Thursday, February 27, 2014

SPOOCs: SPecialized Open Online Courses

MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, are the most talked about innovation in higher education in a long time.  Clearly they have the potential to offer education at a lower cost than traditional a University-taught course.  They also have, so far, found very limited successes:  Reported drop out rates are often over 90%, they do not capture the socialization component of University education and they are seen as an existential threat by some academics. 

At the other end of the spectrum, I think the SPOOC market is ready to take off.  John Cochrane has recently run a Ph.D. level course in asset pricing on Coursera.  I am certain that I would participated in Cochrane’s course were it available in 1999/2000.  Unfortunately I only had the non-dynamic paper version of a precursor to Cochrane’s course – first as a pre-print PDF and later in hard back.  See here for some analysis and a discussion of the challenges of the course – the comments are also worth reading.

This method of teaching and general communication could do wonders for bright Ph.D. students across the globe.  Some Finance Departments and Business Schools are large enough that they can regularly offer highly specialized courses in areas such as Theoretical or Empirical Market Microstructure.  Most others only offer these courses if they have faculty – permanent or visiting – with some spare teaching capacity and have sufficient students in a cohort to justify the expense. On the other hand, there are regularly first-rate courses taught in the area by field leading academics like Maureen O’Hara, Hank Bessembinder or Terrence Hendershot.  The obvious solution is to match supply with demand.

These courses will never be Massive – the material is simply too difficult and specialized for most students, even many finance or economics Ph.D. students.  On the other hand, they could provide a much richer foundation and increasing breadth to students studying outside of the select Universities with with largest programs.  I would expect that the participation rates would also be much higher than the typical MOOC since students will have more realistic expectations both of the course and of the effort required for success.  The economies of scale will

The SoFiE Summer School

This leads to the natural question as to whether the SoFiE summer school should consider the SPOOC model. 

Preparing the course is a non-trivial endeavor, and I would suspect that it could not be executed this year.  However, the type of material – cutting edge – and the professors giving the course – first rate – are key building blocks for successful SPOOCs.  And if a fully open course is not possibly, it may still be possible to offer the content to SoFiE members, including (especially) student members.

Note: The summer-school-as-a-SPOOC is pure conjecture at this point.  I have not discussed the topic with the SoFiE leadership or the course teachers.

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