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Does the rise of the “massive open online course” spell the end of the university as we know it? Through its academic and financial partnership with Coursera, Penn has professors in the fray, skin in the game, and a front-row view of higher education’s next big frontier.

BY TREY POPP | Illustration by Melinda Beck | PDF download

Not far into his celebrated class on Greek and Roman mythology, Peter Struck suddenly started talking very, very quickly.

It was during his second lecture. Picking up where he’d left off the week before—a bravura word-by-word translation of the first 10 lines of The Odyssey—the youthful Penn classicist mused on Homer’s opening description of Telemachus as a whiny layabout resigned to blaming the gods for his bad luck.

“Achilles was off conquering whole swatches of territory at this age,” Struck was saying. “Twenty is plenty old enough to step up and get things done!”

Then, as he launched into Telemachus’s remedial education in how to work up some righteous anger, Struck began jabbering like an auction crier on a sugar high.

It only worked in Safari. Firefox wouldn’t let me do it. I clicked a plus sign at the bottom of the screen and Struck instantly accelerated his pace by 25 percent. I hit the plus sign again. Struck sped up to a 1.5x clip. It seemed like a miracle. If I could power through the rest of the lecture just a little faster, I’d be able to knock out the weekly quiz before my kids came home clamoring for sandwiches. I might get the rest of the weekend to myself—and my Lego partners—after all.

I cranked it up another notch. Struck was really flying now. Telemachus is in Pylos, he’s in Sparta, he’s hearing from Nestor and Menelaus, he’s getting bewitched by Helen, nudged by Athena disguised as Mentor, everyone’s telling him what Orestes had to do to avenge Agamemnon—

And that’s when my brain almost boiled right out my ears. I hit the minus sign. This Coursera thing was clearly going to take some getting used to.

As you’ve probably heard, we are living in the age of the MOOC. In the last year, “massive open online courses” have spread through the higher-education landscape like kudzu on a Carolina roadside. Among the several providers that have gained early prominence, Coursera stands out as a particularly fast-growing enterprise. Founded by two Stanford professors in April 2012, the for-profit online education platform attracted more than a million users in its first four months—a faster start than either Facebook or Twitter, according to The New York Times.

Penn accounts for a significant portion of that growth. So far the University has offered 19 courses on the platform—more than any of Coursera’s 32 other academic partners aside from Stanford, which has also offered 19. Penn’s MOOCs range from “Corporate Finance,” by Franklin Allen, the Nippon Life Professor of Finance and Economics, to “Experimental Genome Science,” by pharmacology professor John Hogenesch and assistant professor of genetics John Isaac Murray. And the University is expanding its offerings. (See sidebar on p.61 for Penn’s current Coursera catalog.)

Penn also has a financial stake in Coursera. Three months after the company launched—with $16 million in venture-capital funding and initial academic partnerships with Stanford, Penn, Princeton, and the University of Michigan—Penn became an equity partner by making a joint investment with Caltech of $3.7 million. (As of press time, Coursera had attracted a total of $22 million in equity funding.)

What the rise of the MOOC portends for higher education is an open question. Coursera has been enrolling tens of thousands of students in single classes (all of which, so far, have been offered for free). They live everywhere from Kansas to Kazakhstan, and are turning to MOOCs to get everything from casual intellectual enrichment to actual college credits. Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller aims to offer “most of the full university curriculum”—which she pegs at about 5,000 courses—within three to five years.

“I hope that in 10 years,” she adds, “we will look back and say, “Boy, I can’t believe that the most predominant method of teaching our students was to shove them into an auditorium for an hour and a half twice a week.”

Koller, along with her co-founder Andrew Ng and a great many other people, believes that MOOCs will radically change the world of higher education.

“The question is,” as Penn Provost Vincent Price puts it, “How?”

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