SAS Dean’s Blog

The Future of Teaching

Rebecca Bushnell

Rebecca Bushnell

Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Professor of English

Without question the internet, the personal computer, the mobile phone and now the tablet computer have fundamentally changed the nature of traditional on-campus classes. Multimedia can easily be integrated into any lecture or discussion, facilitated by classrooms equipped with computers, video projection and even clickers that allow faculty to incorporate real-time student polling into their discussion. Outside of the classroom, every course has an online space available (we currently use BlackBoard) where information is shared, group projects are facilitated, and discussion continues beyond regular class hours.

All of this technology is challenging our notion of the classroom itself. Penn has long been a leader in experimenting with online learning for credit, at both the undergraduate and the graduate level. In the School of Arts and Sciences, our Learning Commons—an initiative of our College of Liberal and Professional Studies—offers courses ranging from algebra to oceanography every semester. The Learning Commons spaces are not merely repositories for course materials; they allow for delivery of lectures, provide discussion spaces, and utilize multiple tools to facilitate engagement, interaction, collaboration and community. (For those of you who are not familiar with it, I highly recommend a visit to the Arts & Sciences Learning Commons.) At the graduate level, the Master of Advanced Positive Psychology is a true hybrid: The program was developed from the outset to incorporate both classroom and online experiences. Students come to campus from around the world ten times each year for three days, while the rest of the program takes place entirely online.

Beyond our universe of full-credit courses online, there is a new horizon. Last spring Penn signed on as one of the charter members of an ambitious online initiative called Coursera, and today we are already delivering courses taught by some of our leading faculty to classes of students numbering in the tens of thousands. These courses are free of charge, non-credit, and are engaging students from all over the world. Over the summer, Carol Muller’s course on “World Music” drew in nearly 40,000 students, and more than 80,000 students are currently taking courses in Modern Poetry with Al Filreis and Greek and Roman Mythology with Peter Struck.

These sorts of initiatives inevitably raise a lot of questions—and some fears, as well. I have heard some faculty worry that they will be rendered obsolete, replaced completely by virtual teachers or avatars (which I think is highly unlikely). But it does raise the question of how online teaching and learning will transform the notion of a classroom—and even a campus itself. Will there always be a home for a university, or will there be a campus distributed virtually throughout the world? Or both? 

I will venture a prediction here, based on what I have observed about the evolution of libraries in response to the explosion of information available online.  As a scholar of English Renaissance literature and culture, I rely on access to early printed books and manuscripts for my research. Thirty years ago, when I started that work, outside of laboriously scrolling through microfilms, the only way to read those books would be to travel to rare books libraries across the United States and the United Kingdom. Now, through databases such as Early English Books Online and many other collections of digitized books and virtual archives, I can access all these materials from my study at home. So why go to the library at all?

Surprisingly, the answer is: for people.  Spaces in libraries are being converted to group study spaces, seminar rooms and places for consulting with experts and colleagues.  I believe that university campuses themselves will continue to flourish as physical spaces, where people come together to debate, to connect and to learn from each other, as a complement to the gathering of information that happens in a virtual space. Online teaching and learning will allow us to maximize the value of the time when we do come together. We may see the end of the traditional lecture as we know it—but I think that is good thing, if it means that we free the time for more hands-on learning and live intellectual exchange.