Introducing the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Innovation

The Center for Teaching and Learning and the Online Learning Initiative have merged to become one unit for the support of instructors, graduate students, and staff.

Students walk over steps to Van Pelt-Dietrich Library.

As of Nov. 1, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and the Online Learning Initiative (OLI) have combined to become the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Innovation. The center, CETLI for short, will continue to support instructors, graduate students, and staff with best practices in pedagogy in all forms of teaching, in person and online, while going even deeper with technological and educational innovation.
Deputy Provost Beth Winkelstein, who oversees both units, explains that some conversations around a merger began after the creation of a joint instructional design position between CTL and OLI in 2017. But it was the critical moments of the pandemic and the responsiveness of both teams to Penn’s needs that really moved the conversation forward. More instructors and schools than ever were seeking out support from CTL and incorporating online components into class structures—and they are continuing to do so.
“For many folks on our campus, those boundaries [between pedagogy and online learning] became hyper-permeable during the pandemic,” says Winkelstein. “And coming out of the pandemic, both units had already been deeply collaborating, just not formally merged.”
The creation of CETLI, then, further develops a partnership that was already in action.
“I am very grateful to—and have great admiration for—both teams as they continue to think about how best to support our community in new forms of teaching and learning,” Winkelstein adds.
Bruce Lenthall, co-executive director of CETLI and formerly executive director of CTL, says the process of the merger spanned about 18 months of dialogue to explore the organizations’ different cultures and expectations, as well as assumptions about their work—where they had common ground and where they didn’t.
The largest point of overlap, he says—aside from their literal overlap co-locating in Van Pelt-Dietrich Library—was instructional design and technology.
“That’s a team we’re really building out and is the easiest place to see an immediate change, functionally,” says Lenthall. “We’re doing more to support instructors and using technology, doing more to support Penn and thinking systematically about where technology comes into our teaching, and doing more to help online programs from the get-go to think about pedagogy in their design.”
Lenthall emphasizes that the merger aims to reimagine how the Center can more creatively and collaboratively provide support through the combined knowledge of each team’s expertise and resources; CETLI will continue to offer the workshops, discussions, consultations, and online resources for faculty and graduate students that CTL has long provided on topic that range from course design to running a classroom. The merger rethinks support in terms of where teaching and technology intersect, and is a trend that’s also been observed at peer institutions, he adds.
In many ways, it’s also a partnership to strengthen Penn’s power to help shape the future of education.
“The challenges of yesterday are not the challenges of tomorrow,” explains co-executive director Rebecca Stein, formerly the executive director of the Online Learning Initiative since 2017 (OLI began as the Open Learning Initiative in 2012). “The new name has the word ‘innovation’ now, and the use of it is not a coincidence. We really see this unit as being nimble and able to adjust to the challenges of today and tomorrow in terms of teaching and learning. Seven years ago, it was ‘How do we teach online?’; last year, it was a discussion about teaching in the age of generative AI. And we’re always interested in how to teach in a way that’s more inclusive to a student body that’s changing and more diverse.”
The combined unit will still provide the key infrastructure OLI has historically offered to support online programs for the University’s 12 schools, including MOOCs (massive open online courses), noncredit offerings, and fully online degree programs. For example, a proposed program might need market analysis, support for using third-party platforms, and help adapting pedagogy to the online format.
“We’re not doing the teaching, nor student support, but we create a path for a smooth online educational experience,” Stein says. “It’s creative and innovative, even if you don’t always see it.”
She’s immensely proud of the progress OLI has contributed to online learning as a unit, she says, noting that Penn had one online degree when she began, and today there are 18 fully online degree programs—including the Ivy League’s first all-online bachelor’s degree. That evolution will continue under CETLI.
The Center launched a new website and continues to expand workshop and event offerings, as well as communications around those offerings. Through the first month of the fall semester, there were 35 workshops hosted with more than 400 participants—excluding TA trainings and orientations, which reached hundreds of new teaching assistants. Part of the mission is also to cultivate communities within and across schools in which instructors, graduate students, and staff can talk and learn from one another.
Peter Decherney, a professor of cinema and media studies in the School of Arts & Sciences, has served as faculty director for OLI since 2017 and will continue to serve as one of two faculty directors for CETLI. He echoes CETLI’s role as a consultant, a facilitator of dialogue, and an experimenter. One such way the Center encourages the exploration of new best practices is through Spark Grants, a new program launched last year that awards faculty members or online teams funds for innovative projects in online learning.
Even as CETLI looks to the future, he adds, the Center will also continue to engage with the Penn community to address its current pedagogical needs.
“Normally I would be forward-looking and thinking about how we can use CETLI to get out in front of new technology,” says Dechereny. “But I think we’re at a moment in which we have to use the resources of CETLI to address the current state of our campus, the larger Penn community, and the world. How can we use our resources to bring faculty together to talk about what we can do inside and outside the classroom to address the big issues we are all facing?”
CETLI is currently seeking nominations for an additional faculty co-director. Applications must be submitted by Dec. 15.