Penn considers future of Coursera


Plagiarism and the development of online education are all in discussion




The Penn community is weighing the benefits and drawbacks of a future invested in online education.

Since the University announced its partnership with Coursera last spring, it has launched five courses on the online learning system. It is planning to launch two additional courses — “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry” along with “Networked Life” — on Sept. 10.

Coursera is an online, open-learning platform that offers non-credit courses from Penn and peer schools for free. Since its launch less than a year ago, more than a million students worldwide have enrolled in its courses.

Deirdre Woods, interim executive director of Penn’s Open Learning Initiative, said Coursera has been a good fit for Penn so far.

“It gives Penn the opportunity to shape the conversation of online learning, to be at the forefront of this, because this is a rapidly changing space,” she said.

Coursera provides several other benefits, such as the ability for Penn to retain the intellectual property rights of instructional materials, as well as room for experimentation in teaching and learning styles, according to Woods.

The courses run anywhere from four to 10 weeks and, in the case of Penn’s courses, have seen anywhere between 16,000 to more than 70,000 students enrolled.

Vice Provost for Global Initiatives Ezekiel Emanuel, who taught Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act online, thinks Coursera will affect in-class learning at Penn in a positive way.

“I think it’s going to transform what we do at Penn. That, I think for a university, is the most exciting thing because we can’t lecture [in class] anymore since those lectures will be uploaded online,” he said. “We’re going to have interactive sessions with students. I think that’s a huge payoff for Penn.”

Woods agreed, adding that she was surprised by the number of different approaches to online teaching she saw from Penn professors.

Despite the success of Coursera at Penn and nationwide, the online learning system has not come without its critiques.

With the recent introduction of humanities courses to Coursera, such as English professor Al Filreis’ contemporary poetry course, the program has received reports of plagiarism by students.

In August, Eric Rabkin, a University of Michigan professor who taught a Coursera course called “Fantasy and Science Fiction,” wrote an open letter to his students on the course discussion board addressing the many accounts of plagiarism he had heard.

Other professors around the country have reported similar instances of plagiarism on Coursera assignments, which have often been noticed through the online peer-grading process.

While Provost Vincent Price has not heard of any plagiarism reports in Penn courses yet, he is not surprised by the growing trend, given Coursera’s international student base.

“Some of this you can attribute just to a misunderstanding of what they’re supposed to be doing,” Price said, explaining that there are different academic integrity standards in other countries. “Communicating that clearly is important, as it is in any course.”

In response to the plagiarism reports, Coursera announced last week that it would be asking students to fill out an “honor code” before submitting assignments.

“Plagiarism is unfortunately a common occurrence in traditional classroom settings, so it is something that we did anticipate to occur on our online platform,” Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera and a Stanford University computer science professor, said in an email.

Woods agreed that issues of plagiarism are not unique to Coursera.

“Issues of plagiarism go beyond just online courses — I think it’s a very relevant issue today in our education world,” she said. “We’re happy that Coursera is taking steps to address this issue.”

While Penn has made a substantial investment in the future of Coursera — it joined with the California Institute of Technology in July to extend a combined $3.7 million equity investment in the company — some professors see Coursera merely as an extension of Penn’s existing online movement.

Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the lectures he recorded for a Coursera course he taught on vaccines were the same ones he had previously been using.

After recording two days’ worth of lectures, he handed them over to Coursera representatives, who then created a specific curriculum.

Offit does not believe Coursera will serve as a direct substitute for the current higher education model, due to the lack of instant, in-person student feedback.

“When you give a lecture to a camera, it’s hard to tell if the students are engaged,” Offit said. “There’s nothing like direct interaction.”

In preparing for his upcoming course, Filreis merely uploaded taped discussions about poetry based on the curriculum he uses in his Penn seminars.

“What Coursera does is make the final move. I see this partnership, on one hand, as revolutionary and exciting, but at the same time it’s along a spectrum that we’ve been moving on,” he said. “The real change here is the access. That’s what’s exciting.”

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