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Photo: John Loo/Creative Commons

While Penn professors teaching Open Learning classes have to dedicate a lot of their time and resources to millions of online learners, the opportunity to contribute to the future of education is incentive enough.

Penn provides free online classes to the general public through a program called Penn Open Learning. Although these courses are not for any kind of credit, they are taught by Penn professors and closely follow the material that they teach their Penn students on campus.

Penn professors film lectures and upload supplementary material through a partner company called Coursera. Another, called edX, will soon be used as well. Professors do not receive any extra pay for the extra work, but Penn Open Learning classes reach more than 2 million people in nearly 200 countries, which for some professors makes the experience worth it.

“It’s been a great experience,” said Director of the Lauder Institute and Wharton Professor Mauro Guillen. “It’s wonderful to connect with so many people around the world.”

Giullen teaches a class through Penn Open Learning called “Analyzing Global Trends for Business and Society.” He said he knows that his class alone has reached over 100 countries.

“The students are primarily aged 16 to 26,” said Guillen. “It’s a little surprising there are so few people over the age of 60, but that might be because they have to access it on the computer.”

With their classes so widely viewed, Open Learning professors have become academia’s equivalent of celebrities. Guillen said that once when he visited New York City, someone stopped him on the street and said he recognized him from the course. “He said, ‘You’re the one from the videos!’”

This far-reaching potential is what Guillen finds the most rewarding. “It’s a chance to reach the largest possible audience,” he said.

James White, an adjunct professor at Penn Medicine, was approached to do an Open Learning course because Penn Medicine wanted to represent itself with an array of 10 to 12 classes online. “I got to choose a body part,” White said of his Open Learning debut.

White teaches a course on Open Learning called “Going Out on a Limb: The Anatomy of the Upper Limb.”

“It’s very different,” White said. “You lose the student interaction. When you tell a joke, nobody’s laughing, which makes it much, much more difficult. You’re also more conscious of making a mistake. When you’re teaching in the classroom you say, okay, they can figure this out, but not when you’re being filmed.”

Even so, White is not a stranger to his lectures being filmed. “Online education is intrinsic to Penn Med already,” he said. “Within 15 minutes, every lecture is available on the internet. Students have the opportunity to stop and rewind lectures where most of us talk too fast, because we’re trying to cover so much material in a 50-minute timeframe.”

White and Guillen are both excited to spearhead the future of teaching.

“Online learning is the wave of the future, where students worldwide can take part,” White said. “It’s a great thing, really.”

Giullen shares the sentiment. “Penn offers the largest number of free online classes of any University in the world. It’s great for Penn’s branding and its image.”

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