COUNCIL State of the University
November 6, 2012,
Volume 59, No. 11
At the October 31 University Council meeting, there were several comments alluding to the recent Hurricane Sandy which had left Penn’s campus mostly unscathed in spite of the severe weather which caused much of the East Coast, including the University of Pennsylvania, to close on Monday and Tuesday of last week. The main focus of the meeting was the annual State of the University, which dealt with Open Learning and The Campaign for Penn.
President Amy Gutmann
How fortunate we’ve been to have weathered Sandy well. How proud I am of our staff, who have done a phenomenal job. Public Safety’s been amazing, so let’s give Maureen Rush a hand. Facilities and Real Estate Services, Student Life, VPUL, Business Services, everybody’s done a great job. And I also have to say I’m very proud of our students, who really behaved responsibly throughout. Now I turn it over to our moderator, Dr. Pyeritz.
Dr. Reed Pyeritz
Thank you President Gutmann, welcome to all of you who now know what it’s like to compete on Survivor. I’m reminded to ask you when you do speak, speak directly into a mic. Also, the status reports were distributed electronically; any of the composers of those have anything to add? Dan?
Dan Bernick (UA)
Just echoing Dr. Gutmann on behalf of the undergraduates at Penn, we want to thank all of you and the University community for your response to the storm. Forgive the pun, but we were blown away by the dedication of the Public Safety officials and the essential service providers on campus who made sure that students were safe, comfortable and well-informed throughout the duration of the storm. So on behalf of all of us, thank you for your hard work.
Thank you very much. This year’s State of the University presentation includes something dramatically new that none of us had actually predicted, but it’s a case of good fortune where opportunity meets preparation. We are now partnering with Coursera and embarking on a bold experiment in online education that has the potential for disseminating high quality knowledge and understanding like never before. I just want to say one of the great privileges and thrills of being president of a wonderful university is being able to do something new that has the potential for increasing access to what we do, for our alumni, for people in this country and around the world, and also to transform the way education happens in Penn’s classrooms. Later in this meeting, the Provost will speak more about that, as will our senior advisor to the president and the provost and the director of our new online education initiative, Professor Ed Rock.
In a moment I’ll also call on Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations John Zeller, to share more about our campaign accomplishments to date. It’s true that our Making History campaign, which has raised more money than all the previous campaigns in Penn’s history combined, has really enabled us to do so much for students, for our teaching enterprise and for our research enterprise. So, the momentum is high. I just want to point out a few things that are happening on the ground that are illustrations of our momentum.
As I like to say, if the students are Penn’s heart and soul, the faculty are our brains. Among the outstanding faculty and leaders joining Penn this year, Provost Price and I were pleased to announce this month that Drs. Doubeni and Mendoza are Penn’s newest Presidential Term Professors. We welcome them as eminent scholars who also diversify our faculty. It’s a very important part of the Faculty Diversity Plan that we are losing no time whatsoever in recruiting some of the most eminent faculty from around this country and the world.
We also welcome two superb new leaders at the helm of Penn’s signature cultural institutions: Dr. Amy Sadao, who is now the director of our Institute of Contemporary Art, and Dr. Julian Siggers, who is the director of the Penn Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. Those of you who haven’t recently gone to either the ICA or the Penn Museum, I encourage you to do so. The exhibits there are phenomenal.
As I just mentioned, we also named a new senior advisor who you’ll hear about soon, Ed Rock. With that, I’ll turn it over to Provost Vince Price for the first part of the State of the University address. So, Provost Price, you’re on.
Provost Vincent Price
Thank you. As it turns out, Sandy did not bring all that much thunder, so we’ve saved it for today. We all came to Penn to be at the center of the action. Few of us thought we’d be literally in the eye of the hurricane, but I’m pleased to say that the State of the University today is both calm and dry.
More generally, Penn is absolutely a dynamic hub of world-leading research and teaching. I could draw on numerous examples of that dynamism, with new initiatives launched around the campus, but we have singled out one topic for our discussion today: Open Learning at Penn and the work we’re doing in partnership with Coursera to explore new avenues of online teaching, public access to Penn’s outstanding faculty, and new methods of teaching right here on campus.
As you may know, last April we launched Coursera with three partner institutions: Stanford University, Princeton University, and the University of Michigan. Since that time, Coursera has grown quite rapidly, to include more than a million and a half users, with close to five million course enrollments, and now has dozens of institutional partners. Penn has clearly led the way, developing more courses—and crossing a much wider disciplinary range—than any other Coursera partner institution.
I’m very pleased to have with us today, to talk with us about Coursera, our Director of Open Learning Initiatives at Penn, Ed Rock. Ed is the Saul A. Fox Distinguished Professor of Business Law in the Law School, with an appointment as professor of economics and public policy at Wharton. For a dozen years, he was co-director of the Institute of Law and Economics, which joins the Law School, Wharton, and the department of economics in the School of Arts & Sciences. So, he knows the University very well; and he is getting to know it that much better leading a project that brings together all 12 of Penn’s schools—along with resources and units across the campus, ranging from the Penn Libraries to the Office of General Counsel—to marshal the collective energy of the institution and move forward on this very exciting new front. And with that I will turn things over to Ed Rock.
