Robert Shiller, who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, is the instructor of Financial Markets, one of the most popular courses on Coursera. We sat down to talk with him about what it’s like to win a Nobel Prize, why he decided to teach online, and what learners can expect from his new Financial Markets course—including new lectures, “Chalk Talks”, and student “Salons.”
How has winning the Nobel prize impacted your life?
I’m honored by the Nobel prize because it’s generally awarded to people who aren’t celebrities but who make real contributions, often quietly behind the scenes. So, I’m trying hard to live up to the prize, and that’s made me very busy!
Your course has been one of the most popular online courses of all time. What motivated you to create it?
Broadly, I think that the internet age is a fundamental revolution in our society, and I want to see it work. I think that the kind of education that used to be reserved for a few people at elite colleges should be shared around the world, and I’m happy to be a part of that.
In terms of my course specifically, after I received the Nobel Prize, I had the opportunity to think about my role as an academic and what I could do to support others in the field. I realized that the Coursera platform could help me reach thousands of learners and give back to the community by sharing my knowledge. So, in February 2014, I partnered with administrators at Yale to launch the Coursera Financial Markets course.
Why is it important for learners to educate themselves on financial markets?
Financial markets can have a big impact on anyone’s life—markets affect food and housing prices, asset values, job security, and more. We often hear about the economy as it relates to the current political climate, and it’s important to understand how politics affects the markets, including the United Kingdom’s steps toward exiting the common market, and the U.S. presidential election process.
What’s new in the course that learners should be excited about?
The original Financial Markets course was significantly focused on the 2008 crisis and what could go wrong in the markets. The new course removes that focus and takes a broader approach to the markets.
We’ve also created a more interactive format for the course by introducing Chalk Talks, which are short segments with my teaching assistant, Arun. It feels like a one-on-one instructional experience.
And we added Salons, a term we’ve re-invented to mean meetings with students to discuss what comes to their mind. It’s like office hours. I think they will help motivate learners.
What impact can a learner have on the world of financial capitalism after taking this course?
I pride myself on teaching a course that provides principles of action for people who want to make a mark on the world. Finance is a big part of any institution—for-profit and nonprofit institutions, governments, etc. If you understand finance, you can make a big impact on the world. I definitely encourage students studying finance to reflect on the philanthropic opportunities they might have, and to think about how they can give back.
The world seems to have changed a lot since the initial launch of the course. For example, after Brexit and the Trump election many were expecting markets to tank, but for the most part they haven’t. Why not? How does this course help learners make sense of situations like this?
One of the first things to inculcate in a finance course is that markets are not very predictable—there’s a random element that enters into all financial markets. We try to puzzle over why these developments happen, but I don’t think we’ll ever know completely. We can try.
I also think that the really big changes that are happening in the world are bigger than Brexit or the U.S. presidential election process. We’ve witnessed a period of spectacular economic growth around the world, especially in emerging countries, tied to the application of basic principles of finance. We must see to it that this growth continues with the inclusion of ever more people.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently writing a book and developing a course based on it. The book is an outgrowth of my 2017 presidential address before the American Economic Association, entitled “Narrative Economics,” about the importance of popular theories and stories in determining economic outcomes. This is a new approach to learning about finance and the markets, and helps to humanize the concepts.18