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First love, then Finance

University of Michigan’s Gautam Kaul on educating 400K people around the world in Finance

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Many MOOCs are popular, but only a handful have had enrollments that have exceeded 100,000 in a single class. One of them is Coursera’s Intro to Finance, taught by Gautam Kaul, which had 130,000 sign-ups for the first class in mid-2012, and has about 80,000 student each time it is offered three times a year.

Gautam Kaul is a Professor of Finance, in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Class Central’s Charlie Chung, a University of Michigan MBA Class of 2004 graduate, took Gautam’s class on campus, and a decade later, still remembers the passion and clarity with which he taught. Charlie sat down with Gautam (via Google Hangout), to discuss his thoughts on his course, finance, and MOOCs in general.

The image and importance of Finance today

The financial industry has lately had its reputation tarnished, and has become identified with short-sightedness and greed because of numerous mismanagement scandals and its role in recent economic downturns. But finance is used by firms across all industries, not just financial services, as well as by nonprofit organizations. Gautam describes two factors that came together in giving finance its recent negative image:

Current Image of Finance

“It is the incentive structures that led to this and our lack of understanding of systemic problems…people associate knowing finance with doing bad stuff, which is not true.  Humans do bad stuff, finance doesn’t do bad stuff” 

So why is finance important today? How does it help us make better decisions? Charlie asked Gautam what the biggest ‘aha’ moments were for his MOOC students regarding finance. Gautam replied that it was similar to his in-person classes: understanding the nature of compounding. In fact, the key thing finance provides is an organized way of incorporating this unintuitive concept into decision-making:

“Aha” Moments in Finance

“The notion of compounded growth or compounded discounting is so powerful that the human mind can’t capture it because it’s nonlinear….research shows that humans are very uncomfortable with nonlinear things.  Finance has this built to its thinking and that’s what creates the “aha” moments repeatedly” 

A word about MOOC dropout rates

Gautam relayed a humorous story about how his MOOC started. Coursera initially reached out to the University of Michigan for a partnership, and Gautam was one of the first professors the university reached out to. He received an email that mentioned teaching thousands of students, and he was about to mark it as spam folder (evidently, teachers receive emails that sound like this), until he noticed it was from the Provost’s Office! Well it’s a good thing, because his first class had 130K enrollments, and the subsequent courses had over 80K enrollments. Of course these numbers include a number of “dropouts”, a subject much talked about, and something Gautam has been looking at in his advisory role with the Office of the Provost on digital education initiatives. Gautam acknowledges concerns with the high “dropout rate” but also raises a good point, that on-campus students may also show interest in or go to a first class and then ultimately choose not enroll:

On MOOC Dropout Rates

“People register for far more [on campus] classes than they take and so if you look at completion rates in real-time classes and only look at people who showed interest in the class, completion rates will look half as high for a tough class than they would otherwise.” 

It has been observed by many others that the denominator of the dropout rate (or completion rate) is not an accurate representation of the commitment to take a course. Thus it would be a great improvement if we used some other metric of enrollment (e.g. # of participants active after the first week). However, we must all (teachers, providers, commentators) share in the blame of being so enamored with the high initial enrollment numbers, that we constantly cite and reinforce them (e.g. the 130K in this article), while at the same time protesting that they are misleading numbers to compare against.

Like love, learning is a personal experience

The one thing that stuck with me from Gautam’s class 11 years ago was his rather bold metaphysical claim that the most important thing in life was love (not too controversial), and second was finance (probably not a widely held view). What impressed, however, was the conviction with which Gautam described the beauty of finance. We were awe-inspired by how awe-inspired he was. And maybe that is the point. With exceptional teachers, you not only see the subject matter clearly, you also see their passion for their subject in a pure and transparent way, and they model for you what it is like to love learning something for its own sake. And that often ignites a passion for learning in students, as many will attest. Gautam concludes the interview by sharing view of learning as a personal experience:

Gautam Kaul – Learning is Personal

“Yes, group learning is good, forums are good, a great teacher is good, but learning is like love, it is a very personal experience, a very human thing…MOOCs are awesome because they are opening up new doors to satisfying your own learning curiosity.” 

It was a pleasure to sit down with Gautam again, to hear about his MOOC, his thoughts on finance, and to see (no, feel) that his passion for finance and learning remains as strong as ever. If you want to take his MOOC, you can look for the next session of Gautam’s Intro to Finance MOOC here.

(For the full 45-minute interview, you can find  a video of the full interview with Gautam Kaul on Class Central’s YouTube page).

Comments 1

  1. Amit Bharti

    Great learning & Teaching Experience..


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