Penn builds Coursera brand in face of competition


The University has had to distinguish itself from competing platforms like Udacity, edX




While Penn has established itself as a major player in online higher education, the University is not without its competition.

In April, Penn joined four other universities to begin offering massive open online courses through online education platform Coursera. But with the company’s recent expansion to 33 schools — along with the rise of competitor platforms Udacity and edX — Penn is now trying to stand out from the MOOC crowd.

“There’s no end to what’s available out there,” said Ed Rock, a Law School professor who was recently appointed director of open course initiatives. “It’s like the early days of the internet before Google came out, trying to figure out … how to drink from the fire hose.”

The edX platform was developed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and now offers classes from both schools as well the University of California-Berkeley. Udacity does not host classes from specific schools, but works with leading institutions including Stanford University and the University of Virginia to develop original courses.

Some see this quantitative difference — Coursera offers nearly 200 courses while edX offers seven and Udacity 14 — as an advantage.

“I think there’s a real value and a real advantage to being part of a consortium that can offer a lot of immediate programming and classes instead of trying to build up your own system by yourself,” said Wharton senior Scott Dzialo, chair of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education.

Qualitatively, Coursera offers a wider variety of courses outside of computer science and mathematics, Rock said. Penn’s offerings range from single variable calculus to “Listening to World Music.”

“I think of [“Listening to World Music”] as attracting people who might otherwise be watching the History Channel,” Rock said. “They’re not taking the course to get a particular set of skills that they can immediately apply to computer programing. It’s not a hacker course. It’s a course for people who are interested in opening up their minds to new ideas.”

Udacity takes a different approach, prioritizing courses that can help students develop their careers.

“Our mission is about helping students not just to learn, but given the hard work that it takes to complete our courses, that it should lead to career advancement or educational advancement,” said Clarissa Shen, Udacity’s head of strategic partnerships and business development. “We don’t think we have a full answer yet on what it means to have an English poetry class online that leads to substantive student learning outcomes.”

To that end, Udacity gives its students the opportunity to participate in a job-placement program after completing a course. The company also announced in June that it will begin offering in-person proctored exams to certify students’ skills.

Earlier this month, edX announced a similar initiative — potentially putting pressure on Coursera to follow suit in the future, given reports of plagiarism incidents on the online platform that have surfaced recently.

However, Penn and Coursera’s emphasis on voluntary learning may render proctored exams unnecessary, Dzialo said.

“The fact is if you cheat on Coursera, you’re really just cheating yourself, whereas if you cheat at Penn you’re cheating yourself and your peers,” he said. “To me it seems sort of ridiculous to cheat on Coursera, so I’m not sure of the need to add more structures to verify the testing.”

Rock said that since Penn is not offering credit to students who complete Coursera courses, there are no current plans to implement a similar exam program.

However, for schools considering offering credit for courses completed on Coursera, “there’s no question that as this technology moves forward, one of the things that needs to be sorted out is ways to ensure the integrity of the assessments.”

Rock added that he is looking forward to the development of a Penn-hosted landing page where interested students can browse a compilation of all of Penn’s online learning resources, including Coursera courses, lecture videos and full credit-bearing online classes.

“My hope is that people will come to the Penn open learning site because they will know that when you come to Penn … you can expect the same quality of courses that you get in person in University City and you get the full range of offerings that a great research university has,” he said.

Rock believes that the new website — which he hopes will be launched in the coming months — will help promote Penn as a respected MOOC brand.

“Wharton is so associated with finance that when somebody in India decides they want to learn about finance and they don’t have money to come to a business school in America, they’ll go to the Wharton School of Business’ finance course [on Coursera] because in India, as in any place else, they know that Wharton is the place you go if you want to study finance,” he said.

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