In early December, after reading about the ten-thousandth magazine article explaining the global financial crisis in terms that were still totally incomprehensible to me, I decided it was time for me to learn something about how the financial system works. Not knowing where else to turn, I decided to check out Open Yale Courses, a Web site I discovered through Academic Earth (which, in turn, I found through Lifehacker).
Open Yale provides “free and open access to a selection of introductory courses” taught by Yale professors. Seeing that one course offered was an introduction to financial markets taught by Robert Shiller (that’s Shiller as in Case-Shiller Index), I decided to watch a few lectures to see if it was: (a) something I could handle; and (b) worth my time. Using Google Docs to take notes as I watched, I started working my way through the first few video lectures. To my surprise, the material was not only very understandable (with the exception of a few arcane financial formulas), but utterly fascinating as well.
I’m a little more than halfway through the course, but the time I’ve invested in watching Shiller’s lectures is already paying off. About a week after watching his lecture on real-estate finance, I was reading through a press release on a some proposed new tax incentives (I work at the Legislature), when I read that the plan would be paid for by “conforming to federal taxation of REIT income.” “REIT!” I thought. “Real Estate Investment Trust! I actually know what that is!”
I realize now this doesn’t seem very impressive. The fact that I can recognize an acronym doesn’t exactly make me an expert. Still, it proves that I’m learning something. Besides, I’m not planning on a career in finance. I just decided I’d rather not be totally ignorant of the institutions that shape our economic way of life.
And, to be sure, my approach to these classes is not as studious as it could be. While I make a point of taking notes on all the lectures, I’m not going to shell out several hundred dollars for the relevant textbooks (even though they do provide a handy list); nor am I going to try my hand at taking the course mid-term exam, which is intimidatingly heavy on math. It would definitely be a good challenge, but I’m not getting any kind of credit for this, after all.
Apparently, there are a lot of other sources of free online classes. As I mentioned, Academic Earth is a pretty good clearinghouse; so is iTunes U. The thing I like about Open Yale is that it’s very complete. Among other things, they allow you to access the lectures in several different video formats — as well as audio and full text transcripts. Any recommendations out there on other good sources of free online education? I’m curious.