Category Archives: Academics

Q&A with Mark Alan Hughes, Penn Design Professor and Coursera Instructor

Author: Lauren Owens, Associate Director Open Learning

Mark Alan Hughes and Leslie Billhymer have created“Sustainability in Practice,” a massive open online course (MOOC) that begins on September 15th. I sat down with Mark Alan Hughes to learn about the course development process from the instructor’s perspective.


Lauren Owens: Let’s begin with the basics. What made you want to teach a MOOC?

Mark Alan Hughes: It was a number of factors. First, I wasn’t in the first mover generation. I knew who was doing it before I knew what it was, and that indicated how cool and timely the Coursera thing was. Second, it was clear the university was committed to engaging with faculty from as many schools as possible, so when Dean Taylor enthusiastically proposed it to the Design faculty, that was another signal. And third, after learning more about the platform, it was abundantly clear it was the next big thing, and experimentation [on the platform] was not only allowed but encouraged.

I think a lot of that encouragement reflects Penn’s Open Learning Initiative at least as much as Coursera. Every time we would lob an idea about a different kind of content or video, you were always so encouraging and enthusiastic it led us to invent as much as we could.

LO: That’s great to hear. Please share a little bit about your course – what makes it different?

MH: There are many courses that talk about sustainability, what is it, where does it come from, but Leslie and I call our course “Sustainability in Practice” because we’re fascinated by the traction sustainability clearly has in the real world of government and private enterprise as an organizing device for decision making and management. We use practice and practitioners to present a series of ideas about sustainability, rather than vice versa.

LO: What kinds of surprises did you encounter while creating the course?

MH: The production and the post-production have taken more time than I expected. Partly that is because we are trying to use some presentation technology that hadn’t been used before by Penn, and it’s a labor-intensive approach.  A more pleasant surprise has been the ease of recruiting guests for panel discussions. There’s a lot of buzz off-campus about online learning as well. Thirdly, I’m surprised how much I miss students in front of me, and it makes me realize just how conversational and Socratic my teaching style has become over the years. The Coursera experience has made me eager to be in the classroom with my Penn students.

LO: Do you have any tips for instructors who are considering teaching on Coursera?

MH: Coursera forces an instructor to think about the preparation and interests and circumstances of students in a way that students registering for your class on campus need not happen. So for the first time in decades I was thinking about who my students were going to be, because they weren’t going to be Penn students. That makes you rethink the level of the teaching. It reminds me of writing my weekly opinion column for the Philadelphia Daily News, which I did for about six years. Writing a weekly column for a major metropolitan tabloid newspaper was, for me, like holding the world’s largest Urban Studies seminar each week. It reminds me a little bit of that. Coursera is more organized and pedagogical, but at the same time it has that open enrollment that makes it more like reading a newspaper than taking a traditional course.

LO: We receive a lot of questions about recording videos, do you have any advice for those who might be camera shy?

MH: It seems to work best precisely when you are the same as you are in your classroom. So for people who spend a fair amount of time conveying material in the classroom, in lecture, the transition should actually be pretty easy. If it’s not working you probably want to modify your content more than your style. Then the trick becomes remembering that there are students on the other side of the camera. If you can do that, you’re going to be okay.

LO: Last but not least, how did you get Mayor Nutter to make a cameo in your promo video?

MH: I called him up. I was his Chief Policy Adviser and Director of Sustainability. He was happy to do it.

To see the promo video and learn more about Sustainability in Practice on Coursera, click here. For more information on Penn’s Open Learning Initiative, please see our website.

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Where in the World

Author: Carolyn Grace, C’16

Spring Break is slowly winding down for us Penn students, though I can’t say I’m entirely heartbroken.  While many of my friends spent the past week vacating in warmer climates, I stayed right here in good old Philadelphia, which wasn’t so bad until the Ides of March kicked in.  (Kudos to anyone who got the reference in that last link!)

I’m not that discouraged, though.  My time to travel will be here before I know it!  It was only a few weeks ago that I recieved my acceptance into the Columbia in Paris program through Penn Abroad :)  This September, I’ll be going back to France to study abroad for the entire Fall 2014 semester.

