Online Courses Enable Penn Alumni to Continue Learning

As students at the University of Pennsylvania, they exercised their love of learning, and now, as Penn alumni, thanks to online courses, they can add to their knowledge base or explore subject matter they either couldn’t or didn’t when on campus.

Penn partnered with an open-learning platform last year to offer free, non-credit online courses to anyone with a computer and an interest in learning about subjects such as calculus, world music and bioethics. Deirdre Woods, interim executive director of Penn’s Open Learning Initiative, said the University has run 12 courses, has 20 courses currently open for enrollment and a dozen more in the approval process. Upwards of 650,000 people around the world have signed on.

“Penn is a leader in open learning,” Woods explains. “The Coursera platform provides Penn the opportunity to experiments with technology-enhanced learning and to disseminate knowledge on a global scale.”

 An informal outreach to alumni taking Coursera courses found that many Penn degree-holders are interested in expanding their knowledge with this new learning model. Three alumnae with backgrounds as varied as the courses they signed up for agreed to interviews and talked about why Coursera interests them.

Rochelle Rabin, an attorney practicing in the Philadelphia suburbs and member of the Class of 1974, took Listening to World Music last summer.  

“This course resonated deeply with me,” she says. “Last spring I saw the film ‘Under African Skies’ about Paul Simon and the 25th anniversary of the making of his ‘Graceland’ album in South Africa with South African musicians during apartheid and the boycott.

“I was so moved by the film, and shortly after seeing it I came across a post on Facebook about an online world-music course offered by Penn, so I immediately looked into it,” she continues. “My heart and mind were open to learning more about the South African music that Paul Simon had tapped into, and I saw that there was a whole week devoted to ‘Graceland’ in the course. Additionally, Professor Carol Muller is a noted ethnomusicologist from South Africa, so I realized that this was an opportunity not to be missed, and I enrolled. Rather than being a traditional music class, this course provided a framework for understanding several indigenous cultures by centering on their music.

“The input from fellow students from all over the world was a large part of the learning experience.”

Ashley Mahoney, a neonatal nurse practitioner and researcher on long-term outcomes in preterm infants, found a course that was right up her professional alley: Vaccines, taught by Penn pediatrics professor Paul Offit.

“On a day-to-day basis I care for high-risk neonates and their families,” she explains.  “As these infants grow, many of them will spend months in the NICU, including the timeframe that they are scheduled to get their vaccinations.

“Pop culture has led parents to false ideas surrounding vaccines, and these fallacies make it incredibly difficult to convince families of the need to protect their child with vaccines. Paul Offit’s course was timely for me as it discussed issues surrounding vaccines, vaccine safety, history, science and risk. Dr. Offit is the modern day father of vaccines. There is no better person to learn from.”

Sometimes, life gets in the way and the best intentions are sidetracked. That’s what happened to Rachel Sebastian, a 2012 Penn grad who said she signed up for several courses, but coupled with working full-time, it got to be too much.

“I think the courses are great for students like me who just graduated but are looking to keep learning or are seeking to boost the skills they already have,” she said. “I'm considering studying for the GMAT, and I might take a math course just to refresh my memory.”

All three women have taken classes online from other institutions and they see differences. Rabin enrolled in a class called The U.S. Food System from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at John Hopkins University, Mahoney is studying Obesity Economics, also from Hopkins,and Sebastian is taking an Introduction to Programming course through Princeton.

“The World Music course was more intellectually rigorous than I had originally anticipated. We began by learning the theoretical framework of ethnomusicology through which each culture would be studied, so I felt like I was in a real Penn course,” Rabin notes. “The Hopkins course started off a little differently and initially felt like a consumer outreach program geared toward a less academic audience. I may change my mind about this as I get deeper into the course.”

Mahoney, who earned her Ph.D. in nursing at Penn, found distinct differences in the length of the lectures and the work required from varying professors within the Coursera portfolio.

“All professors have their own styles and expectations. What I have found that may differ from the on campus experience is that you can always ‘get in’ to a course, and you are always being taught by the absolute best in their field.”

She says the Obesity Economics course from Hopkins was excellent and that her “next steps are to branch out of my field and take some courses in finance and economics -– just for new knowledge and insight.”

Meanwhile, Sebastian, who majored in political science and works as a paralegal, sees her programming course as a possible path to a new career

“I am interested in working for a start-up, and I figured it would be useful to learn how to code.”
Woods says that currently her office is instituting a follow-up questionnaire, in cooperation with Alumni Relations, that will ask new students to create a Coursera profile listing any Penn affiliation.

Meanwhile, anyone who has taken Penn’s Coursera courses and wants to provide feedback can email open_learning@penn. Additional information is available at and there is a Twitter account, @PennOpenCourses.