Open Learning Initiative Reaches Penn Alumni Online and Around the Globe

For the first time last fall, the University of Pennsylvania invited Quakers from around the globe to participate in an alumni-exclusive version of a massive open online course.

From Oct. 6 to Nov. 2, Penn offered a modified, four-week, intensive version of “History of the Slave South” taught by Stephanie McCurry of the history department in Penn Arts & Sciences.

McCurry’s course is a popular choice among Penn undergraduates, and the 10-week course offered online through Penn’s Open Learning Initiative has attracted thousands of people of varied backgrounds worldwide. So it was a natural choice for an exclusive version for alumni.

Almost 700 alumni ranging from the Class of 1940 to the Class of 2014 and from 15 countries signed up. Each week, attendees logged on to watch two video lectures, engaging with and learning from the instructor and their fellow alums through interactive discussion forums and live chats.

In addition to the videos, the class incorporated reading requirements, analysis of primary documents and answering discussion questions in an online forum.

While the pre-Civil War South was part of a global economy and a key element to the country’s political and economic growth, slavery’s role in history has been the topic of debate among top scholars. It also serves as a central theme of the course along with the ethical and political questions that history asks about the relationship between slavery, capitalism and democracy.

Lauren Owens, associate director of open learning at Penn, says the role of technology is increasing access to educational opportunities.

“There is always more to learn. Online platforms enable an exchange like never before, and Penn is at the forefront,” says Owens. “I think there’s something inspiring about alumni wanting to engage with each other and Penn professors.”

Owens says creating the online learning activity was a way to connect with alumni, while simultaneously facilitating peer-outreach opportunities.

“We were working on a variety of ideas before settling on an alumni-exclusive offering of one of our courses,” she says. “Alumni Relations knew that that graduates were interested in engaging with other alumni, based on the demand for their lecture series and webinars. This platform allowed us to make it happen.”

Alyssa D’Alconzo, director of alumni education, travel and career networking in Alumni Relations, says they are always looking for new ways to connect with former students.

“One thing the alumni have in common is that they came to Penn for a rigorous academic experience from renowned faculty alongside the best and brightest students in the world,” D’Alconzo says. “While we’ve had a robust series of on-campus, off-campus and online events for some time, Penn’s partnership with Coursera gave us the unique opportunity to create a space for high-level intellectual engagement with a community of alumni scholars.”

The response from the alumni who took the class was overwhelmingly positive. More than 85 percent of the attendees indicated that participating in the course strengthened their connection to Penn.

Jay Lippincott, who graduated from Penn as an American civilization major in 1974, took the course. He says he found McCurry to be a thought-provoking speaker who presented lively and interesting discussions.

“I would be interested in taking other relevant courses,” says Lippincott. “It also makes me proud to see Penn taking a leadership role in utilizing technology to improve and expand the educational experience.”

Owens and D’Alconzo are both excited by the response from alumni and even more so about the demand for another alumni-only class.

“It’s rewarding to be a part of the Open Learning Initiative and reaching millions of people all over the world, but there’s something special about designing a course for people who spent time on campus and really know Penn,” Owens says. “We definitely plan to offer another alumni-only course. We’re thinking of another humanities class next fall but haven’t decided on which one yet.”

D’Alconzo says that the course’s success is also a testament to the collaborative nature of Penn.

“It was a true cross-University partnership between Alumni Relations, Open Learning, Penn Arts & Sciences Online Learning, the faculty member and her teaching assistants,” D’Alconzo says. “Our team shaped the curriculum, generated thought-provoking discussion questions and ensured that alumni were having the kind of intellectual experience they remember from their time at Penn.”

More information on Penn’s Open Learning initiative is available at

Story Photo