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Lessons Learned from the Wharton MOOCs

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I recently completed a four-course sequence from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School that included courses on operations management, marketing, financial accounting, and corporate finance. I’m happy to say the courses were fulfilling and have provided substantial support to my professional career.

What did I take away from my four Wharton MOOCs? The courses certainly reinforced that I have strong and weak areas. I’m most effective at managing what I call “semi-formal” systems, where analytical techniques and practical applications overlap. I thought Professor Terwiesch’s operations management course hit that sweet spot nicely—it wasn’t as theoretical as some operations research courses I’d taken and not as practical as on-site management training.

I’ve also thought a bit about the rhetoric of the courses and how their presentation argues for or against on-campus programs, reflect on Wharton as an institution, and my personal growth as a result of my studies.

Do the Wharton MOOCs argue for or against attending the on-campus program?

MOOC critics often raise the concern than providing even part of a curriculum for free reduces the likelihood that students will choose to pay for the on-campus version of the program. I don’t believe this critique holds for the Wharton School or graduate-level programs from institutions such as MIT, Stanford, or the University of Michigan. Anyone who has completed undergraduate training in a field knows who the heavy hitters are at the next level, and Wharton is easily in that group for MBA candidates.

Business careers are built on relationships. Corporate finance, especially, is an unforgiving arena where years of exemplary performance can be undone by a momentary lapse of reason that costs millions of dollars. Sharing knowledge gleaned from one’s successes and failures, not to mention acquiring new jobs after the latter, helps analysts solidify their status within the industry and find new jobs when necessary.

These relationships blossom in business school cohorts. Learners who wonder whether they can handle material at the Wharton MBA level can try the MOOCs on their own and, if reassured, apply to the program. Once at Wharton, earning an MBA becomes a team sport. This approach starts with team-oriented development of marketing programs and continues through self-selected study groups.

I suspect, but might be wrong in stating, that the team-oriented approach of a Wharton education and business analysis conflicts with the sort of independent learner who is attracted to MOOCs. I personally prefer to work alone when I can, both so I can gain full understanding of the material and to avoid the “free rider” problem where one group member avoids their responsibilities but earns a good grade because other team members pick up the slack. (I still remember you from 1992, Mark L. at George Mason University.)

Going it alone through the Wharton gauntlet seems a daunting proposition. Some classes don’t allow it and others are made easier through cooperative study and the relationships built up in those sessions. The sort of individual who might complete a MOOC, or a series of MOOCs, on their own might not be drawn to the program, but someone who examines the lecture videos and assignments as a way of testing the waters might be more likely to apply. The program cost and opportunity cost of lost earnings while at school are considerable, so potential applicants could test their mettle in a low-stakes environment before making their decision.

In the end, I believe that individuals who understand the context of MOOCs as compared to that of on-campus learning will be more likely to apply to (and accept offers from) the Wharton School than to competing programs that don’t make their offerings accessible through MOOCs. The difference is slight, but at over $250,000 in tuition and fees per student, you can afford to take a risk to improve the quality of your applicant pool.

How do the course presentations and material affect Wharton’s message?

MOOCs don’t generate revenue, except in a limited sense for Coursera or edX when they can sell a verified certificate, so free courses are promotional ventures for the participating institutions. As with all marketing, one must have a message so the offerings can be “on message.”

Each of the four Wharton MOOCs (operations management, marketing, accounting, and corporate finance) adopted different presentational styles. The marketing course was the most accessible in that the quizzes and exam asked students to recall material presented in lectures and readings. Operations management required us to apply concepts from the lectures and practice problems to the homework, which required a bit more practical application than the marketing course.

The financial accounting class required significantly more advanced applications of abstract concepts to practical problems, but the instructor enthusiastically communicated what could have been dry material in an entertaining manner. Professor Bushee said he walked us through about 80% of the material he teaches in his on-campus class, so I feel I received very good value for my time.

I’ve left Professor Allen’s course An Introduction to Corporate Finance for last for good reason: his MOOC was closest to Wharton students’ classroom experience. The lecture videos documented actual classroom presentations, but unless we formed our own study groups we forged our way through the practice problems and assignments alone.

I appreciated Professor Allen’s approach because it demanded we overcome some of the challenges facing his on-campus students. In essence, he said: “You want to be a Wharton MBA student? Right. Here it is, then.” The concordance broke down when we were given multiple attempts at each assignment and didn’t have to use calculators for the exam, of course, but we were asked to receive the material as presented.

