Every Thursday from 6:30-8:30 p.m., music professor Carol Muller teaches a class of 80 undergraduates in her office, although none of her students are physically present. Through her computer and with the help of two graduate teaching assistants, she hosts a live lecture through the online platform Canvas.
The course, “World Musics and Cultures,” housed in the College of Arts and Sciences, is the first non-LPS course at Penn that is taught online during the regular semester. However, online teaching is not new to either Muller or Penn.
Penn offered several online courses during the summer of 2012, and has reached out to hundreds of thousands of students worldwide by partnering with Coursera, a free online education platform. Muller has taught courses through both programs and is now bringing online learning back into Penn’s traditional classrooms.
“I think there’s recognition at Penn that the traditional classroom is changing,” she said.
In the class, Muller hosts a live lecture while pulling up music clips, PDFs and videos as supplemental material. Through a chat box on the Canvas platform, students can discuss the material with each other as well as submit questions, which are answered immediately by the TAs.
Muller finds that the online format of the course, especially the chat box function, encourages student participation.
“The problem with the live class is you sit with 80 students in a classroom, and nobody responds. They’re just sitting there and texting,” she said. “In the online class, people are texting into the classroom, and that is pretty cool. In two hours, I would accomplish what would otherwise be accomplished in three.”
Jesse Jia, a Wharton and Engineering junior who is taking the course, also finds the chat box useful. Although the online format was not originally a factor in his decision to take the class, he found the online learning process enjoyable.
“You can pretty much type in whatever you have, whenever you have a question, so you won’t forget it,” he said.
Muller recognizes that there are certain disadvantages of turning learning completely over to an online medium and has taken steps to avoid them. To preclude cheating, she makes the course quizzes long and content-intensive, so students will have to work quickly. In addition, she pointed to Coursera’s use of stylometrics detection — the unique way people type on a keyboard — as a possible anti-cheating tactic.
Muller is enthusiastic about the future of online learning at Penn. She pointed to the emerging idea of a flipped classroom — where students watch recorded lectures online out of the classroom and engage in problem-solving exercises in class — as an example of the potential of the online platform.
Classical studies professor Peter Struck, who has taught online at Penn for nearly 10 years through summer courses and Coursera, also embraces online learning. He pointed to the trend of educators using blended learning — a mixture of online learning and face-to-face classroom time — as an example of the application of online learning.
However, he does not not believe the live classroom should be completely replaced by video lectures, and advocates for the value of intellectual experiences in a live classroom with other people. He currently teaches the course “Greek and Roman Mythology” this semester and an online version during the summer.
“One of my very favorite things to do in my whole professional life is to deliver a good lecture to a live audience,” he said. “I love it. And I don’t want to give it up.”
Nevertheless, like Muller, he sees this period as an exciting time of experimentation with new learning methods at Penn.
“I’ll be keeping my ears open and my eyes open and see what happens,” he added. “It’s a very exciting time actually to be a faculty member. A lot of new things are happening.”
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