My acceptance e-mail.  I'm going to Paris!

My acceptance e-mail. I’m going to Paris!

I’m extremely excited about the immersion experience this program offers.  I’ll be taking classes at both Reid Hall (the institution designed specifically for study abroad students) and a Parisian university.  There are so many in the city, and I get to choose where I want to enroll!  I also have the opportunity to live with a host family, which I did this past summer in Tours, France with the Penn-in-Tours summer abroad program.

What I am most excited for, however, is the opportunity to live in Paris (skip to 1:45) for the semester.  I visited the city for three days during the Penn-in-Tours program.  I can only imagine what it’s going to be like living there for three months!

Staying with the Pixar theme :)

Staying with the Pixar theme!

I have my first abroad meeting when school is back in session.  It seems like such a long way off, and I certainly don’t want to rush the rest of this semester.  I can’t deny, though, that the sooner I’m back on a wine and cheese diet, the happier I’ll be :)  Vive la France !

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Open House

Author: Michelle Ho, ENG’14

Recently I was given the opportunity to be the student speaker at the Collaborative Classroom Open House.  The Collaborative Classroom is a new classroom on the first floor of Van Pelt Library, off the hallway leading to Weigle Information Commons.  From the way the classroom furniture is arranged to the cutting-edge technology in the room, the design of the Collaborative Classroom aims to facilitate active learning.  In the classroom, active learning can take the form of problem solving in teams, peer reviewing written work, or delving into a case study, among other activities.  To help facilitate these activities, students sit at round tables and face each other, instead of in rows where they face the professor.  Each table has its own dedicated projector system where students can plug their own laptop or tablet and display what they are working on.  The walls on the classroom also double as whiteboards and projection screens so you can annotate directly over what you are projecting.  This semester there are nine courses such as social policy and practice, geology, and writing seminar being held in the Collaborative Classroom.  Imagine how much more interactive writing seminar could be if you edited a piece by projecting it on the wall and having classmates take turn making edits by writing over it for the table to see.

OPENNed blog1

So how did I get to become involved with this?  Well, the Collaborative Classroom is actually a joint project between the Penn Libraries and the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education (the branch of Penn Student Government that I am a member of).  The idea for the Collaborative Classroom came from two previous SCUE Chairs, Scott Dzialo and Joyce Greenbaum.  Together, they envisioned that having a space like the Collaborative Classroom on campus would allow for SCUE initiatives such as problem solving learning (PSL) and the flipped classroom to be possible.  Unlike previous SCUE projects like building Penn Course Review, instituting Fall Break, and implementing pass/fail grading, there were physical roadblocks – in terms of finding and configuring space – in addition to administrative and policy roadblocks.

After meeting with people across campus, the construction for the classroom was made possible by two Penn alumni, Larry Bass (W’67) and Chuck MacDonald (W’81).  As one of the founding members of SCUE, the Bass family embraced the idea of the Collaborative Classroom and saw it as a way to commit to SCUE and the Penn Libraries.  The MacDonald family matched this gift and also made possible an Innovation Fund to support the classroom.  The Open House was a way to thank the donors and also show off the classroom to faculty and students.  As Mr. Bass and his family were able to attend the Open House, it was a fantastic opportunity for SCUE members to meet one of the founding members of our organization and get a front-row perspective about the history of our organization.  The generosity and input of the Bass family has shown that participation in any extracurricular opportunity at Penn doesn’t have to end with graduation.  At SCUE in particular, we have been inspired to start an Alumni Newsletter and plan alumni get-togethers.  Moving forward, we are excited to collaborate with the Library and also faculty members to develop more courses for the Collaborative Classroom.  Of course, we are also looking forward to working more with our alumni!

