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“We are in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge,” says Edward Rock L’83, the director of Open Course Initiatives at Penn. “That’s what we do. We do it on campus, teaching students and doing research. We disseminate it in journal articles, we disseminate our research in books, and we disseminate our research in conferences all around the world. We have a few satellite campuses. And the Internet is a place of knowledge. So to be there—to be a presence on the Internet and disseminate the knowledge that we’ve created through the Internet—isn’t some tangential kind of activity. It’s core to our mission.”

Rock, the Saul A. Fox Distinguished Professor of Business Law, is the University’s designated deep thinker on all matters MOOC. Last year he was tapped as a senior advisor to Price and President Amy Gutmann on the issue.

Part of the motivation for Penn’s embrace of MOOCs is altruistic. But while administrators trumpet Coursera as a way for Penn to spread enlightenment, the University’s self-interested hopes for Coursera are more varied and interesting.

“What Coursera has made possible,” says Rock, “by virtue of the hype, if you will—the glamor, the potential of teaching hundreds of thousands of students—is it has jumpstarted a conversation about technology in the classroom at Penn that we’ve been trying to get going for a long time.”

Like a growing number of educators, Rock and Price believe that the traditional approach to both teaching and assessing students is outdated.

“This is an opportunity,” says Price, “for the faculty to grapple more seriously with that whole range of technological opportunities—some of them not yet developed—to think about the way they inform not just delivering course material, but assessing student learning, and doing it on a broad scale and in more efficient ways.”

One of their fondest hopes is that the MOOC format holds the key to “flipping the classroom.” This idea dates back to the 1990s, but gained a fervent following around the time an MIT grad named Salman Khan started tutoring his niece in math over the Internet. When Khan started uploading his instructional videos on YouTube in 2006, their popularity and apparent effectiveness sparked widespread enthusiasm for the notion of “flipping” the conventional balance between classroom lectures and homework. Perhaps high-school teachers could take advantage of Khan’s knack for YouTube teaching by assigning his tutorials (or others like them) as homework, and using class time to help students apply the concepts to problem sets.

Khan left his job as a hedge fund analyst in 2009 to devote himself to Khan Academy, a non-profit educational organization that currently offers 3,900 “micro lectures” on its YouTube channel, which has racked up over 230 million views.

Price thinks MOOCs hold the same potential for college classrooms.

“If you have well-developed technologies to provide that didactic component,” he says, “it actually frees you up to do more of the intense, smaller-scale, what’s often called ‘high-touch’ kind of teaching. And for places like Penn, I think that’s likely where the value-added will be.”

Karl Ulrich, the CIBC Endowed Professor of Entrepreneurship and e-Commerce, is already on that path. He teaches a handful of classes on product design, management, and innovation at Wharton, and a Coursera class titled “Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society.”

“I believe my Coursera videos are more effective educationally than the same content delivered live,” he says. So he’s been using them at Wharton. “I typically assign a module comprised of a handful of short videos and ask my students to complete a challenging assignment based on that material. They do this before our class meeting. We then use our class time for an experience that can only be delivered with a group of 60 people sharing the same time and location.” For example, he recently ran a competition in which teams of students produced product prototypes, and then simulated a market in which purchasing decisions were made and profits computed.

“For some years now,” Price adds, “students entering institutions like Penn have grown up in a media environment where many of these tools seem second-nature to them. And they’re puzzled as to why their faculty members aren’t using them.”

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