Penn, Princeton join experiment in offering free courses online

The University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University are two of a small number of high-profile colleges taking part in an online education experiment.

The free “Coursera” offerings will include video lectures with quizzes, interactive assignments, and collaborative online forums — but no college credit.

Penn provost Vincent Price said the school’s participation will draw attention to the exciting things that are happening at the school.

“Our initial slate of courses amounts to about 12, and they range from calculus to the science of the brain, Greek and Roman mythology, coursework on vaccines,” Price said. “And as the project moves forward, we expect that we will be adding a number of courses over time. It depends on the interest of the faculty.”

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Penn professor Al Filreis, who will teach a class called “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry,” admitted there are potential downsides to the experiment.

“If there are a thousand people in the course, most of them will find my comments, they’ll find them highlighted and they’ll listen to them, they’ll read them,” Filreis said. “But if it’s 100,000 people, there are going to be lots of people who will simply miss my participation in the discussion.”

Penn Law School student Jonathan Newman said the free offering troubles him.

“What disturbed me about it was it seems to be a little bit of a divergence from Penn’s main goal, which is obviously to educate its own students,” Newman said. “Beyond that, it seems to be beyond a divergence of Penn’s goal of taking care of its own students.”

Newman said Penn attracts talented professors and creates nice buildings in part with tuition that students often struggle to pay. And he’s not sure students will like giving free access to classes when they graduate with mountains of debt.

Filreis said the course he teaches in person is an intensive class that’s longer, involves more work, and includes individual attention.

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