OPENNED blog2OPENNed blog3

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Author: Michelle Ho, ENG’14

SCUE (Student Committee on Undergraduate Education, the academic branch of student government) is excited to announce the launch of a new interdisciplinary learning platform – oPenned (pronounced “opened”). Think of it like a cross between the best of TEDx and open online learning platforms – oPenned condenses and curates the best of academic-related resources at Penn into one website. Prospective students, current students as well as alumni can go into the website and discover the intellectual gems Penn has to offer.

Discover through tutorials

oPenned offers an interdisciplinary look into different topics – from Food to Astronomy – through curated “tutorials”. As you click through each tutorial, expect to look at different material – from videos to articles – relating to the topic that is pulled from different schools and disciplines at Penn. For example, food is not a conventional topic nor a department at Penn, but professors, students and institutions at Penn have been doing in-depth research and investigation into this topic. You’ll be able to go into oPenned’s Food tutorial and look at it from a psychological, medical as well as historical perspective – all of which stems from Penn-related research and resources.

openned 1

Discover what’s currently on campus

Almost every day at Penn, a lecture or academic discussion of some sort is taking place on campus. oPenned includes a section called “Currently On Campus”, which pulls together videos of interesting speaker events or performing arts shows that have happened on campus. Take a look at the innovative discussions that have been taking place on campus, and be part of the journey of life-long learning.

openned 2

Penn has so, so much to offer, and every day exciting interdisciplinary research is done by Penn faculty and students, giving novel perspectives to longstanding topics such as Journalism and Human Evolution. This wealth of knowledge doesn’t just stop after graduation – and oPenned provides an easy way to connect back to academic discussions that are happening on Penn’s campus. SCUE hopes that oPenned will become a hub for intellectual community at Penn, and that students, faculty and alumni will be able to utilize it to engage with Penn continually.

Happy Exploring!

Check out SCUE’s website ( and follow us on Twitter (@PennSCUE) to stay up to date on the latest projects SCUE members are getting involved with to enhance the academic experience at Penn.

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Author:  Rachel Stewart ’16

It’s been less than a month since classes have started, but when I walked into my first lecture of the week last Monday, my Econ professor proudly announced that the practice exams for next week’s midterm were now available online.

Ah, midterms. For some reason, they begin here about a month after classes start and often don’t end (for the most unlucky students) until reading days. Once they start up, I feel like the “busy” competition between students on campus kicks into action: “Oh, I’ll try to make it tonight, but I have two meetings, a conference to prepare for, a midterm next week, and two papers! And I have OCR interviews. Ugh, it’s just so much to do” or “I’m SO busy tonight, I have a Skype interview at 9PM and then meetings until 1AM and then I have to study for finance.”

Penn students are the most self-motivated and disciplined group of 20-year-olds I have ever met. They do amazing work, tackle problems that even grown adults can’t solve, and start NGOs and businesses even before getting a diploma. All of this comes with an insane amount of pressure to be “busy” at all time of all hours of the day. The question that has been floating around campus these past few weeks, however, is: when is enough enough?

Enough is when you start falling asleep in class because you were up late last night arguing with the e-board of your club about the next event. Enough is when you have to skip class for a club or sorority/fraternity commitment, and then you do poorly on the next exam. Enough is when you’ve gone out for brunch three times in the past month and don’t think you (or your wallet) can handle another cinnamon bun cream cheese stuffed French toast. The secret to enough is that you have the power to define it.

I’ve come to love Penn and I know most students that go here do too, but we can drive ourselves and each other crazy. My hope is that the tragedies of this semester awaken students to define “enough” for themselves more readily, more proudly, and more actively.


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The Creation and Enforcement of Securities Regulation: A Look Inside the SEC

Author: Lisa Marie Patzer


Join Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative for a lecture by Troy Paredes, Former Commissioner of the SEC and former Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis

Date: Monday, February 10th

Time: 4:30 PM

Location: 3620 Locust Walk, Steinberg Hall – Dietrich Hall, Room 1206

Register Here For the Event:

If you are unable to make the event, please join us on-line for a webcast of the event.  Online guests will be able to participate in a question and answer session with Troy Paredes.

