Penn Compact 2020/

Inclusion: A Math Classroom, Without Walls

The announcement of a new math course generally doesn’t elicit the kind of response that accompanies a movie premiere, but in a way, that’s what happened when Robert Ghrist debuted “Calculus: Single Variable” in January. About 50,000 students, from 62 countries, showed up for class.

Fortunately, no one had to fight for a seat at the head of the classroom. That’s because Ghrist’s lecture is a massive open online course, better known as a MOOC. Ghrist’s class was among the first to be offered by Coursera, the online learning platform with which Penn is partnering.  

Like a movie premiere, all of the action takes place on screen. Rather than a textbook, Ghrist’s class relies upon hand-drawn animations and videos, 75 in all. Those videos have been watched more than 300,000 times.

Ghrist is the Andrea Mitchell University Professor, with appointments in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering and in the School of Arts and SciencesDepartment of Mathematics. A popular and engaging classroom teacher, Ghrist was a natural choice to be among the first to venture into the new format for higher education. From the very first meeting with Coursera’s founders, Ghrist says he began brainstorming ways that video and online interaction could enhance his teaching.

“When I do mathematics as part of my research I think in pictures, but it is very difficult to transmit on a blackboard,” Ghrist says. “However with video, and some additional work getting the design and animation just right, I can transmit the images that I see when I’m explaining a calculus subject to a broad audience.”  

In his home-built studio, Ghrist worked night and day to meticulously craft the visual experience for his students.   

“I certainly think that my classroom teaching is going to be transformed by this experience,” Ghrist says. “I certainly feel more constrained when I’m at a chalkboard now. I wish I could grab an image and slide it over or move equations and insert things. I get a little frustrated now when I can't do that at the blackboard.”

Ghrist thinks these experiences will be refined as MOOCs grow in popularity and instructors better understand how to use online platforms to meet students’ academic needs.

The future of MOOCs in higher education is also the subject of this year’s David and Lyn Silfen University Forum, to be held on April 5. Penn President Amy Gutmann will join a panel of experts in a discussion about the opportunities and challenges of open online learning, which will also be — naturally — shown live via webcast.


Text by Evan Lerner
Video by Kurtis Sensenig