To me, this difference doesn’t need to be addressed. Teaching styles differ and, because the finance course isn’t part of the fixed core, students can avoid it if desired. The course’s rigorous requirements alert students to the nature of the challenge they face but shouldn’t dissuade serious candidates from considering the program. Do you really want a Wharton MBA who backs away from difficult situations?

How did I benefit from taking these courses?

At the most prosaic level, I discovered (again) that I should ask for help when I need it. Completing many assignments in the accounting and finance classes would have been easier if I’d been willing to turn to the forums for help. Call it a character flaw.

I plan to use the knowledge I gained from these four MOOCs in my own online courses. I’ll adapt some of the analytical techniques from operations management and corporate finance for use in future projects, with the caveat that I’ll only teach what I truly understand and can apply to examples I create independently. The course examples are the instructors’ intellectual property and, though the underlying recipes and algorithms are up for grabs, their illustrations are not.

I’m overjoyed the Wharton School made these courses available, but I’m fully aware that I didn’t receive the equivalent of a Wharton MBA education. The online versions of the classes lacked the rigor of their live counterparts, but I’m now aware of the Wharton School’s offerings and would set my sights on its program if I wanted to pursue an elite MBA degree.

MOOC Review: Wharton’s An Introduction to Corporate Finance

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I recently completed a four-course sequence from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School which included courses on operations management, marketing, financial accounting, and corporate finance. I’m happy to say the courses were fulfilling and have provided substantial support to my professional career.

I fully expected An Introduction to Corporate Finance, taught by Professor Franklin Allen, to be a challenge. In many ways, MBA-level corporate finance is equivalent to organic chemistry for chemistry and biology majors, dynamics for mechanical engineers, and quantum physics for physics majors. It’s the course that separates students with a firm grasp of foundational material from those who don’t.

That’s not to say that someone who wants to be a marketer isn’t qualified if they don’t ace corporate finance, but anyone who wants to be taken seriously as an elite-level financial analyst must do well in this course and its successors.

Course Overview

This six-week MOOC took participants through the mid-term exam of the on-campus course FNCE 611. There were five problem sets worth a total of 25% of the grade, a business case worth 25%, and a final exam worth 50%. MOOC students had to earn 60% of available points to receive a certificate, based on our best results from three attempts on each problem set, the case, and final. At least, that’s the way things ended up (more on that later).

Each week added skills to our analytical toolbox, starting with determining the object function for corporations, calculating present values, valuing stocks and bonds, using net present value to analyze cash flows, measuring risk, pricing assets, and applying the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM).

I’m familiar with net present value and bond calculations from my work with Excel, but I gained a deeper understanding of the mathematical mechanisms underlying those basic methods from Professor Allen’s explanations. I must admit that I struggle with geometric explanations of indifference curves, production, possibility curves, and other concepts. I knew the course would start with those topics, so I buckled down and did my best with them. The rest of the material came…I won’t say easily, but the insights I gained from that first week helped quite a bit.

Production Notes

One of the alleged benefits of MOOCs is that it allows instructors to move away from the “sage on the stage” paradigm, where the professor lectures from a podium, often with the help of visual aids. In An Introduction to Corporate Finance, Professor Allen allowed the University of Pennsylvania to record his classroom lectures. The reason for this choice is quite simple: his lectures consist of meticulously prepared and explained motivational examples that he works through in detail. I’m not certain how he could have provided the same content without essentially rerecording his lectures in a different format.

As I mentioned earlier, we had to earn 60% of the available points to pass and had multiple, untimed attempts at the weekly assignments, case, and final exam. When the course launched, those terms were 70% or more to pass and a single attempt at each graded activity. I don’t mind admitting that my eyes started crossing and uncrossing when I realized what I expected to be the e-learning equivalent of a harder-than-normal Wednesday New York Times crossword puzzle had turned into a serious academic endeavor. I imagine a significant push-back against these requirements led to their relaxation, but it did water down what might have been a significantly more rigorous test of our abilities.

My commentary might make it sound like Professor Allen is a demanding, unfriendly presenter, but that’s not the case. He adopted a matter-of-fact delivery with an emphasis on clarity, but whenever a student raised a hand or asked a question, he looked at them, smiled, nodded his head, and said “Yes?” His manner indicated the query was welcome because, as he noted in the first lecture, it was likely the questioner wasn’t the only person in the room who needed a point clarified.

