New MOOC introduces Actuarial Science

A new Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) “An Introduction to Actuarial Science” has attracted students from 139 different countries. Adam Butt, Senior Lecturer at ANU, explains what’s involved.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a recent development in Higher Education which provide free or low cost education online to millions of students.  Typically these courses do not provide credit towards a degree, but allow students to experience a high-quality educational experience that they might otherwise not have access to.

The Australian National University (ANU) is a Charter Member of edX, one of the providers of these MOOCs.  ANU currently runs or has run MOOCs on Astrophysics (co-taught by Nobel Prize winner, and future Vice-Chancellor of ANU, Brian Schmidt), Engaging India, Ignorance and How to Survive Your PhD.

What does this mean for the actuarial profession?

I had followed these developments with interest, and thought to myself that an introductory actuarial MOOC might be of significant interest to bright young (and not so young) people who were considering it as a career option, but knew little about what an actuary is (which seems to be a very common story!).  Below is the “blurb” I produced to sell the idea to the university and explain my rationale for the course.

The actuarial profession is one of the smallest and least known professions in the world, although it is growing rapidly worldwide, particularly in Asia.  Despite the profession’s size, actuaries have a significant influence in financial markets, with their combination of mathematical, statistical, economic and business knowledge being vital in understanding, quantifying and managing financial risks.  This course will provide students with an introduction to the actuarial profession and the fields that actuaries work in, along with basic examples of actuarial work in practice.  We see the course as being of interest to students considering an actuarial career as well as those who are interested in the work of actuaries.

This was obviously received positively as I received funding to develop a MOOC titled “An Introduction to Actuarial Science”.  After much hard (and continuing) work developing the course, enrollments are open and the course is scheduled to go live on 19 October 2015.

Who takes these MOOCs?

As at the time of writing (24 August 2015), the course already has a total of 2,839 enrollments, with a target of 10,000 students looking achievable.  The median student age is 28, although a sizeable minority of 21% have yet to complete their high school education.


Enrollments come from 139 different countries, with one student each from 24 different countries, including for example Afghanistan, Bahamas and Sudan.  The most represented countries are the United States (22%), India (14%). Australia (5%) and the United Kingdom (5%).  The reach of MOOCs is huge!


Our target market for the course is late high school students who are looking to make upcoming university/college degree choices, as well as those with quantitative backgrounds who are making career decisions.  However, as can be seen by the above statistics, MOOCs are taken by such a wide variety of people that we can be sure that many outside the target market will join as well.

Designing the course

This breadth of background has made for some challenging decisions when it comes to designing the course.  We didn’t want the course to simply consist of a lesson or two on each of mathematics, statistics, finance, economics, etc. that didn’t come together in any coherent way.  We wanted to give students an experience (at least at a simplified level) of what an actuary does in practice.  Hence we decided to centre the course around a specific example of actuarial practice, namely Life Insurance, not just because it is an area where a large number of actuaries work, but because it is an area that lends itself to the sorts of simplified examples of actuarial work we will consider in the course.  Students will start from the very basics of cash flow valuation at the beginning of the course, and by the end of the course they will be making premium and investment decisions and performing simulation analysis of a (much simplified) life insurance company.

Accessibility was a key criteria in our course design decisions.  There is some complicated mathematics on transition intensities of mortality (we didn’t want to sell the profession without the mathematics!), but if students don’t have sufficient background they can skip past the most complicated mathematics and not affect their progression in the course.  Extension exercises target those with stronger backgrounds to think beyond the relatively narrow scope of the course.

What does the course look like?

Students engage in the course through a series of short 3-8 minute videos, interspersed with questions that examine what has been learned during the videos.  Many of the questions involve creating and adjusting cash flow models in Excel.  We have been fortunate to recruit a number of senior actuaries from a wide variety of backgrounds to be involved in the videos so students will see the breadth of the profession.  The majority of student-student and student-teacher interaction occurs in discussion forums, along with other social media elements.  The course will run live for 8 weeks from 19 October 2015; after which we expect to make the course available in an asynchronous mode from early 2016.  This asynchronous mode, whilst lacking the level of interaction of the synchronous version, is likely to be beneficial to small groups (such as high school classes) that may want to take the course together at a timing more appropriate to them.  We are working with actuarial associations around the world as to how this course will assist and integrate with other programs that are used to promote the profession to potential students.

For those who want more information

There’s much more I could write, but only limited words to write it in.  I’ll be writing much more about the MOOC on my blog.  In the meantime if you would like to know more please feel free to send me an email.  I see this MOOC as a great opportunity to “capture” the best and the brightest into the profession, so please spread the word! 

CPD: Actuaries Institute Members can claim two CPD points for every hour of reading articles on Actuaries Digital.