Thank you, Vince. It is a pleasure to be here, and it is a genuine pleasure to have a role in pushing forward our Coursera partnership. In 100 years, people will look back on the Gutmann administration’s decision to partner with Coursera as one of the most important and revolutionary decisions in higher education. It speaks enormously well of Penn as a university that we could take such a bold move and, moreover, that we were able to move as quickly and with as much consultation as we did, because this is a truly revolutionary endeavor.
Coursera started as a partnership between Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, two computer science professors at Stanford, both of whom opened their computer science courses to worldwide enrollment. Andrew Ng teaches a course called “Machine Learning.” He opened his Stanford course to the web and 100,000 people signed up. Because he is an expert in Machine Learning, he long ago figured out how to program his computer to grade quizzes and exams. So, the course scaled very effectively. And out of that success came the idea that one could provide access to huge numbers of students around the world to the riches of the university, that the platform would allow us to experiment with ways of delivering education, and that it all could be done in a sustainable way. Coursera has succeeded in drawing an international student body, with 60% of the students in Coursera from outside the United States. At any moment, night or day, there are 7,000 students on the site. Discussion boards form a key part of the Coursera platform, and, no matter what time of day, it takes on average 20 minutes for a student to get an answer to a query that he or she posts.
So what is Coursera? It is a platform, primarily, that offers courses from its partner universities. There are now 33 partner universities, drawn from the best universities in the world. When people want very high quality online courses from top universities, Coursera is the place to go.
As Provost Price said, it has grown incredibly quickly; it reached a million users faster than Facebook, and now has more than 1.5 million users with over 5 million enrollments. What’s most distinctive about Coursera is the “M” in “MOOC”: “massive.” These courses are massive. The Michigan Introduction to Finance course attracted 130,000 students.
As you can imagine, it didn’t take long for Wharton to decide that it should put a finance course up on Coursera, and Franklin Allen, the star finance teacher who teaches 600 or so of the MBA students, who is also a sensational world-renowned economist, is preparing an MBA-level Coursera finance course that will have the Wharton and Penn logos on it. Peter Struck’s Greek and Roman Mythology course gives a good example of a course landing page: the lectures are off the right; the social networking aspects are on the left, as are the quizzes and so forth (at left).
What is critical about a Coursera course is that it brings the best of learning science to bear. One of the most robust findings from the education literature is that active learning—by which I mean having some sort of assessment every 10 or 15 minutes—increases learning outcomes by about one standard deviation. Now, in my class, to give a quiz every 15 minutes would require someone to grade that quiz. Because computers never get bored, the Coursera platform is able to integrate ongoing assessment efficiently. This works for an absolutely intuitive reason: if you are sitting in a class and know that you’ll be quizzed on the material every 10 or 15 minutes, you’ll pay attention. And it turns out, of course, that paying attention increases learning outcomes.
Stanford and Penn have the most courses up on Coursera. Stanford’s courses are primarily computer science courses. Penn’s courses showcase the riches of this great research university, with courses from the medical school—Emma Meagher’s Fundamentals of Pharmacology, Paul Offit’s course on vaccine science, John Hogenesch’s graduate level course on genome science—to offerings from Wharton—such as Kevin Werbach’s Gamification course and Christian Terwiesch’s Operations Management course—to great courses from the liberal arts.
For me, the two most interesting and unexpected hits were Carol Muller’s World Music and Al Filreis’s Modern and Contemporary Poetry. I understood why the computer science courses could attract such dedicated students. For many IT jobs, what is important is what you can do, not your credentials. These courses teach a variety of skills that computer programmers (and hackers) around the world want to learn. But why did World Music and Modern Poetry attract thousands of students? The answer is the reason that the liberal arts remain at the core of great universities: they open your mind. Carol Muller’s course pushes students to think about the nature of Paul Simon’s “Rhythm of the Saints” collaboration with South African singing groups. Al Filreis opens the doors to modern poetry for anyone willing to read and listen. A wonderful NPR piece a few weeks back interviewed Dick Durbin, the majority whip of the Senate, who is enrolled in Al Filreis’s course. Sen. Durbin accurately quoted a line from a poem by Emily Dickinson! Nobody is taking these courses for the skills that are taught. They are taking them to enrich their lives.
With 33 partner schools, it is easy to get lost. To position Penn as a distinctive and premier provider of high quality open learning, we have now launched our own web page (www.upenn.edu/provost/openlearning). I urge everyone to go check this out. Our courses are amazing. Take a look at the trailer for Rob Ghrist’s single-variable calculus course (launching in January 2013). Professor Ghrist is reinventing the calculus textbook.
We are learning that there’s no single model for what is a successful Coursera course or a typical Coursera learner. Each course finds its own audience. The audiences for machine learning and modern poetry are fundamentally different. Our courses find audiences that we never anticipated. There is an assisted living facility in New Jersey where ten 90-plus year old residents are taking Al Filreis’s course together, as a group. They watch the lectures on a large screen television, and do the homework together, all without traveling.
