Penn’s Open Learning Opens Doors on Campus and Around the World

By Christina Cook

Through its Open Learning initiative, the University of Pennsylvania is dramatically transforming the who, what, when and where of learning, making the resources of higher education accessible to millions more people than ever before.

Penn was among the first in the world to open its doors to scores of learners in more than 200 countries, as one of the four founding members of the Coursera online learning platform. With more than 30 courses listed and 20 more in the pipeline, Penn stands out in terms of the breadth and depth of its offerings. Having enrolled 2.3 million students and granted more than 90,000 Statements of Accomplishment to date, more people have taken open courses from Penn than from the 40 institutions that make up the whole edX online learning platform combined.

As impressive as these numbers are, the impact that Penn Open Learning initiatives has on the personal and professional lives of its students is where the real story begins.

According to Lauren Owens, associate director of Open Learning at Penn, many students post “passionate thank-you’s” to their professors in the discussion forums at the end of every course. “No matter how big of an enrollment it had or what the topic was,” she says, “students really speak up to express their gratitude.”

The overwhelming number and often emotive nature of these “appreciation threads” are, as Brian Bushee, the Gilbert and Shelley Harrison Professor of Accounting at Penn’s Wharton School, says, “incredibly rewarding and make the whole effort of putting the course together worthwhile.”

Much of the student feedback conveys the difference these courses have made in their lives. One such post to Al Filreis, Kelly Family Professor of English in the School of Arts & Sciences, director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and faculty director of Kelly Writers House, from a student in his Modern and Contemporary Poetry, or ModPo, class:

“You cannot possibly imagine what ModPo means to me. 26 years ago I ran away to NYC from an intolerable familial and political situation in Pakistan. I struggled many years as an undocumented immigrant and finally managed to get political asylum. I am happily settled with my husband and son now but deep inside me all these years was a hankering to understand poetry at a deep level, to contextualize the random encounters I had with it while I tried to educate myself as the exigencies of life prevented me from going to college.”

And from another: “I’ve learned more in ModPo about the kind of person I want to be and the kind of life I want to lead than I have anywhere else.”

Students also write to say how much the classes have heightened their professional satisfaction and even improved their job security.

Bushee relates one instance in which a student in his Introduction to Financial Accounting course wrote, “The world of MOOCs has been an amazing discovery to me. I might not be able to get an actual degree, but being able to get the knowledge? So amazing! I work as a full-charge bookkeeper for a group of small businesses, and am pretty much self-trained. This class has helped me to do my job so much better, as the owners often look to me for financial and accounting advice. I also act as a liaison to the CPA, and it no longer seems like we are speaking different languages…. For a person like me (who couldn't even afford the [$50] signature track option), to have access to life-changing educational information is more helpful than you will ever know. Once again, thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the time and energy that you sacrificed to touch the lives of people like me.”

Kevin Werbach, associate professor of legal studies at Wharton, tells of a similar student response to his Gamification course, which, the student says, “helped me dramatically in my job” and “provided me a framework for innovation and a roadmap for avoiding many of the pitfalls that come with this kind of work…. I likely avoided being laid off because of this class.”

In expanding the world of knowledge and opportunities for its students, Penn’s Open Learning classes take on “lives of their own, beyond our involvement,” says Gary Hack, professor emeritus in the Department of City & Regional Planning in Penn's School of Design. “One week after it went live,” he says of his massive open online course, or MOOC, Designing Cities, “Fifty chat groups had formed in dozens of languages.”

This global intellectual expansiveness has had the complementary effect of making the world smaller, as several of Penn’s open learning professors have noted. Werbach says, for example, that “just last week I was walking down a street in Tel Aviv, Israel, during a family vacation, when someone called out, ‘Professor Werbach? I took your class. It was great!’”

The online platform is essentially a high-tech launch pad that professors use to disseminate knowledge to an even wider range of students—in terms of age, life circumstances, cultural backgrounds and world experiences—than can possibly congregate on a college campus.

Hack notes that “there were many people taking Designing Cities who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to take a course in urban design,” including “working professionals, high school students, undergraduates and, notably, two people in Damascus and one in Kabul, in the midst of war zones, who did quite inspiring proposals for parks and riverfront improvements” in their cities.  

Open Learning also opens possibilities for retirees, as noted by retired nurse Carol Redfield, Penn parent and student in the Growing Old Around the Globe course taught by the Sarah Kagan, the Lucy Walker Honorary Term Professor of Gerontological Nursing, and nursing instructor Anne Shoemaker: “For the ageing population who want to be involved in lifelong learning but have limited access and resources, this type of activity is really a significant intervention for stimulating the mind, sharpening the interactive process and enhancing social engagement. 

In addition to answering Penn President Amy Gutmann’s call to increase access and engage on local, national and global levels, Open Learning gives Penn professors an opportunity to push the limits of educational innovation. They have virtually reinvented teaching methods for basics such as literature and math, and introduced subjects so new that, before being offered online, few people beyond Penn had heard of them. 

Werbach’s Gamification course, for example, focuses on one such cutting-edge subject.

“Many of my students,” he says, “tell me it was their first exposure to the field of gamification, which they subsequently incorporated into their work or career plans. The subject of my MOOC is relevant to a huge number of organizations, but there are still very few formal courses on it. So, even graduates of prestigious universities don’t have access to this material any other way.”

The educational innovations that Penn MOOCs have yielded extend well beyond the Internet. As Owens says, “one of the most exciting things about the whole open learning initiative is the conversation it’s kick-started about the use of technology in on-campus learning.” 

Robert Ghrist, the Andrea Mitchell Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the School of Arts & Sciences, concurs: “I certainly find that, now that I have taught through the video medium, I can no longer teach at the chalkboard in the same old style. I find myself wishing that I could press rewind, or call up an elaborate animation in chalk.”

Bushee’s experience has been the same. “After doing the course for Coursera,” he says, “I taught the same course in the M.B.A. program here in the spring semester and experimented with flipping the classroom. The Coursera videos were essentially the ‘lecture’ part of the course, so I posted the videos for the students to watch before each class…. During class time, I did not do any lecture; instead I added another case study or financial statement example for us to discuss. Through this process, I was able to double the amount of case material in the course, which is where a professor-led discussion can really add value. And, I didn’t have to lecture! Based on this revision, I received one of three Teaching Commitment and Curricular Innovation Awards for 2014 from the M.B.A. program.”

Similarly, Werbach says, “I’ve used my MOOC to do a ‘flipped’ version of the gamification course I teach at Penn. To be honest, doing a MOOC has made my classroom teaching more challenging, because I’ve raised my expectations for myself. I go into my courses now at Penn thinking that I have to give the students something better than what they can get for free on the Internet.” He notes that “there’s no substitute for having a professor in the room with a small group of students that he or she gets to know over the course of a semester,” and adds, “going forward, I believe Penn students will expect more from us. And they should.”

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