A year later, Penn a ‘powerhouse’ in open learning

In June 2012, Penn opened its digital doors to students across the globe with the launch of the University’s Open Learning Initiative. A year later, there’s a lot to celebrate.

“The response from the world to our initiative has been kind of incredible,” says Deirdre Woods, interim executive director of Penn’s Open Learning Initiative. “We’re really amazed and gratified that we have the Penn word out to such a broad audience.”


As the Initiative celebrates its first year, the numbers support Woods’ enthusiasm. In the past year, approximately 1.4 million students from more than 162 countries have enrolled in Penn’s Open Learning courses. So far, 19 faculty members have taught courses online, and as many as 45 unique courses are in currently in the pipeline.

In a landscape where technology and higher education are increasingly colliding, “Penn is considered a powerhouse,” Woods says.

Penn was one of the first universities in the world to team up with Coursera, an educational technology company offering massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

“Penn’s mission is to create and disseminate knowledge,” says Lauren Owens, program coordinator for the Open Learning Initiative. “Offering Penn’s material and our wonderful faculty across disciplines in such a large format is very much [in line with] Penn’s mission.”

Woods says the open course format has been attractive to faculty as well; the controlled and permanent nature of online courses allows not only for precise course design, but also enables faculty to repurpose effective classes in their traditional classrooms.

“It used to be, even if you teach large courses at Penn, you might see a couple thousand students in your lifetime,” Woods says. “Online is a great venue for educators—it can be gratifying to teach anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 students in a single course, and receive feedback from those students.”

Penn faculty, however, are not the only parties gleaning the benefits of open learning. Woods and Owens say they receive countless emails of praise from students—many of whom say they would be unable to take college-level courses otherwise—who have enrolled in the University’s open course offerings.

The feedback Woods and Owens have received over the past year is a tangible manifestation of Penn’s commitment to increasing access.

“The fact that Penn entered into this initiative so early speaks to Penn’s leadership,” Woods says. “No one really knows where [MOOCs] are heading—we’re still in the early stages—but Penn is at the forefront of experimenting and figuring out what these materials will mean for the future of education.”