Register Here For the Webcast:

patzer1Troy A. Paredes recently completed his term as commissioner of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), serving throughout the financial crisis and its aftermath, during which time the SEC undertook numerous initiatives to restructure the regulation of financial markets, including the SEC advanced rule makings to implement the Dodd-Frank Act and the JOBS Act. Before his government service, Mr. Paredes was a professor of law and a professor of business (by courtesy) at the Washington University in St. Louis. He has also been a visiting professor of law at UCLA and Georgetown. He practiced law in California at O’Melveny & Myers, Steptoe & Johnson, and Irell & Manella, where his practice focused on financings, mergers and acquisitions, and corporate governance. He is the author of numerous academic articles and is a coauthor of a multivolume securities regulation treatise, Securities Regulation.

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Author: Lisa Marie Patzer


The New Era for U.S. Global Health Diplomacy
A Lecture by Jack Chow (C’82), Former U.S. Ambassador and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Health and Science

Date: Tuesday, February 4th
Time: 4:30 PM 

Professor Chow will discuss the progress and forward vision of U.S. global health diplomacy, the context of such diplomacy within the evolution of U.S. foreign policy, why this diplomacy matters at home, as well as the outlook for private sector efforts.

Currently serving as distinguished service professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Jack Chow has been involved with health public policy both domestically and abroad. Chow was the first U.S. diplomat of ambassador rank appointed to a public health mission. He has worked with esteemed politicians including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Representative Silvio O. Conte, and U.S. Senator Arlen Specter.  To read more about Professor Chow, read his Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative Alumni Profile. ne Access: A link to the webcast will be sent to registered attendees prior to the event.

Register Here

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From Teen to Twenty Something

Author:  Carolyn Grace, C’16


Yes, second semester is finally upon us, and I am still on my winter break sleep schedule.  But I’ve missed dear old Penn, and I am thrilled to be back in the bustling atmosphere of classes, activities, and friends.  More importantly, I can now satisfy my strange craving for Houston Hall’s sushi.

Things certainly are busy for only the second day of school.  Rush has officially begun for Sigma Kappa as well as the other Panhellenic sororities.  I’m already exhausted from yesterday’s Open House, but I am even more excited to get a brand new pledge class in SK!

Counterparts is already in the midst of selecting our Spring semester repertoire, and we will soon begin rehearsals for our February performance in the ICCAs!  For those of you who have seen Pitch Perfect (unlike me!), you understand that this is a pretty cool event.  I don’t know much about it, but I’m always ready to be back on stage singing with CP.  More details to come!

The ICCA performance in Pitch Perfect.  AKA my study guide!

The ICCA performance in Pitch Perfect. AKA my study guide!

For today, however, what I’m most excited for has nothing to do with sorority life or a cappella.  Today’s post, in addition to being my first one of the new semester, is the last post I will be writing as a teenager.  At exactly 12:17 AM tomorrow morning, I will be 20 years old!  I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’m about to become a “twenty something.”  I’ve seen the numerous BuzzFeed posts about this particular age group, all of them hilarious albeit slightly concerning.  Technically, I am a young adult.  So, how much of my life actually needs to be put together?  Quite frankly, I’ve always felt the label “teenager” was like a “get out of jail free” card for behavior.  Neurotic, eccentric, angsty, or overly emotional?  Hey, blame it on puberty and hormones!  I’m hoping I still have some of that leeway when I turn 20.

So, you can bet that I’ll be celebrating tomorrow, and you should too!  Well, maybe not celebrating my birthday specifically (though I’d certainly appreciate it :) ), but rather celebrating a new year, new semester, and the new opportunities that come with it all.  Good luck this Spring, Quakers!

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Something Worth Writing

Author: Carolyn Grace, C’16

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”

- Benjamin Franklin

I love to write.  That may seem obvious, given the length of my previous blog posts, but I feel like I need to officially proclaim it.  Whether it be an analysis of primary documents for my Modern American Culture class or a 100-word review of Lorde’s new album, writing lets me tap into my creative side in way that I can only describe as therapeutic.

