Before he decided to sue.

Court documents, along with hundreds of other records obtained by The Chronicle in an open-records request, shed new light on a case that, while covered only briefly in the press, cast a long shadow over one university’s attempt to navigate the uncertainties of innovation.

The records, some of which were heavily redacted by the university’s lawyers before they were turned over to The Chronicle, show how officials and a professor tripped over one another as they raced into the future. At a time when universities faced pressure to adopt the “fail fast” mantra of the tech industry, the rec­ords offer a stark reminder of what haste, and failure, can cost.

It was 2012, and disruption was in the air, in the news, and on the conference agendas.

People were enthralled by MOOCs, online classrooms that could draw bigger crowds than the Rose Bowl. College leaders wondered if the courses, the offspring of Stanford University computer scientists and stepkids of Silicon Valley speculators, were about to turn traditional institutions into dinosaurs. Some professors were pioneers, and others were skeptics.

Richard McKenzie became something rarer: He was a casualty.

Mr. McKenzie, who is now 74, was never supposed to become a successful academic. He grew up in Raleigh, N.C., raised by abusive, alcoholic parents. At age 10, following his mother’s suicide, he was sent to live at a rural orphanage. According to Mr. McKenzie, during his senior year of high school, a professor from a nearby university looked at his IQ and SAT scores and suggested he become a truck driver.

He went to college anyway, eventually earning a doctorate from Virginia Tech. A few years into his academic career, Mr. McKenzie teamed up with Gordon Tullock, a renowned economist who was then at Virginia Tech, on a textbook called The New World of Economics. The text, which focused on using economics to understand human behavior, became a hit. Now in its sixth edition, it is considered a classic of the genre — and a precursor, in Mr. McKenzie’s view, to best sellers such as Freak­onomics.

“Richard has always been fairly optimistic about these projects he gets himself in.”

The Irvine economist remained a man in search of an audience. He wrote dozens of books, some with splashy titles meant to appeal to mainstream readers. Sometimes he would position himself in the slipstream of other, commercially successful texts. After a pair of business professors struck gold with The Millionaire Next Door in 1996,he teamed up with Dwight R. Lee, a Georgia-based economist, to write Getting Rich in America. When Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, made a hit with his 2008 book Predictably Irrational, Mr. McKenzie wrote Predictably Rational?, a rejoinder that used an almost identical cover design.

None of those books catapulted him to national prominence, but he kept cranking out new work. “Richard has always been fairly optimistic about these projects he gets himself in,” said Mr. Lee, who has collaborated with Mr. McKenzie on several books, in an interview. “That’s part of his productivity. Despite the evidence, he’s pretty convinced the next one is going to be a winner.”

In one of his more personal works, The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an Orphanage,Mr. McKenzie connected his tireless work ethic to his traumatic early childhood. “When you have been hollowed out, emotionally emptied, at a very early age, denied a sense of self-worth,” he wrote, “something needs to be created to fill that void.”

He filled the void with numbers. After entering academe, the young economist sought things to count to his name. First it was degrees, then it was books. “When all else I’ve got seems relatively unimportant,” he wrote, “I can remember there are a bunch of cards with my name on them in the Library of Congress.”

And yet in his reflective moments he understood the futility of these attempts to quantify his esteem. Numbers can impress, but they don’t always reflect true value.

“It’s all too easy,” Mr. McKenzie wrote in The Home, “for the count itself, as distinguished from the quality of what is counted, to take on a life of its own.”

[full article here.]

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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