Wharton course helps people worldwide enhance businesses

Five thousand people completed the course titled 'Introduction to Operations Management.'

· January 28, 2013, 8:42 pm

A farmer from Africa with only one tractor. A worker at a loading dock. A manager of an assembly line making electronic components.

These small business workers want to make their business more productive but may not have the resources to go to the Wharton School.

With Wharton professor Christian Terwiesch’s course on Coursera, people all around the world can take his class, “Introduction to Operations Management,” and learn how to use the operations management tools to enhance their businesses, lower costs and better serve their customers.

Terwiesch, who has been teaching MBA students at the University since 1998, decided to teach his course online when one of his students, an employee at Coursera, approached him.

“I was curious to see if we could use the technology to increase the productivity of one faculty [member] and dramatically reach more people,” Terwiesch said.

He began teaching his course in September 2012. Approximately 90,000 users registered, and around 5,000 completed the course.

According to Terwiesch, 80 percent of the registered students were also working. Many of the students noted in the class’ discussion forum that they took the course to enhance their businesses.

“These people would never come to Penn for knowledge, and this is a population we can now reach,” Terweisch said. “This includes people in the developing world and includes people in the industrial world … of all income levels and all nationalities.”

Terweisch believes the biggest impact of an online course like his is in the impact the class could have on businesses all around the world. He has inspired students, including one New York Times blogger, to implement the tools they learn in class to real-time settings.

For example, the worker at the loading dock was able to “dramatically reduce the time” it took to do his job loading railcars because of what he learned in class.

Wharton’s vision, according to Terweisch, is to offer a set of core classes on Coursera — “Finance, Accounting, Operation Management and Marketing.”

“Our mission statement has always been about disseminating knowledge, and I think this is a wonderful way to disseminate the great work that we do at Wharton,” Terwiesch said.

Other Wharton professors are also presenting courses on Coursera. Professor Kevin Werbach, for example, teaches a course called “Gamification.”

“One fascinating aspect of the Coursera experience is to see the different ways that different faculty approach this new kind of online asynchronous teaching,” Werbach said in an email. “Professor Terwiesch and I have different personalities, so we designed our lectures and courses differently.”

Though Terweisch will always prefer the classroom — “The personal touch of speaking to students in person is more meaningful,” he said — he believes that technology will play an increasingly important part in higher education.

His vision is to integrate the online aspect of Coursera with more interactive classroom time for current Penn students. Students can watch lecture material online, then work on projects that are “much more involved with the faculty and are pushing [students] to new levels of [their] capability” in class, said Terweisch.

Terweisch will teach his online class again this April, hoping to make the course better suited to his student base by emphasizing how to implement the lessons learned in class as opposed to how to study for exams.

Coursera has “shifted the frontier here, and we can reach many more people and still do all the great things we’ve been doing in the Penn community,” he said.

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