Engaging Minds by the Millions

Penn is exploring—with enthusiasm—the potential and challenges of online pedagogy.

By Amy Gutmann | There was surprise—maybe even dismay—in the Penn Torts classroom when professor Algernon Sydney Biddle commenced classes in 1887. The 40-year-old law professor stunned his students by dispensing with the time-honored method of torts instruction. Instead of standing at the head of the classroom methodically reading a prepared lecture, he announced he would employ a new method of teaching. He asked questions, threw out challenges, and prodded his abashed students into really understanding the law. The change in pedagogy was profound, ushering in a new approach we recognize today as the Socratic case method of instruction. Its effect was transformative: Penn Law moved from being a quiet regional law school in which 90 percent of the student body came from the Philadelphia area to a recognized national leader. By 1910 half of enrollments were students traveling from across the country for the opportunity to study at Penn Law.

Though dramatic, it was change that was very much in the Penn tradition of melding theory and practice to promote new styles of learning first espoused by Franklin. From a college founded to teach its classes unapologetically in the mother tongue, to a medical curriculum that pioneered the use of labs in clinical teaching buildings, to the first school established specifically to promote the study of business education, the Penn experience has been defined by continuously advancing not only what we know and what we teach, but also how our students learn.

 This July, Provost Vince Price and I launched another initiative—both an exciting and an experimental one—in this progression of innovation: the first Penn-taught classes premiered on Coursera. Founded less than a year ago by computer scientists Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller of Stanford University, Coursera is an entrepreneurial association of preeminent universities offering non-credit courses online for anyone to take, for free. Our initial slate of class offerings features eminent Penn faculty, including “Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act” with Professor Zeke Emanuel, calculus with Professor Robert Ghrist, modern and contemporary American poetry with Professor Al Filreis, and Greek and Roman Mythology with classicist Professor Peter Struck. Although nobody can really know precisely what to expect of the boldest experiment to date in “massively open online courses”—MOOCs, for short—Penn faculty, administration, and trustees are all eager to explore the potential of Coursera. As am I.

“Nothing great,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” A big part of our enthusiasm stems from how evolving technology allows us to do the things we aspire to do much more effectively and efficiently. For instance, increasing access is at the heart of our Penn Compact, and Coursera provides us with an exciting opportunity to open some of Penn’s extraordinary educational resources for tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of students around the world. The initial results are very encouraging in this respect, with more than half of our original slate of classes attracting more than 20,000 enrollees per class and one class—“Basic Behavioral Neurology”—registering nearly 45,000 students. And this is only the beginning. Coursera had already enrolled 680,000 students in 42 countries based on the offerings of the four original partners: Penn, Stanford, Princeton, and the University of Michigan. Since then, 12 more universities have joined forces with us, expanding offerings to include classes from Caltech, Johns Hopkins, Rice, the University of Edinburgh, and Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne, to name just a few. Coursera anticipates robust growth in both the class offerings and the number of students enrolled in the years ahead. What is particularly noteworthy for us is that fully two-thirds of enrollments to date have come from outside the US.

Of course the numbers themselves are impressive only if we are able to deliver the high level of educational experience that defines pedagogy at all of Penn’s schools. How, one may well ask, can this be done for a class enrollment of 45,000—or possibly 145,000 a few years hence? If we knew the answer to this question, Coursera (and other MOOCs) would not be an experiment in online pedagogy. It is an exciting experiment precisely because it presents key opportunities for Penn to test new approaches to interactive online teaching while continuing to excel in the kind of hands-on experiential learning that works so well on our own campus. This new partnership adds value not only for students who enroll online but also for Penn students and faculty who stand to benefit from integrating new techniques in teaching and learning into their campus-based, highly personalized educational offerings. And Coursera is non-exclusive: Penn remains free to explore other kinds of online learning. Faculty participation is voluntary, and the University and instructor retain all rights to course content. 

Unquestionably, Coursera has generated buzz, both in the national news media and across campus. The world is taking note of the small, yet impressive array of courses in the liberal arts and professions that Penn is now offering free online—with many more to come. Right here on Penn’s campus, the buzz is serving yet another very positive purpose: it is a powerful means of engaging our faculty and students with the opportunities afforded by new and evolving teaching technologies. By joining Coursera, we are providing our faculty—among the greatest teachers in the world—the means to make even more of a difference in their work. The platform provides, for example, a variety of new online tools for learning assessment that can be incorporated into any course on campus. 

As great as these opportunities may be, it is also important to keep in mind what Coursera is not intended to become. Classes on the Coursera platform will not be in any sense replacements for our existing courses. They will be non-credit extensions of what we do here on campus with students, offering a wonderful public window onto our educational work while at the same time permitting us to rethink how we best support classroom learning at Penn. 

What is the principal challenge of Coursera, and indeed, if the full truth be told, of all initiatives that are committed to truly high quality online pedagogy? The challenge is one we fully embrace with this initiative: to discern true educational value from mere hype, and to deploy online technologies as effectively as possible in service of Penn’s core educational commitment, which is first and foremost campus-based, hands-on, and highly interactive. At Penn we neither teach nor learn by rote; rather, we endeavor to open the mind, a worthy goal that continues to stand the test of time. This core commitment is fully compatible with our bold experiment in online education, which will succeed by advancing Penn’s capacity to teach both creativity and creatively.

If you are called into Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s office, you will see a simple statement posted in stark lettering on his wall. It reads “Move fast and break things.” This is the bold motto of the Internet age. In publishing and the arts, in business and commerce, in global trade and banking, the world today scarcely resembles the world we knew only 15 years ago. It would be dangerously naive to believe these same forces cannot or will not bring change to higher education. Readers of a certain age like me will remember when the badge of an educated household was owning a stately leather-bound edition of Encyclopedia Britannica—nearly 30 volumes in all, the pride of any bookshelf. In March of this year, the company announced that the 2010 edition would be the last printed version. In today’s world, many things move fast. Many things get broken. Yet other things—ethical principles, to cite just one non-random example (since this is a subject that I have long studied)—endure, for good reason and to important effect. Our obligation as stewards of one of the world’s greatest universities, nearly three centuries old, is to ensure that three centuries hence, our successors will look back on this time and say, “This is when things were truly great—and only got better.”

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