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While some peer schools are hedging their bets that online education is part of the future, Penn is taking a more decentralized approach.

On Jan. 19, Apple announced the launch of 100 free college courses through iTunes U — the latest in a recent trend in which schools are opening their classes and educational materials to global audiences online.

Peer institutions like Stanford and Yale universities were among those that partnered with Apple.

For its part, Penn’s smattering of online learning opportunities is growing from the ground up, through a number of different venues.

One of Penn’s oldest offerings in free online education is Knowledge@Wharton, the Wharton School’s online business journal. The publication, which began in May 1999, publishes interviews, lectures and articles that tackle issues in the business world.

“The goal is to take the school’s intellectual capital and make it available for free online,” said Mukul Pandya, executive director and editor-in-chief of Knowledge@Wharton.

The service has more than 1.7 million registered users already across a network of sites in five languages, and its editors hope to break 2 million users in June.

Although Pandya applauded the move of other schools in their expansion of free online learning, he sees advantages to the more decentralized growth of specific initiatives like Knowledge@Wharton within the broader institution.

“Technology is changing so rapidly,” he said. “Decentralization does allow you to be more nimble and agile in addressing some of these things.”

Many of Knowledge@Wharton’s lectures and interviews are hosted on Penn’s iTunes U page, and dominate the school’s Top 50 downloads.

Another popular collection of materials hosted by iTunes U are the courses of R. Polk Wagner, a Law School professor whose “Introduction to Patent Law” lecture is the most popular download on the Penn page.

But Wagner is motivated less out of a desire to educate the world in the intricacies of patent law than out of a courtesy for his students.

“Students find it convenient to have access to class recordings on the iPad and iPhones,” Wagner said. “I’m slightly surprised more people don’t do it, because it is relatively easy to do and has some significant benefits.”

The College of Liberal and Professional Studies is one organization pushing the use of online courses forward, offering 14 full-credit online classes during the summer semester in subjects like math, German and Arabic. This marks a steady increase from offerings in previous years, according to Eli Lesser, an associate director of LPS.

However, Lesser noted that the online summer courses are fundamentally different than the free open courses at other schools.

“The courses are open to anyone, but you are expected to put in a certain amount of work”, he said. Lesser also said students enrolled in online courses must pay tuition.

However, not everyone agrees that open course options are something to strive for. According to Ruth Cowan, the interim chair of the History & Sociology of Science department, free online courses don’t provide fundamental value for students.

“In fact, the young people who are going to take those courses are going to get nothing out of them because they’re not going to be able to present those courses as qualification for a job,” she said.

Some administrators, however, have voiced support for those opportunities that exist.

“We are aware of some innovative and exciting explorations of online learning by Penn faculty across a number of the schools,” Provost Vincent Price said, “and we continue to consider future possibilities for the University as a whole.”

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