Category Archives: Lauren O

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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Open Learning Initiative at Penn: what are we doing and where are we going?

Author: Lauren Owens, Program Coordinator, Open Learning Initiative and C’ 08


Over the past year and a half, Penn has produced 24 courses for 1.8 million students, online, for free. Why?

“Penn’s mission, as a great research university, is to create and disseminate knowledge,” says Director for Open Course Initiatives and Senior Advisor to the President and Provost Edward Rock. “The internet is a place of learning and, as part of our core mission, a place where we need to be. That the internet allows us to share our teaching resources with the whole world, at a reasonable cost, is an opportunity that our faculty has enthusiastically embraced.”

Penn took a leap of faith as one of the four founding partners in the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform Coursera.  There are now over one hundred partner schools from all over the world participating. From Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, to Experimental Genome Science, to Introduction to Financial Accounting, Penn’s variety of courses has great appeal to a vast audience. As an SAS alumna, it’s incredible to read forum posts and survey reports expressing gratitude just for the opportunity to learn from a Penn professor. Bear in mind these courses are not for credit.

Participation standards and passing grades are set by the Professor and teaching assistants, and the remarkable community of students usually solves their own quandaries before one of us has a chance to notice. The global community of students, driven to take a Penn course because it’s a Penn course, or because of the subject matter, or just for fun, is what creates the learning environment. And that’s pretty remarkable.

The on-campus impact is also remarkable. Edward Rock: “Our partnership with Coursera is a piece of a much larger initiative for innovation in teaching here on campus. The internet changes everything it touches, and we are only beginning to understand how it changes how we educate students.” We are creating content for online consumption. But what happens when professors give the content to students before their on-campus classes, and spend class time on interactive activities? Researchers at Penn are working on exactly that.

In future blog posts I will discuss that research, interview faculty members teaching open courses on Coursera, and provide more updates and insights as this landscape continues to rapidly change.

For more information on the Open Learning Initiative at Penn, please see our website and follow us on twitter!


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Filed under Alumni Benefits, Alumni Perspective, Alumnni Education, Lauren O