Online Learning Shines in the ‘University of the Future’ Network Summit

November 5, 2018
By Online Learning Initiative

Image of Beyond the Walls Conference
The University of the Future summit featured progressive discussion on the future of online learning.


“Beyond the Walls: The University of the Future,” brought scholars, policy makers, administrators, and technology experts to Penn’s Perry World House, on Oct. 12 to discuss the future of higher education and how online learning plays a crucial role in achieving the goals of equitable and global education.  Co-organized by Penn’s Online Learning Initiative (OLI) and the Office of the Provost, the summit addressed technology’s role in creating an urgency for higher education institutions to meet the needs of a changing economy and societal expectations. The summit featured panel discussions focused on four themes: The Global University, The Digital University, The Equitable University, and The Lifelong University.

“The Digital University” panel looked at the ways in which technology creates new challenges and opportunities for institutions of higher learning. The panel, moderated by OLI Faculty Director Peter Decherney, discussed how online education is increasingly being adopted by universities across the world.

“All universities are thinking about involving more technology in teaching and learning,” Alec Gershberg, the conference’s organizer and a senior lecturer in the School of Arts and Sciences, explained. “Everyone’s doing it, but at the same time, technology can be used in many ways to improve traditional teaching within the context of brick-and-mortar classrooms.”

Nikhil Sinha, CEO of GSVLabs & Coursera Senior Advisor, said “Students want their learning delivered to them where they want it, how they want it, and when they want it.” Coursera has allowed universities to extend their reach with over 35 million registered learners around the world, and Sinha believes that there is a radical transformation of the traditional learning space. “You will see institutions talking to each other about sharing their resources for courses online. In 10 to 15 years, these credit sharing programs will allow students to construct individual programs and create something that isn’t readily available at any of these institutions.”


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OLI Faculty Director Peter Decherney moderated "The Digital University" panel.


Nora Lewis, Vice Dean for Professional and Liberal Education in the School of Arts and Sciences, served a panel highlighting “The Equitable University,”or the ways universities promote equality through the students they reach.

“Achieving ‘The Equitable University,’ has been our mission forever,” Lewis explained, citing that it is critical to consider closing “the digital divide,” by providing access to technology so underserved populations can take advantage of online learning programs. An exciting example is Penn’s Liberal and Professional Studies new Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree,the first Ivy League bachelor’s degree offered completely online.

“Online delivery alone doesn’t level the playing field. It provides broader access to the university’s academic programs, but not everyone has access to the technology or the resources you’d need to pursue online courses,” Lewis said. “Online delivery extends the reach of the university to students who would not be able to physically come to campus, allowing the students we serve to continue to work, care for their families, and meet other life obligations, while at the same time being able to pursue their education.”


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"The Lifelong University" panel featured four Penn Deans from various backgrounds.


One of the summit’s highlights was the last panel of the day, “The Lifelong University.” Comprised of four Penn deans, including Pam Grossman from the Graduate School of Education, Steven Fluharty from the School of Arts and Sciences, John L. Jackson from the School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), along with Vijay Kumar of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the panel explored the role of the university in a world where knowledge creation requires a lifelong commitment to, and a substantial investment in, education.

Vijay Kumar posits that online learning offers instructors new data that traditional classroom settings simply don’t have. "In the online world, no student can hide from you. You know how each student interacts with you and you can assess things at a fine level.” Dean Kumar explained. He added that online teaching requires thoughtful up front planning. “In the conventional classroom, you can wing it. In the online world, you cannot do that.”

Another member of the panel, Dean Jackson, a Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professor, suggested learning can now also be geographically borderless.

“We are proving that excellent learning opportunities don’t have to stop at the entry gates of any University,” said Jackson, who added that researchers across Penn constantly exchange best practices on increasing access to groundbreaking research and publicly valuable expertise. “By launching new online learning divisions like OpenSP2, developing more social work and policy massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and innovating hybrid programming within our multiple degrees programs at SP2, we are demonstrating our commitment to reaching lifelong learners around the world.”


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John L. Jackson, Dean of SP2, praised online learning's innovative curriculum.


Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett, who moderated the panel, added that Penn transcends traditional boundaries found in the higher education landscape.“At Penn,” said Provost Pritchett, “we are strongly committed to shaping the future of teaching and learning around the world. Our pioneering work in online learning extends the resources of this university beyond traditional boundaries of age and geography, creating a truly lifelong global university.”

OLI Faculty Director and summit co-organizer Peter Decherney said the most exciting part of the summit was the substantial turnout, and the panel on “The Lifelong University,” revealing a forward-looking vision for Penn.“The definitions of ‘classroom’ and ‘teacher’ are being re-conceived in updating the core mission of the university for the needs of 21st century students,” said Decherney, also a professor of Cinema & Media Studies and English in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Rebecca Stein, Online Learning’s Executive Director and summit co-organizer, added that “This exhilarating conference tied together Penn’s time-honored core responsibilities as a university with openness to innovation in how we teach and how we support our students’ learning.”

The summit was sponsored by the Office of the Provost, in cooperation with the Online Learning Initiative and the University of the Future Network. It was co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Education, the School of Arts and Sciences, and Perry World House.