In a move that will put Penn at the forefront of an online learning movement making waves throughout higher education, 12 Penn professors will open versions of their most popular courses to a global internet audience, the University announced Wednesday morning.
The courses will be offered in partnership with Coursera, a fledgling startup created by Stanford University computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. Coursera is also the platform currently used to run Stanford’s popular online engineering courses, which have seen more than 350,000 enrolled students since their launch in fall 2011.
Through the initiative, the 12 Penn classes will be available for free online to anybody with internet access. However, students who take the courses cannot receive Penn credit for them.
By breaking lectures into smaller 15- to 20-minute chunks and interspersing them with quizzes and interactive prompts that test student learning, Cousera takes a somewhat different tack than previous approaches to online learning, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare. The software also features forums and auto-graded homework.
Ng and Koller reached out to the Office of the Provost last year, and upon discussing the service with deans and faculty, Provost Vincent Price received a very positive response. According to Price, online classes hosted by Coursera present a win-win.
“What I found exciting about this opportunity, and what colleagues found exciting, is that it would advance our interests in expanding access to higher education as well as a second, intriguing possibility: that it could help us think deeply about how to improve teaching on campus,” Price said.
This last point is something Ng and Koller emphasize — that students on campus stand to gain from online courses as well.
“I’ve been giving the same lecture year after year, telling exactly the same jokes, and this has been shown in studies not to be the best model,” Ng said.
He invokes the possibility of students watching lectures on their own time and professors using class time for more engaged, interactive learning, a model that has come to be known as the “flipped classroom,” and that has gained popularity in recent years with the success of online learning services like Khan Academy.
However, Price was clear that the administration is not prescribing anything at this point, and that the initiative is still very much an experiment.
Currently, Penn is offering the most courses of any of the five schools participating in Coursera — which, along with Stanford, include Princeton University, the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley. The University is also unique in offering the largest number of humanities and social science courses, breaking from the engineering course that have typified these previous “massively open online courses,” or MOOCs as they’ve come to be known.
“When I talked with faculty, it became clear that there was strong interest in opening courses more broadly across the curriculum,” Price said.
This prompted Koller and Ng to prototype more innovative types of student assessment geared to less quantitative courses, including varieties of peer grading, which the pair say are still in development.
Penn professors, at least, have seemed satisfied with the response.
“I had a lot of skepticism initially about whether [Coursera] was ready for a humanities course,” said English professor Al Filreis, who will be offering his “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry” class this fall. “But they listened to my comments and they responded.”
Filreis, who said he does not lecture and never has, plans to film actual class discussion during which students discuss poetry to use as the basis for his MOOC.
Like Filreis, Classical Studies professor Peter Struck said while putting humanities courses online will ultimately be an experiment, he is confident in Coursera and its founders.
“They are dedicated, with all the right kind of higher goals we might have,” Struck said. “If anyone can make it work, it’s this team.”
Asked if online courses like these run the risk of undermining traditional higher education, many professors came back to this spirit of experimentation, and noted that it is better that Penn explore now rather than be left behind.
“The changes that are going to come [in higher education] are not entirely foreseeable, and any action that we take now will undoubtedly have unintended consequences with great potential benefit and detriment,” said Mathematics professor Robert Ghrist, who will be offering the equivalent of Math 104 on Coursera. “But it’s very worthwhile to have the conversation about this and have faculty engaged moving forward.”
Penn President Amy Gutmann agreed, adding that Coursera is the best way to explore such new technologies.
“There have been a lot of online offerings, but there’s been no consortium that joins high-quality content with a platform that can deliver it to so many people,” Gutmann said. “We think it will be great not only for thousands of people outside of Penn who can partake in it, but also for our alumni and students who may be involved.”
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