An Engineer's Next Task at Penn State: Expand Online Learning

Jim Graham, Graham Studios

Renata S. Engel
May 12, 2014

Pennsylvania State University has 16,000 students enrolled in its online World Campus. In the next decade, the university wants that number to rise to 45,000.

Penn State’s new associate vice provost for online programs, Renata S. Engel, is expected to play a large role in moving toward that goal. Ms. Engel, who is 54 and a professor of engineering science and mechanics and engineering design, says she has a few ideas about where to begin.

She wants to engage with more professional organizations, provide a stronger base of introductory courses, and add new majors.

"We’ll be looking at majors that have been more difficult to translate to online in the past," Ms. Engel says. "What are those challenges? We may not have ready solutions, but we’ll have to keep on emerging technologies with those majors in mind."

The university doesn’t track graduation rates, but about 6,000 students have graduated from World Campus since its creation, in 1998, says David Aneckstein, a university spokesman.

After she moves into the new position, on June 1, Ms. Engel is also expected to help expand and improve the university’s offerings of massive open online courses and other noncredit online courses. While some institutions may begin to shy away from such courses following a backlash against them last year, Ms. Engel says there’s still much to learn from MOOCs.

"One of the challenges we face with online courses is trying to identify the things that work well within traditional face-to-face courses and see what they might look like online," she says. "Likewise, MOOCs may be able to show what we can take from online and foster, grow, and enhance in the traditional classroom."

Ms. Engel says she’s excited to take on the challenge, but her passion is not strictly for the new technology. Rather, it’s for what she calls "curricular innovation."

It’s an interest she has nurtured for years as an associate dean for academic programs in Penn State’s College of Engineering and, before that, as director of the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence.

And even before that, as an instructor earning her Ph.D. in the late 1980s at the University of South Florida. She taught a course there in which she worked not only with a group of students in the classroom but also with engineering professionals around the state through recorded video lectures. Flash-forward a few decades, and the whole thing sounds a little like a low-tech MOOC.

Thanks to online platforms 
like Coursera or, perhaps even more similarly, Khan Academy, video lectures have probably never been more popular—only now, the videos aren’t sent through snail mail.

"Those were just the tools we had available then, but we were doing it for the same reasons," Ms. Engel says. "Now the experience and ease of delivery has changed so much."