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Harnessing the Power of Information
Penn explores the vast opportunities of distributed learning.
By Judith Rodin, CW'66

I HAVE BEEN HAVING some wonderful conversations with members of the Class of 2002. Due to arrive on campus this fall, they are an extraordinary group of students. Our discussions range from the nuances of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior -- this year's Freshman Reading Project book -- to the nature and importance of leadership. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of our discussions has less to do with what has been said, than how it has been said. That is because we have been carrying out our conversations over the Internet.
   This spring, 32 students admitted early to the Class of 2002 -- from as far away as Malaysia and Pakistan -- have been logging on and exploring the place that they will call home for the next four years. Conceived and run by Professors Al Filreis of the English department and Jim O'Donnell of classical studies, the Class of 2002 project is one of a number of impressive experiments Penn is conducting in the area of "distributed learning."
   The important issue here is not technology per se. Given the almost unbelievable pace of the information revolution, using the Internet to communicate is almost old hat. What I wish to emphasize is the thoughtful application of technology in pursuit of Penn's academic goals -- in this case, the critical process of freshman orientation. Yes, the technology itself is awe-inspiring; but the more compelling focus for me is how we can use that technology to do what we do better and in new, creative ways.
   My colleagues and I have been giving a great deal of thought to how Penn will take best advantage of the great opportunities being created -- on almost a daily basis -- by the technology revolution. Many of these opportunities were described in the recent report of a special committee on distributed learning convened by the provost. The product of some of Penn's most thoughtful faculty members and administrators, the report outlines several ways in which the University will actively leverage the power of information technology to advance our academic mission. (The full report is on-line at http://www.upenn .edu/almanac/v44/n30/distlearn.html) Guided by the committee's work, the University is moving forward with a number of creative pilot programs like the Class of 2002 project.
   The Wharton School of Business recently announced a first-of-its-kind distributed learning program in partnership with Caliber Learning Network, Inc. Called Wharton Direct, this dynamic initiative will pair integrated satellite, video conferencing, and PC networking with world-class Wharton instruction. The target audience is top-notch managers around the world -- professionals who for reasons of distance or time would otherwise not have access to Wharton's on-campus academic programming.
   Similarly, two distinguished faculty members in the School of Arts and Sciences -- Professor of Anthropology Alan Mann and Professor of Mathematics Dennis DeTurck -- intend soon to offer academically talented pre-college students interactive, real-time, distributed learning courses in anthropology and calculus. These courses and future courses like them will draw and introduce extraordinary secondary school students to the riches of Penn's scholarly community. And we believe that many of those students -- whether they live across the Schuylkill River or across the Pacific Ocean -- will eventually select Penn as their school of first choice.
   The University of Pennsylvania has never been confined to a few square blocks of real estate. Our faculty come from around the globe; our research mission spans the continents; our alumni can be found in every corner of the world. We have long been an international institution of higher learning.
   But the definition of a global university is being rewritten by technological innovation. As the Class of 2002 project, Wharton Direct, and the pre-college initiative so clearly show, we can build, through the creative use of powerful technology, dynamic learning communities made up of individuals who live hundreds and thousands of miles apart. This is an extremely exciting prospect for Penn.
   We are very fortunate to live at a time when technology offers us opportunities to strengthen and expand Penn's place in the world of higher education. Where will technology's march take the University of Pennsylvania in 10, 20, 100 years? None of us can know for sure, but I am absolutely convinced that we will continue to harness the transformative power of technology to realize our global aspirations. We will use it creatively and successfully to make Penn more accessible to the world -- and the world more accessible to Penn.



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