Penn conference evaluates MOOCs past, future

Attendees said distinct advantages of MOOCs include their capacity for instant feedback

· April 7, 2013, 11:39 pm

Lizzy Schwartz | DP

Penn President Amy Gutmann moderated the discussion about Coursera Friday afternoon as part of the annual Silfen Forum.


As Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller sat in a panel discussion at this weekend’s inaugural Coursera Partners’ Conference, she paused to take a look around the room.

Leading a talk in front of her about the global landscape of open learning was Menachem Ben-Sasson, the president of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Sitting behind her listening was Edward Rock, Penn’s director of open course initiatives, and to her right was Ting-Chuen Pong, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Koller’s experience was a snapshot of one of the key takeaways from this weekend’s conference — Coursera has gone truly global.

On Friday and Saturday, Penn hosted hundreds of university professors and administrators from around the world in the largest international gathering yet to discuss the future of massive open online courses.

“For me, the main takeaway is just the incredible level of excitement and energy and transformation this has engendered in the higher education community,” Koller said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to think about how to reshape the ways in which we’re offering education to people around the globe.”

One of the highlights of the conference was the annual Silfen University Forum, which filled Irvine Auditorium Friday afternoon. During the forum, Penn President Amy Gutmann moderated a panel discussion on MOOCs and the future of higher education.

Each of the panelists agreed that, while Coursera has had a transformational effect on academia over the past year, the MOOC landscape is still largely in its nascent stages.

“If I were to compare this time in MOOC development to internet search, Alta Vista just got invented — Google hasn’t even arrived yet,” said New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, one of the panelists. “This is still so early.”

Gutmann also noted that it will be years until the long-term impact of online education is known.

“When the textbook first came out years ago, many people were proclaiming the end of the in-class experience,” she said. “That couldn’t have been farther from the truth.”

In addition to Friedman, the Silfen Forum also featured Koller, Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter and Chancellor of the University System of Maryland William Kirwan.

Kanter in particular piqued the audience’s interest when she speculated that, in less than a decade, top-tier research institutions could become three-year schools because of the knowledge that students are able to acquire outside the classroom through Coursera.

The Silfen Forum came amidst other discussions at the two-day conference about MOOCs — ranging from a talk on how to design visually appealing Coursera lectures to a panel about how to overcome language barriers when communicating to an international audience.

One of the distinct advantages of new technologies like MOOCs, attendees said in various panels throughout the conference, is their capacity to deliver instant feedback to instructors.

“It’s an amazing transformation from only being able to find out if students get the material after the midterm or final to being able to find out instantly,” said Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York. “It really does force us to step back and ask, ‘How well are we doing on our campuses, what can we improve upon?’”

Coursera — which hopes to hold similar conferences on an annual basis — also used the weekend as an opportunity to announce that it will soon be adding an “app platform” to allow professors to incorporate more interactive elements into their MOOCs.

Most conference participants agreed that, while the weekend’s discussions were engaging, they found themselves leaving with more unanswered questions about online education than answered ones.

“When the MOOC becomes global, there’s the possibility of democratization of information,” Ben-Sasson said. “If we give everything away for free, then what’s our task as institutions? These are all questions that I know how to raise — but the answers, we don’t have yet.”

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