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Fifty-seven faculty members at Penn currently offer courses through Coursera, a massive open online course provider. Courtesy of Creative Commons

For the thousands of students from 195 countries who enroll in one of Penn’s online courses, the benefit of free, accessible education is obvious. But the professors who spend hours planning lessons, recording lectures and moderating online forums benefit from the surge in online learning as well.

Fifty-seven faculty members at Penn currently offer courses through the massive open online course provider Coursera, a number that may rise as the University begins its recently announced partnership with edX, another MOOC provider. As of this year, online courses are offered by all of Penn’s 12 schools.

Professor Robert Ghrist, who teaches a single variable calculus course, joined Coursera in the first wave of online courses that Penn released.

“I was really excited to do so because this is the future, this is where things were going,” he said. “Penn is right out in front of it.”

For professor Ezekiel Emanuel, whose courses focus on healthcare, teaching an online course was a way to reach students who are involved in the field he is passionate about.

“With a MOOC, first of all, you’re largely not hitting active college students; you’re largely hitting people in the workforce,” he said. “The online version does get you to people who are in the [healthcare] system, changing the system.”

Although the face-to-face interaction in traditional classrooms is impossible to imitate in the world of online courses, Coursera allows professors to initiate discussion through online forums. When Ghrist began teaching online, he found the “personal connection” he forged with his students through online discussion surprising and rewarding.

“There’s a small, really active, really vocal, minority of students [who participate in the forums]; you really get to know them well,” he said. “It was very similar to the kinds of interactions that I have with my students here.”

Still, Ghrist has to adapt his online teaching in order to reach an incredibly diverse group of students.

“I had to work really hard to make the lectures as clear and beautiful and accessible as possible,” he said.

As the world of online learning expands, professors are still working to find the best way to effectively communicate knowledge through a computer, tablet or cell phone screen. Professor Mauro Guillen, who teaches accounting, believes that there is definitely more work to be done.

“I don’t think anyone has figured out yet how to teach an online class,” he said. “We have to learn, to experiment, to try to see what works and doesn’t work.”

Guillen also mentioned that although online courses are growing in popularity, traditional classroom learning is still worthwhile — and students can benefit greatly from both.

“What I would like to emphasize is that some people see online education as competing with traditional education,” he said. “And I see them as complements.”

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