Penn provides so many academic and extracurricular opportunities for me to exercise and develop my writing skills.  As a Creative Writing minor, I have already been exposed to a couple different writing-intensive classes.  The English class I am currrently taking, The Arts and Popular Culture, focuses on journalistic writing in the arts.  The course description is as follows:

This is a workshop-oriented course that will concentrate on all aspects of writing about artistic endeavor, including criticism, reviews, profiles, interviews and essays. For the purposes of this class, the arts will be interpreted broadly, and students will be able — and, in fact, encouraged — to write about both the fine arts and popular culture.

This class is absolutely phenomenal!  My professor, Anthony DeCurtis, is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine.  Each week, he brings in a guest Penn alum who works in the writing world.  So far, we’ve had people come in from the New Yorker, the Washington Post, TeenVogue, and Buzzfeed, with more guests to come!

This is a piece that Anthony DeCurtis wrote recently. It's a profile of Robert De Niro for Du Jour Magazine.

This is a piece that Anthony DeCurtis wrote recently. It’s a profile of Robert De Niro for Du Jour Magazine.

The final project of the class is a 3000-word piece about an artist or arts organization in Philadelphia that will involve extensive reporting, interviews and research.  Currently, I’m working on a 1000-word profile of Michaela Majoun, the host of the Morning Show on WXPN, the radio station at operates out of Penn.  I’m thinking of developing this profile into my final project.  We’ll see what happens!

It’s funny, my Arts and Popular Culture course is actually how I got involved in writing extracuricularly at Penn.  A good third of the editors of 34th Street, Penn’s arts and culture magazine, take this class with me.  I would always hear them talk about the weekly Writers Meeting that took place only a couple hours after this class would finish.  One day, I decided I’d go to the meeting.  I filed into the tiny room in the DP office, said my name, year, and what one ingredient I would put in a brownie (that was the ice breaker of the week).  I volunteered to write a couple pieces for the Music section, and the rest is history.

Since that first Writers Meeting, I’ve had such a fun time writing for 34th Street!  I write predominantly for the Music and Arts sections, just because they’re the ones I’m most interested in.  So far, my editors have let me do some really cool assignments!  This week, I co-wrote a review of Underground Arts, an up and coming arts venue in the Loft district of Philly.  I got a free ticket to see the alternative band Grouplove perform in concert the night I covered the venue.  It was awesome!

The entryway to Underground Arts. (courtesy of 34th Street)

The entryway to Underground Arts. (courtesy of 34th Street)

In addition, I conducted a series of interviews for a preview of this week’s Philadelphia Open Studios Tours.  I talked with several local artists about their work, their studios, what made them decide to be an artist, and why they think an event like POST is so important.  This piece is the longest I’ve written for Street so far, and it’s definitely one of my favorites.  I’m planning on visiting the studios this weekend, both to thank the artists for helping me and to show them the final piece.

Burnell Yow! (the exclamation point is part of his last name) - one of the many artists I interviewed for my POST feature.  Courtesy of 34th Street.

Burnell Yow! (the exclamation point is part of his last name) – one of the many artists I interviewed for my POST feature. (courtesy of 34th Street)

This semester in particular has gotten me extremely excited about writing.  I think it’s because I now realize how easy it is to write at Penn in both a variety of styles and a variety of settings.  I have peers and professors as my editors.  I can write about my favorite subject – the arts – for either a letter grade or a Facebook “like.”  Penn is giving me the opportunity to grow as a writer both in and out of the classroom.  That’s doing something worth writing.

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A year later, Penn a ‘powerhouse’ in open learning

Penn Current

In June 2012, Penn opened its digital doors to students across the globe with the launch of the University’s Open Learning Initiative. A year later, there’s a lot to celebrate.


As the Initiative celebrates its first year, the numbers support Woods’ enthusiasm. In the past year, approximately 1.4 million students from more than 162 countries have enrolled in Penn’s Open Learning courses. So far, 19 faculty members have taught courses online, and as many as 45 unique courses are in currently in the pipeline.


Read more about the University’s Open Learning Initiative in the Oct. 3rd issue of the Penn Current.




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