The Washington Post

U-Penn. president Gutmann remains bullish on free online courses

Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania (The Washington Post)

Two years ago prestigious universities banded together to launch a wave of free online courses that seemed a harbinger of a new era in higher education.

The hype about massive open online courses, or MOOCs, has faded somewhat. The revolution, in some ways, is becoming more of an evolution. The notion sometimes bandied about that the emergence of these free online courses will break the business model of higher ed remains wholly unproven.

But leaders of many big-name universities are still bullish on the potential of the movement to improve teaching and expand access to education around the world.

Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, said in a recent visit to Washington that she remains fully committed to the MOOC experiment. Penn, she said, invested $2 million in equity in the MOOC provider known as Coursera. The private Ivy League university in Philadelphia is getting a small trickle of revenue from the venture, Gutmann said, but it is still spending more on the courses than it is getting back.

Penn has one of the longer listings of offerings on the Coursera catalog, spanning 33 courses. They include Greek and Roman Mythology, Single Variable Calculus and -- from the Wharton business school — an Introduction to Corporate Finance. There is even one for international students called Applying to U.S. Universities.

“A lot has happened” in the past two years, Gutmann said in late April. “Our courses alone have enrolled over 2 million students.”

Gutmann hastens to add caveats.

“Now, can you get a Penn education online? No,” she said. “But can you get some part of it that’s in­cred­ibly edifying and interesting? Yes. That’s a big change — a sea change.”

Gutmann said the university aims to use MOOCs to improve education for its tuition-paying students. President of Penn since 2004, Gutmann said she spoke with Stanford University President John Hennessy about Coursera before it was launched in 2012. The key questions at the time, she said, were these:

“First, do we want to be in this space or out of it?” Her answer was to dive in. “And second, could we do this by ourselves? And the answer was no.” Faculty have been enthusiastic about the venture from the start, she said, and they remain so.

Other Ivy League schools have a smaller footprint on the Coursera catalog as of this week. Princeton University lists 14 courses, Columbia University 10, Yale and Brown universities four each.

The University of Maryland at College Park lists 13 courses on Coursera, and the University of Virginia lists 11.

Another major MOOC provider, known as edX, is a venture founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Counting past offerings, Harvard lists 32 courses on edX, and MIT lists 27.

Cornell University has four edX courses. Dartmouth College, another edX member, has none yet. Georgetown University has five.

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.

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