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Coursera, an online open course provider, offers numerous learning opportunities on a global scale | Courtesy of college.library/Creative Commons

It can be difficult to reach people from all corners of the globe, but Penn professor Brian Bushee’s financial accounting course, offered through the massive online open course provider Coursera, has found its way to students in every single country, excluding the Vatican City, Cuba and North Korea.

Bushee, noting that he and his colleagues had no idea whether they would be compensated when they began teaching online courses, said, “the only reason to do it was that we thought it was cool to reach out to people all over the world.”

According to Coursera statistics, nearly 400,000 students have signed up for Bushee’s course since he began offering it in 2013, with nearly 25,000 earning certificates of completion.

In some parts of the world, Bushee’s students lack formal education, traveling to internet cafes twice a week in search of financial knowledge that will help them break into the business world. Although accounting is a subject more objective than some, Bushee said he has had to adjust the curriculum so that it would mesh with the financial systems of countries outside the United States.

“The rules for accounting do differ across the world,” he said. “I had to make it general so it would apply to everyone.”

Bushee added that the differences in perspective among his students makes for interesting online discussion. “In my case, they’re sharing their different experience — how they’re doing business in their part of the world,” he said.

For Penn’s administration, expansion into the world of online learning has been a priority throughout the past few years. The University began offering classes through Coursera in 2012, and it recently announced a partnership with edX, another online learning platform.

Provost Vincent Price explained that Penn’s Online Learning Initiative ties in with its overall mission of global engagement. So far, there have been four million enrollments in Penn online courses worldwide, representing roughly two million unique students, and 160,000 certificates of accomplishment.

“My intention all the way along has been to use these platforms to deliver some of the best work that Penn produces, freely to the world, so other populations that don’t have access to a place like Penn have some access to that material,” Price said.

Price also expressed optimism about the leadership of Penn’s online learning program — the University recently announced that Stanton Wortham, a professor in the Graduate School of Education, would be assuming the role of faculty director of the Online Learning Initiative.

“[Wortham is] a very, very knowledgeable and committed faculty member,” Price said. “I am thrilled to have him stepping in as director of that program.”

For some of Penn’s online courses, learning is deeply enhanced by the diverse backgrounds of the students. Philosophy professor Alexander Guerrero teaches an online course about legal and political philosophy, in which videos are supplemented by online forums. He said that disparities among the governments of his students’ homelands promote lively discussion and debate.

“I think the really rewarding part was that there were online discussion forums, and there was a lot of interesting back and forth from people from very different legal and political systems, from all around the world,” Guerrero said, adding that his students hailed from approximately 180 different countries.

For some of Guerrero’s students who lived in countries like Pakistan and China, the course presented a unique opportunity to engage in uninhibited conversation about their government systems.

“I think for some of them, the open and frank discussion of these issues and topics was pretty new to them, and exciting,” he said. “It was really eye-opening for me.”

Both Guerrero and Bushee expressed interest in offering courses through edX, though Guerrero explained that because his current course is designed for Coursera, he would probably choose to expand into edX using a different class.

Several other courses, including “Intellectual Property Law and Policy” by Law professor R. Polk Wagner and “Going Out on a Limb: The Anatomy of the Upper Limb” with Perelman School of Medicine professor James White, will be launched on edX over the coming months.

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