So why are we doing it? For three principal reasons. First, Penn’s core mission is the creation and dissemination of knowledge. We create most of the knowledge here on campus. We disseminate it on campus to full- and part-time students, to undergraduates, to graduate students, to professional students. We disseminate it in conferences around the world. We disseminate it in books and journals. The internet is clearly a “place” where Penn needs to be disseminating its knowledge, because that’s how you reach people.
Second, and even more important, the Coursera experiment holds the potential to revolutionize courses here on campus. Take Rob Ghrist’s single-variable calculus Coursera course with his beautiful hand graphics. As soon as he finishes that course, his Math 104 class will be transformed, because now the Coursera course becomes the textbook for the live course. The assignment will no longer be “read pages 47 to 66 of the textbook and do problems 6 through 13.” No, the assignment now becomes “watch module 4.1 of the course on Coursera, do problems 6-13, and when you come to class tomorrow, I’m not lecturing. We’re going do other things, we’re going do more important things, we’re going to take advantage of what in-person face-to-face education can provide.” Maybe Professor Ghrist will divide the students up into groups of five or six and give them harder problems and say, “solve them in a group.” Or maybe he’ll say, “in my lecture we talked about an application to microeconomics. Now let’s talk about applications in biology.” Or maybe somebody will say, “I didn’t understand quite exactly how that proof worked.” And he’ll say, “well let’s go into that again, let’s go more deeply. Let’s look at some other concepts.”
Coursera offers the possibility of “flipping” the classroom. My hope is that Coursera will blow up the 19th century model of education, of frontal lecturing in a tiered classroom, a model which, for decades, we have known is not the most effective way of teaching. Once you’ve recorded your very best lecture and put it on the Coursera platform with assessments every 10 or 15 minutes that are machine graded, why would you stand up in front of a class and give the same lecture? Much better to use class time to take advantage of the face-to-face contact that allows you to engage in ways that are impossible on line.
Finally, we believe it will be a sustainable business model. Sufficient monetization opportunities will flow from a platform that already has 1.5 million users that we expect this to pay for itself.
Following the presentation there were questions and answers, including:
Q: As a graduate student, I’ve honestly heard a lot of fear amongst my peers and younger professors about what MOOCs could eventually wind up doing to the profession. How do we at this school see Coursera operating in a line that I think with our future hiring practices is essentially going to reduce the number of assistant level, entry-level jobs for professors? Is it going to marginalize the need for people to teach survey courses? Or how exactly do we plan on continuing to attract talent (particularly young talent) while utilizing Coursera? Do we have any way in which we’re envisioning these two things working together?
A: (Edward Rock): I cannot speak for all of the universities, and I cannot speak to the hiring practices even at Penn, but I have heard this question before. For schools like ours, Coursera does not pose any threat, only opportunities. I know of no intention to use Coursera to displace instructors, only to enrich our teaching. If Coursera can get people to flip their classrooms, that will not change hiring practices but will empower teachers to do what they can do best—connect with students in face-to-face interactions in the classroom. Our head start in open learning that flows from our early partnership with Coursera will also provide graduate students with opportunities to learn how to teach through this new platform, skills that can give them a leg up in their careers.
President Gutmann: Let me just say a little bit about the larger context because it’s something I follow closely. Long before we joined Coursera, online education took off, and there are universities like the University of Phoenix that do everything online. That’s not our space. But they do things online in no small part, I have to assume, because they can do it more economically that way, but they’re not providing the kind of higher education we’re providing. The kind we’re providing is essentially tied to the kind of interactions that our students have with faculty and have with one another in a campus-based experience. So I can speak for Penn, and the other Ivy plus institutions in saying what Ed Rock has said is absolutely our plan. It is for us to provide the very best education in a campus-based setting where we will have no less of a need for the very best faculty at all levels, so it is not a fear that is well-directed at a place like Penn. I began by pointing out the University of Phoenix; if it weren’t doing things online, it wouldn’t exist, but if there were no online potential, and you wanted to provide cheap higher education, you would hire cheap labor to do it, not the kind of faculty we hire. So, one of the really amazing aspects of American higher education, which is really distinctive to this country, is how large our sector is, how varied it is, and the fact that it’s still the case and we want it to be the case for decades and decades to come, that the best American universities are the best in the world, and for us to remain the best in the world, we had better provide the best campus-based education. And that will include what we can teach students online, to supplement what our faculty does in the classroom. So I hope that gives you a really full, robust answer to the question. In short, this is going to supplement, not supplant, great faculty. And the faculty themselves are driving it.
Q: What about graduate students?
A. (President Gutmann): Graduate students are actually going to be even more important because graduate students and indeed some undergraduates may be working with the faculty members, are working with the faculty members to make these courses even better. So it will—as far as we’re concerned—it will only enhance both the opportunities for faculty and graduate students.
They will monitor discussion boards and so on. They will be involved in this, in the same way as they would be involved in a person-to-person interaction.
Related: Coursera Workshop