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Integrating guest speakers into a module on Alternative Investments

Summary

This case study refers to a UG third-year students’ optional module on The Economics of Alternative Investments. This module introduces different types of alternative assets to the students, providing key macroeconomic and financial theoretical concepts to be applied and learnt through continuous empirical training. The Covid-19 pandemic allowed me to add a third “arrow” to the pedagogy of this module: the invitation of several guest speakers during live teaching events. This choice had three main goals: increasing learning outcomes, enhancing employability skills, and fostering engagement.

Background

I have been teaching the module on the Economics of Alternative Investments since January 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic obliged module organisers to revise the module delivery, but also provide opportunities to provide teaching and pedagogical innovation. In the case of my module, after having inherited it from another lecturer, I had already decided to modify its teaching delivery to include guest speakers. In the first year, I invited two financial practitioners as guest speakers in order to test this project before its full deployment in the current academic year.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced teachers to move towards online delivery. This opportunity became an advantage for developing my project. With a mix of asynchronous (pre-recorded) videos and live sessions of two hours each in two different days, I had enough flexibility to invite and coordinate nine guest speakers, covering the main topics of the module.

Implementation

When organising guest talks, it is necessary to keep in mind that this might be a somewhat unexplored world and maintaining the quality of teaching is not trivial. I followed some steps in order to increase the likelihood of a straightforward and smooth inclusion of the guest talks.

First, I decided to contact the potential guest speakers among the people that are part of my personal network. Knowing their soft skills and expertise, I avoided the risk of a low commitment in preparing the guest talk. Another possible strategy, which I did not follow, was to engage with big companies, which, however, often accept to allow a junior colleague for a guest talk (unknown to the lecturer) with the risk of a low level of commitment.

Second, I contacted the potential guest speakers in advance (from three to six months earlier than the proposed guest talk dates), as it is worth considering that their agenda and work duties are very different from the academic ones and, in some cases, they need a reasonable amount of time to receive permission to talk to students from their companies’ compliance division. I proposed multiple dates in order to overcome any agenda constraints they might have had.

In this sense, some topics of Alternative Investments being “independent” from another, I had the chance to swap the guest speakers, if necessary. The online teaching delivery further facilitated this complicated coordination work, as every week I had to arrange possible dates with “online venues” to host guest speakers with different backgrounds, located in multiple parts of the world.

Some of them had some previous teaching experience, while others did not. Consequently, in order to be sure that the teaching quality was high, I engaged in advance with each guest speaker to provide some guidelines for the talk and, if necessary, check their material. The outline was always discussed earlier in a call or via email. Guest speakers received my teaching material related to their topic, which was pre-recorded and released to the students in advance. In this way, I was able to assure that i) guest speakers knew student’s academic knowledge and level; ii) students were able to truly interact with the guest speaker by using the “same language”.

The presence of speakers (always together with the lecturer) increased students’ engagement, which is more difficult in an online teaching environment, providing additional stimulating occasions for students to develop their curiosity and engage in their learning journey. In order to propel a discussion and allow the guest speaker to relax a bit, I asked occasional questions to the guest speaker and, through very quick yes/no surveys, the students. There was always enough time allocated to students, who could have interacted at any moment with the guest speaker, and I made sure that there was some final time for sharing job market tips.

In this way, students had been able to learn sound theoretical knowledge, to apply it during live workshops and to have it reinforced by the expertise of (two) academic and (seven) non-academic financial experts. Students were exposed to coding and practical examples, in addition to the required skills profiles for different jobs in finance. While I did not consider the guest talk’s material — later kindly shared by guest speakers with the students and me — for any assessment, I am confident that some students have considered it for writing their investment report (one of their summative assessments).

Student reactions

Although this was not a complete experiment, I needed quantitative and qualitative feedback in relation to the module delivery, the presence of guest speakers, and the move to online-only teaching. So I designed an optional anonymous survey.

While the sample may not be fully representative of the student class, the turnout rate was slightly higher than 25%. The outcome is rather satisfying, with an average value of 8.04 (where higher numbers mean increased student satisfaction) and a left-skewed distribution. Although there was variation between guest speakers, this turned out not to be significant. Furthermore, the academic/non-academic background of the speaker seems to have no significant impact.

Conclusion

Embedding guest speakers in the module delivery may not be the best option for every module. While the advantages are clear and probably even larger in the presence of fully online delivery, there are also disadvantages to consider. This organisation not only requires a higher level of effort from the lecturer, but also from the students, who may not fully understand the benefits. Hence communication and setting the right expectations is a crucial aspect to consider, whether you develop your pedagogy according to Biggs (constructive alignments), Pintrich & Schunk (expectancy-value model) or, more simply, some game theoretical or behaviour knowledge.

Overall, the implementation seemed be successful. Nevertheless, time and more cohorts will be necessary to better evaluate this approach, especially in a post Covid-19 environment.

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