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Less than a year after Penn announced its partnership with Coursera, one of the University’s online classes may soon become among the first in the nation that can be taken for credit.

In an announcement that could later be viewed as a seminal moment for online learning, the American Council on Education recommended Thursday that students should be able to earn college credit for taking Mathematics and Engineering professor Robert Ghrist’s Coursera course on single variable calculus.

ACE, the nation’s leading higher education umbrella group, endorsed credit for a total of five MOOCs — massive open online courses — on Thursday.

Following ACE’s recommendation, the decision of whether to award credit for Coursera courses will be up to individual colleges and universities. About 2,000 institutions — including Penn — currently take ACE’s recommendations into account when determining if they will grant credit for nontraditional courses.

“It’s taken a long time to put together a case to the ACE review board that this course does indeed reach their high standards for credit,” Ghrist said. “We’ve all been working very hard to make this a possibility.”

While Penn’s administration has consistently praised Ghrist’s role in advancing online learning, the University made clear on Thursday that, despite ACE’s announcement, students who take the Coursera course will still not be able to earn Penn credit.

Law professor Edward Rock, who was named the University’s director of open course initiatives last semester, said the idea of earning a Penn degree from entirely Web-based coursework remains far-fetched.

“However wonderful our Coursera courses are as educational experiences, they’re nowhere near as wonderful as what happens here on campus,” he said. “Hundreds of years from now, I still think that the residential university will be the dominant mode of transmitting knowledge.”

Paving a pathway

Although individual departments at Penn are not likely to alter their current credit-awarding policies for online courses in the near future, Thursday’s announcement has prompted some in the University community to take a step back and examine the impact Coursera has had on higher education over the past 10 months.

“What we’re seeing already are the multitude of ways in which Coursera can be useful in the world — a year ago, credit wasn’t something that was even being discussed,” said Wharton senior Scott Dzialo, the former chair of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education.

While Dzialo agreed that it is still not time for Penn to consider awarding credit for Coursera courses, he took Thursday’s announcement as a sign that the University is “testing the waters” on the topic for years down the road.

“It’s merely logical that, if you consider five courses for credit now and there are hundreds more to choose from in a few years, you’re going to have more online courses offered for credit moving forward,” said English professor Al Filreis, who has taught a Coursera course on modern and contemporary American poetry. “If we blink and it’s two years from now and there are hundreds of courses eligible for credit, I don’t think any of us will be surprised.”

Music professor Carol Muller, who has taught an online course on world music, added that the Coursera experience has reminded her of the value of in-class instruction.

“I think we’ve made it so that pieces of what you can get at Penn are now more widely available, but it’s certainly not the totality of what a Penn education can give to you,” she said, adding that institutions have just scratched the surface of the opportunities — and challenges — presented by companies like Coursera.

Still, some schools across the country have recently taken a major step forward by agreeing to award credit for online coursework.

Last month, for instance, San Jose State University partnered with open courseware provider Udacity to provide credit to students who passed one of three online courses — even if those students do not go to the school.

Under ACE’s recommendations, students seeking credit for Coursera courses will be required to pay $100 or more to take an exam monitored by a webcam, confirm their identities and receive a transcript from ACE. Simply taking the courses without applying for credit, though, will remain free.

“I think that this is a very important step forward for open learning,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said. “Rob Ghrist’s course, like the others announced today, has the potential to revolutionize calculus teaching, both online and in the classroom setting.”

The ‘perfect fit’ for credit

For Filreis, Ghrist’s calculus course was a “perfect fit” to be part of ACE’s first round of credit recommendations.

Filreis believes the announcement is a “threshold decision” — one that will empower faculty members at math departments nationwide to decide if the course meets the same rigor standards of their on-campus classes.

This stands in contrast to courses like Filreis’ and Muller’s. Both professors acknowledged that it would be especially difficult to award credit for their courses, given that they are far more subjective in terms of assessment.

“Right now, it seems impossible to me to auto-grade an essay on an interpretation of a poem,” Filreis said.

One commonality that all of Penn’s Coursera courses have, though, is their ability to integrate online and in-class resources across campus.

As Coursera continues to expand, more faculty members at Penn are looking at the open courseware as a way to “flip” the classroom experience for their students, Rock said.

“The outside world sees Penn putting up high-quality education for the world, but within the University we also see this as an initiative to integrate technology and teaching here on campus,” he said.

As an example, Rock cited Ghrist, who is ultimately hoping that his online Coursera lectures will function as a large part of the “textbook” he uses in teaching introductory calculus courses at Penn.

Rock added that successfully completing a Coursera course can help incoming Penn freshmen perform well on placement exams, possibly using their previous knowledge as a way to avoid certain introductory classes.

“I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how this all plays out,” current SCUE Chair and Engineering junior Michelle Ho said. “We don’t know what’s going to come from all of this, and I think that’s the exciting thing.”

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