Silfen Forum takes on open learning and higher ed

A revolution is afoot in higher education.

The rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, will likely bring sweeping changes to the American business model of higher education, drastically increase the numbers of students educated by collegiate-level courses, and transform the quality of education for millions of students around the world.

MOOCs have been the subject of broad discussion and debate in higher education and beyond, and were front and center at The David and Lyn Silfen University Forum, held on April 5 in Irvine Auditorium. The annual forum is named for David Silfen, a 1966 Penn alumnus, and his wife, Lyn, and brings experts to weigh in on topics of the day.

In this year’s event, Penn President Amy Gutmann moderated a panel of experts who discussed how free online courses may affect colleges and universities in the United States, as well as communities across the globe.

When 160,000 students signed up for a Stanford online learning class in the fall of 2011, Gutmann said this “really caused everyone to sit up and pay attention.”

“Are we headed for an educational revolution,” she asked, “or will this allow us to do more of what we’ve always done in a somewhat new way?”

According to panelist Thomas L. Friedman, a New York Times columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, the world has moved from a connected place to a hyperconnected one. “The world doesn’t care what you know anymore,” he said. “It only cares what you do with what you know.”
Gutmann and Friedman were joined on stage by Martha J. Kanter, U.S. under secretary of education; William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland; and Daphne Koller, Stanford University professor and co-founder of the online learning platform Coursera, which has enrolled almost 2.8 million students and is adding about 70,000 new students weekly from around the world.

“All of higher education can take advantage of new ideas and new innovations like MOOCs to address what I think is the most pressing issue,” said Kirwan, “the ability to educate the next generation of our population to the levels and quality that are demanded.” 

Web-based teaching and learning are pioneering a new model for higher education, with the capacity to give millions more people access to a top-level educational experience.

Kanter said that MOOCs will both increase and decrease quality of education, and have already increased access. “Can the equity agenda be accelerated to close achievement gaps through MOOCs?” she asked.  

Penn is among the inaugural cohort of universities offering free online courses through Coursera, which launched in 2012. Penn faculty have or are offering 19 courses on Coursera, from a wide range of departments, including medicine, finance, design, legal studies, nursing, ethics, computer science, health policy, math, music, engineering, poetry, pharmacology, and classics, and more than 840,000 students from around the world have registered for Penn online courses since they began. Penn’s “Introduction to Calculus,” an online course taught by Robert Ghrist, a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor, has been recommended for credit by the American Council on Education.

Koller said that already, MOOCs are transforming higher education, ensuring it is a right and not a privilege through access to free, high-quality courses. “The biggest cost to us as a society is students who fail,” she said.

About the Forum:

David Silfen, a 1966 Penn alumnus, is chairman of Mayfair Management/Silfen Investment Partners LP and a senior director of The Goldman Sachs Group. He has been a Penn Trustee since 1998. He is vice chair of the Board and he serves on the Trustee Executive, Budget and Finance, Nominating and Development committees and is a former member of the Investment Board. He currently chairs the Board of Overseers of the School of Arts and Sciences.

David and his wife, Lyn, are the parents of Jane Silfen and Adam Silfen, both Penn grads. Longtime supporters of undergraduate education, in addition to the Silfen University Forum, they previously funded two Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) University Professorships, the Silfen Student Study Center, a term professorship and the David and Lyn Silfen Fund in the School of Arts and Sciences to support the Pilot Curriculum.

Originally published on April 5, 2013