The Biggest Business MOOC Ever?

by on February 18th, 2014

Yale’s Robert Shiller will be the first Nobel Prize winner to teach a MOOC—for free

It looks like this MOOC is going to be massive.

After all, how often does anyone get to take a class taught by a Nobel Prize winner—for free.

As of earlier this month, 110,000 people have signed up on Coursera for a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) on Financial Markets with 2013 Nobel prize winner and Yale School of Management economics professor Robert J. Shiller. The eight-week course, which started Monday (Feb. 17), is free.

“It’s our most popular course at this point,” says Lucas Swineford, Yale’s executive director of digital dissemination and online education. Already, 110,000 registered signups for an online business course is likely a record, and that number is likely to climb substantially before the course actually begins. Earlier this month, the University of Virginia’s Darden School announced that more than 52,000 students have registered for Professor Michael Lenox’s first MOOC, “Foundations of Business Strategy.”

Shiller Will Cover the Stock and Bond Markets In His Course

The appeal of Financial Markets is, of course, Shiller. With the University of Chicago’s Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen, he won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for research into market prices and asset bubbles. Shiller predicted both the stock market bubble of 2000 and the subprime mortgage meltdown. (“Thanks to Robert Shiller, it is considerably harder than it once was to find economists who believe that financial markets are always efficient,” John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker last year.) Shiller is still predicting bubbles, most recently calling the jump in the value of virtual currency Bitcoin “a bubble” while at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

In a video on the Coursera website to introduce Financial Markets to students, Shiller says he plans to cover sections on the stock market, the bond market, the banking system, the options markets, futures markets, and swaps markets. “Some of these things are kind of unfamiliar to most people, so it’s a beginning course that tries to explain these instruments and, above all, to explain their functioning in a good society,” he says.

Much of the Nobel Laureate’s Financial Markets course content is drawn from an 11-week 2011 Open Yale Course. Week one will include material edited down from several of Shiller’s 2011 lectures, with a new 10-minute introduction. Content will be separated in four sections, by subject. Shiller filmed intros for the course at various Yale campus locations in recent weeks.

Planning for the MOOC Began as Far Back as April of 2013

“He introduces the material and there’s a highlight of the material you are about to watch,” says Sara Epperson, senior manager of online education at Yale. “He highlights things that students should be picking up on.”

The author of the best-selling Irrational Exuberance, which documents the insanity of markets, Shiller’s most recent book, Finance and the Good Society, Princeton, 2012, challenges the public and its leaders to rethink finance and its role in society. As director of the Investor Behavior Project at Yale University, he’s tracked the behavior of U.S. investors since 1984. And in his spare time, he writes the “Economic View” column for the New York Times.

Planning for Shiller’s MOOC began in April 2013—as he was the first professor approached about doing a Coursera course, Swineford says. Three other Yale MOOCs that started in January are drawing, on average, about 85,000 sign ups. The offerings include law professor Akhil Amar’s “Constitutional Law,” the law school’s first online course; psychology professor Paul Bloom’s “Moralities of Everyday Life,” and history of art and classics professor Diana Kleiner’s “Roman Architecture.”

The Largest MOOC Topped Out at About 230,000 People

Sign up is of course no guarantee people will either start or complete any MOOC. (While the largest MOOC has topped out at about 230,000 people, classes more typically draw about 20,000 students, according to Katy Jordan, who studied completion data for 221 MOOCs.

While the Coursera format will be new, Shiller’s 2011 Financial Markets class received mixed reviews of the same course delivered on-campus from students, some who found his class dry. “Be prepared for underwhelming lectures, and every nit-picking detail of the huge amount of reading involved,” one reviewer wrote, while another says “the course material itself is fascinating, and every Yale student should really understand these financial basics before going out into the “real world.” Unfortunately, Professor Shiller, though I think he does really care about his students and does try to teach, is not very good at lecturing.”

Shiller was not available for comment. Asked about the reviews, Swineford said he hadn’t seen the data. “We think having a Nobel prize winner delivering a course is pretty exciting,” he said. In other words, a Nobel Laureate is teaching this course for free. Enough said. Shiller will also have at least three guest speakers in his online class: David Swensen, the chief investment officer of Yale; Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the controversial former CEO of AIG (American International Group), and Laura Cha, a Hong Kong businesswoman.

Yale Got Into the MOOC Game in 2007

Yale University first launched free Open Yale Courses in December 2007, reaching people from 228 countries on iTunes U and YouTube. An announcement of four Coursera courses followed in Nov. 2013; the university opened the courses for public sign up this past January.

The MOOCs differ from the open courses because of their format. Each faculty member is experimenting with different techniques; all are using short videos punctuated with questions and assessments or longer assessments at the end of each section.

According to Yale’s website, Amar’s Constitutional Law course “will recreate the Socratic method by having some teaching sessions where he is in deep dialogue with one or two students.” Kleiner is recruiting six community moderators from around the globe to serve as assistants in online discussion forums. Bloom intends to conduct some live conversations with Coursera students. Shiller’s newly filmed ntroductions will provide a slightly different perspective to his classroom lectures.

Yale joins Princeton, Columbia, Penn, and Stanford, in posting courses with Coursera. Meantime, a Harvard Business School professor is offering the first free MOOC at Harvard, Innovating In Health Care. HBS Professor Regina E. Herzlinger will begin teaching the course on March 31. HBS is expected to launch a portfolio of online courses this spring and could charge for them—as the school does with executive education seminars. Harvard’s online initiative, dubbed HBX, involves substantial investments in technology platform development as well as the construction of the school’s first fully interactive virtual classroom called Studio X in the WGBH building in Brighton.

Students who complete Financial Markets receive a statement of accomplishment, signed by Shiller.

In his class intro, Shiller says he wants the class to cover what goes on in “the real world” of finance, with a forward-looking spin.

“We can’t really predict the future although I’ll try,” he says.


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