Finance courses open students' eyes to impact of innovations like bitcoin and blockchain

Haskayne students explore cutting-edge research on frontier of emerging trends

There is no textbook yet for what these students are learning. Cryptocurrencies, smart contracts and applications, blockchain and initial coin offerings are the topics covered in the new "fintech" courses, FNCE 559 for undergraduates, FNCE 674 for Master of Management students, and FNCE 789 for MBA students, offered at the Haskayne School of Business.

Fintech, an abbreviation for financial technology, is a term for secure technologies being used to automate many processes, truly revolutionizing financial services. The courses give students a jump-start as they enter the job market.

“We give them current research papers frontier research papers by top scholars in the field and we make the students present these research papers in class,” says Dr. Alfred Lehar, PhD, associate professor in finance and one of the co-creators of the innovative courses. “This differentiates us from many other classes where they teach methods that have been around for decades. We really want to bring students to the frontier of knowledge and teach them what we know today.”

Alfred Lehar

“We really want to bring students to the frontier of knowledge,” says Alfred Lehar.

Adrian Shellard

Every section has been full since Lehar and his fellow associate professor, Dr. Kyoung Jin (KJ) Choi, PhD, began offering the courses in 2018 and they plan to expand the capacity in 2020. There are courses that focus on the technical side of these topics within the business schools and other faculties, but this approach is specific to the potential impact of these technologies on the financial sector.

Some observers believe that Calgary, as one of Canada’s finance centres, could be a hub for a growing fintech sector. Earlier this year, Calgary-based Solium Capital Inc, a company that administers online stock plans for companies such as Hootsuite and Cineplex, was acquired by Morgan Stanley for $1.1 billion. The company continues to operate in Calgary. 

"We don't expect our students will work in the fintech industry right away, much of the demand in this growing industry is concentrated on the technology side right now,” says Choi. “But we do expect that soon the demand for finance students with fintech background will increase. When that time comes, our students will be the ones who will be the leaders."

Kyoung Jin Choi

Kyoung Jin (KJ) Choi shares teaching duties in the fully subscribed fintech courses.

Adrian Shellard

“Even if bitcoin and all cryptocurrencies disappeared, the idea of blockchain and smart contract will be integrated into the industry. That is going to have a great impact,” says Choi.

They also teach students about the history of banking, money, and financial crises, inspiring students to draw comparisons. What happened in the past? What will happen in the future?

There has been tremendous support for the community with guest speakers from ATB, the Alberta Securities Commission, SmartBe Wealth and the Alberta Blockchain Corsortium.

The final project for the class? Anything you want in relation to fintech. Students are encouraged to find new ways to apply the technology to existing problems. One student wanted to do a cryptocurrency for volunteering that you could use at shops and would be automatically tracked on LinkedIn.

Sandi Johal’s team was a winner during her RBC internship.

Sandi Johal’s team was a winner during her RBC internship.

Courtesy Sandi Johal

“I know that a lot of people in the community wonder, ‘Why do we need research?’ And this is a prime example of why our research is important,” says Lehar. “Without the research component we could not deliver this class to the students.”

Although they do not expect all of their students to be employed in fintech, one student, Sandi Johal, shared via email: “… Just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate all the work put into this course to offer it to students this semester. I was able to learn a lot and I actually got an internship at RBC in Toronto because of what was taught by you both.”

Johal says her team placed in the top three out of 21 teams in the program at RBC, filing a patent for their solution and presenting to RBC C-suite executives.