Open Learning Commons combines elements of Blackboard and Facebook
The love child of Blackboard and Facebook has a name - the Open Learning Commons.
The new platform prototype, launched by the College of Liberal and Professional Studies, allows interested people within and outside the Penn community to participate in classroom activities from the Web.
The first class covers global environmental sustainability and combines coursework with social networking.
Led by Political Science professor Donald Kettl, the course involves not only 14 Penn students, but also international university students and anyone interested in "a flavor of what's going on at Penn in the classroom," program developers Lisa Minetti and Jennifer Maden said.
"The students are doing a real-world, real-time project, focused on framing an American approach to the next round of climate change policy," Kettl wrote in an e-mail.
Marni Baker, the program director, originally conceived the idea after fruitlessly searching for an ideal platform to combine "private interactions with the students" with YouTube lectures, discussion forums and a blog, all open to "wider audiences."
Partnerships between technology companies and Kettl's course allowed Baker and the development team to create the platform between Dec. 1 and Jan. 20.
Despite being in its early stages, the team has plans for the future, such as non-credit, open-enrollment courses in positive psychology.
One of these, to be offered in May, will be taught by Tal-Ben Shahar from Harvard University, according to Kristine Billmyer, dean of LPS.
"We may even move for-credit online courses to a commons," Baker added. "There are a lot of 'Commons' ideas, but we'll just have to see right now."
As for the current course on global environmental sustainability, Minetti said they "don't have plans to offer the particular course again, as the course itself is geared toward a project the students will submit to the [World Civic Forum] in June."
Because the course is centered on the final project, "the perspectives that outside people bring can add value," Maden said, especially global ones from fellow participants at Kyung Hee University in Korea and Ritsumeikan University in Japan.
Such social networking and interactions are what makes the Commons a unique experience from Blackboard, Maden and Minetti emphasized.
Billmyer said, "Our goal here was to break this paradigm of exclusions that keeps courses to students enrolled."
The visitors attest to the achievement of this goal - aside from Penn and international university students, the users include "industry experts, some people from the government and [people] interested in global environmental sustainability but don't necessarily have a professional background," Maden said.
And the "intellectual interaction" is an even greater encouragement.
"I'm very pleased to see the level of discourse," Maden said. "It's not a silly MySpace discussion. People are clearly taking this seriously."
She added that there have been no issues with inappropriate comments in any of the forums or blogs.