The evolution of MOOCs and higher education, an inside view

The details behind U Penn’s MOOC success
By: | Issue: March, 2014
March 17, 2014

University of Pennsylvania was one of Coursera’s first four partners, having started its open course initiative in April 2012. Today, it offers 25 courses from 10 of its 12 schools, and has logged 1.9 million enrollments. Edward Rock, director of open course initiatives at UPenn, is speaking on the evolution of MOOCs in higher ed at UBTech 2014. We sat with Rock to find out what’s driving U Penn’s MOOC success.

First, why should a university launch a MOOC?

We think of MOOCs as a three-pronged initiative: they’re a great format for creating digital content; second, it promises huge transformations in universities; and third is the research component. As an externally-facing aspect, it gives us the ability to share our teaching resources with the entire world at a very low cost. Because our mission is the creation and dissemination of knowledge, “the entire world” is where we need to be. And faculty are entranced with the idea of reaching and teaching more students. As an inward-facing vehicle, MOOCs are an important conversation starter and help begin the process of engaging with technology and innovation in teaching.

How are you using MOOCs at UPenn?

Our strategy has been to showcase our existing resources as a teaching university. Also, in addition to traditional courses, we also run nontraditional courses. For instance, we have one on vaccines and one on the anatomy of the upper limb. Starting next year, for every slot where math 104 is taught, one session will be taught the traditional way and one will use digital content from Coursera. Students will be randomly assigned to these classes. They will take the same assessments, and for the first time, we’ll be able to measure the benefit. We also have some different teachers for our Coursera classes. For instance, the course on vaccines is taught by Zeke Emmanuel, the person who designed the Affordable Care Act.

How much does it cost to offer a MOOC course?

It’s not nothing, but it’s not huge either. We budget between $40,000 and $50,000 for course stipends for instructors, copyright permissions and videotaping. Given the scale at which we operate and the potential here for moving us forward, we view this as an incredible bargain.

What are some of the challenges you have dealt with?

First, we had to learn how to do the course. For that, we solicited the help of our on-campus videographers. That was challenging because we had to rethink a course for a different platform and a different kind of audience. Instructors had to think about how to make it feel like there’s a real connection with all 50,000 or so students, whether it’s by visiting the discussion boards, holding web chats, or another technique. They’ve been very successful at doing that.

For someone getting started with open course, what are the key factors involved?

I think the benefits of the kind of partnership we have with Coursera only come if you make a serious move. If you’re going to offer one or two or three courses just to say you have an internet strategy, then I think it’s a waste of time. Where you actually get a real payback is if you move into it in a serious way so that the faculty get interested, you play around with it, overcome that steep learning curve and figure out how it works.

At UPenn, we are at the very beginning of a long process. In five years, I think our open course offering will look very different than it does today. But the only way you get to shape the future is to jump in and work on it.

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