Penn reaches thousands online with Coursera

Call them the daring dozen. As part of Penn’s new partnership with the start-up online education platform called Coursera, 12 professors have agreed to be the first to venture into the unchartered waters of large-scale cyber teaching.

Coursera, designed by two Stanford computer scientists, is a web portal meant to make interactive online courses from top universities available for free to millions of people across the globe. Penn is partnering with Coursera, along with Princeton University, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan, in the new company’s effort to distribute not only math, engineering, and science courses to users, but also a selection of courses in the humanities and social sciences, taught to thousands of students at once.

Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, the founders of Coursera, decided to create the company after developing and teaching web-based courses for Stanford last year.

“We decided that we had to think about how to expand the scale of this, in terms of giving students a great education across disciplines,” says Koller. “The right thing for the students of the world is not just to give them access to Stanford content,” she says. “Other universities have great content, too.”

In April, Koller and Ng received $16 million in venture capital from two leading investment firms in the Silicon Valley—Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers and New Enterprise Associates—to launch Coursera. Shortly afterward, Coursera announced its partnership with Penn and the three other major universities.

Starting in late August, Robert Ghrist, the Andrea Mitchell Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor (PIK) of mathematics and engineering, will teach a course in single variable calculus, which is expected to draw more than 12,000 students. 

Ghrist says he’s looking forward to implementing some of his innovative teaching methods on a large scale.

“I’ve spent the last 10 years rethinking how calculus should be taught and done a bit of work to modify the curriculum for it,” he says. “I can implement on a large scale some of my ideas of a different way to teach calculus. I love the fact that I am going to be able to reach a lot of high school students who are perhaps bored with the treatment that calculus gets in high schools … and professionals who are finding that they need to know this stuff for their jobs and may never have learned it properly the first time.”

Al Filreis, Penn’s Kelly Professor of English, will be teaching a course in modern and contemporary American poetry. As of late May, his class, which begins in September, had already drawn an enrollment of more than 9,000. Filreis expects the final enrollment to be about 15,000. “There’s nothing new about online teaching,” he says. “The revolution here is the number of people.”

For Filreis’ course, students will read poems listed in the syllabus and then view videos showing him conducting seminar-style discussions of the works. Then, Filreis says, students will be invited to participate in online discussion forums. Students who complete the Coursera classes will receive a certificate of completion, but will not get Penn course credit.

There’s nothing new about online teaching. The revolution here is the number of people.”

Ten other courses will be taught by Penn professors: “Cardiac Arrest, Hypothermia, and Resuscitation Science” with Benjamin Abella of the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM); “Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act” with PIK professor of bioethics Ezekiel Emanuel; “Basic Behavioral Neurology” with Roy Hamilton of PSOM; “Introduction to Genome Science” with John Hogenesch and John Isaac Murray of PSOM; “Networked Life” with Michael Kearns, founder of Penn’s new Market and Social Systems Engineering program; “Fundamentals of Pharmacology” with Emma Meagher of Penn Medicine; “Listening to World Music” with Carol Muller of the School of Arts and Sciences; “Vaccines” with Paul Offit of PSOM; “Greek and Roman Mythology” with Peter Struck, founder of the Integrated Studies Program; and “Gamification” with Kevin Werbach of the Wharton School. 

“[This is] a unique opportunity to engage our faculty in working with this platform and experimenting with the technologies it affords,” says Provost Vincent Price.