He also shone when discussing student life and the history of the Wharton School. In particular, his eyes lit up when discussing the Wharton Olympics, a now-discontinued competition where student teams, each with a faculty participant, ran relay races, threw paper balls into trash cans, and performed other bits of office-related skill in a day that must have been a welcome break from the rigors of the coursework.

I’ve no doubt Professor Allen demands great work from his pupils, but I’m equally certain he wants them to succeed.

Conclusions

Based on my experience in An Introduction to Corporate Finance, I’m not sure I have the skill set and temperament to do this sort of work on a high level. Perhaps I’ve psyched myself out after a poor showing in my undergraduate microeconomics class at Syracuse, but some concepts just haven’t stuck. That’s not to say I didn’t benefit greatly from Professor Allen’s course. I certainly did, and believe I could make a solid run at passing the on-campus version of this class. I’ll go into more depth on why that’s the case in my final, summary post on the Wharton MOOCs.

In the end, An Introduction to Corporate Finance turned out to be a highly challenging and eminently rewarding course. To my knowledge it hasn’t been offered since I took it in Fall/Winter 2013, but I hope it will be soon.

I’ll wrap up my discussion of the Wharton MOOCs with a final post on my overall impressions of the courses and how they represent the school in the online learning milieu.

Perceived safety increases risk-taking

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In many senses, life is a series of risk/reward calculations. Choosing which school to attend, buying a house, and choosing a spouse are all risky endeavors. According to the Peltzman effect, also known as risk compensation, people have a tendency to take greater risks when perceived safety increases.

I’m sure this conclusion comes as no surprise to you. Toddlers learning to walk soon start to run, or go down stairs, with the expected results. Teen drivers (particularly teen boys) get comfortable behind the wheel and dart off in a burst of testosterone, occasionally ending up in dire circumstances. This phenomenon was very common the Formula 2 racing series. Formula 2 is a development series for the global F1 competition, which is viewed as the pinnacle of motor racing. The problem is that the Formula 2 series was plagued with multiple accidents resulting from brash moves made by the young drivers. The reason? Analysts, including current F1 drivers, argued that Formula 2 racers were overly aggressive because their cars are so safe. Romain Grosjean, a Formula 2 driver who now competes for the Renault F1 team, was fined several times and sat out for an F1 race after being at fault in repeated incidents following his promotion.

Investors make similar risk/reward calculations. Wall Street investment bankers often take significant risks because their compensation schemes reward short-term success far more than they punish failure. Why would they take such risks? Because it’s part of their overall strategy. In the Wharton School’s corporate finance MOOC I’m taking on Coursera, Professor Franklin Allen argues that one’s sense of risk is inverted when you think of investing in a portfolio of stocks rather than in a single stock. For example, imagine that you buy stock in an oil company that finds oil in 1 out of 20 wells, and each producing well returns $100. You have a hit rate of 5% which, multiplied by the return of a good well, yields an expected value of $5. Now imagine that you have a separate investment in a research company that has a 1 in 50 chance of returning $250, otherwise gaining you nothing. This investment has a similar expected value to the previous example, because 2% (1 in 50) of $250 is $5.

Which of the two investments is less risky? If you look at the expected values, they’re equally risky. However, Professor Allen argues that, when considered as part of a portfolio, the latter investment is less risky because of its higher potential return. The crux of the argument is that a diversified portfolio with numerous independent risks will tend to have a higher return than a collection of pedestrian investments with relatively low risk. The end result is safety in numbers. Just as a fair coin flipped 1,000 times will tend to show heads in about 50% of the trials, investments with independent risks will tend to earn out at their expected rate, assuming you adjudged the risks correctly in the first place. Statistics on investment return since the year 1900 bear out his argument.

Improvisers can and should take risks to make great scenes. We can do it without fear because we know our fellow players will be there to make what we say and do the right thing. Similarly, businesses can take risks as part of a diversified portfolio of ideas. Just as you wouldn’t invest in a single stock such as, I don’t know…Enron, you shouldn’t discourage experimentation and risk. That said, you must understand that risks taken within a scene or business are dependent, not independent. There’s only so much we can do to fix things if you go too far overboard. If you can’t spread out your risk, you must moderate it to be successful.