Using Technology to Create Deeper Learning Experiences - Dr. Peter Decherney, Faculty Director of the Online Learning Initiative, University of Pennsylvania


Like many academics, Dr. Peter Decherney wears many hats, but in his case you can also add a virtual reality headset. That’s because in addition to being a professor of Cinema & Media Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, he’s also a filmmaker working in both the traditional “flatty” format and virtual reality, with subjects ranging from artists in Puerto Rico to a Jewish community in Ethiopia. Choosing which medium to use to tell which story is a newer part of the process he enjoys. “Filmmaking is often about this kind of obsessive control. It's a challenge to be able to give up some control and create lots of different opportunities and learning experiences for audiences,” he tells host Michael Carrese in this episode of Raise the Line. Using technology to create learning experiences is also a big part of his job as the Faculty Director of UPenn’s Online Learning Initiative, a role that put him at the center of perhaps the largest, quickest, and most significant change in higher education in modern times when the pandemic forced the universal use of remote learning. “The pandemic was a moment of reflection and it was kind of amazing to see people across campus just think about education and pedagogy in a really deep and new way.” Check out this wide-ranging conversation to find out what that new thinking is leading to, what he likes about online instruction himself and one of the most important things universities learned about themselves during the pandemic.




Michael Carrese: Hi, everybody, I'm Michael Carrese, and today I'm happy to welcome Dr. Peter Decherney to Raise the Line. Peter is a professor of Cinema and Media Studies and faculty director of the Online Learning Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. He's also an award-winning documentary and virtual reality filmmaker, and the author or editor of six books, including Hollywood's Copyright Wars, From Edison to the Internet. His open online course on the history of Hollywood has enrolled over 65,000 learners. We're very happy to have you on the show today. Thanks for coming.


Peter Decherney: Yeah, thank you for having me.


Michael Carrese: So, I'd like to first start with learning more about you and what first got you interested in film and cinema?


Peter Decherney: Yeah, in some ways, I've always been interested. It's hard to remember a time when I wasn't. I was one of these kids who made Super 8 films. I like storytelling and photography. But I was also always interested in the history and the theory. I've kind of throughout my career gone back and forth between being more of a historian, and working more on the creative side.


Michael Carrese: Do you remember what your first film was? I mean, when you were a little kid?


Peter Decherney: The story is that when I was an infant, I was taken by my father to see the Woodstock documentary that Scorsese made.


Michael Carrese: Wow.


Peter Decherney: But actually, one film that always kind of sticks out is the film Double Indemnity.


Michael Carrese: Oh, the film noir?


Peter Decherney: Yeah, exactly. I just remember it was a film I saw, and I thought, ‘well, I need to read more about this to really know what's going on.’


Michael Carrese: Yeah, I was shocked because I only knew Fred MacMurray from My Three Sons. Didn’t know he had a life before that! (laughs)


Peter Decherney: (laughs)Exactly, exactly. 


Michael Carrese: So, you have a quite an amazing range of topics. You have a docu-series on artists in Puerto Rico, and a film about a Jewish community in Ethiopia. How do you go about choosing your subjects?


Peter Decherney: In some ways, there are themes that I keep coming back to, like global migration and the political role of artists. But I definitely don't go about it methodically. Usually, there's kind of a question that I can't put down, and then really, it's more about collaboration with individuals or communities whose stories I want to tell and help amplify. That's one of the parts that I really love is getting to know people and becoming part of communities. Often I'll go back to the same communities for many years, and the other part, of course, is thinking about a way to tell the story visually and thinking about which medium to use…is it VR film or a flat film? A “flatty.” Or, I just finished a photography project.


Michael Carrese: Oh, that's a new term for me, “flatty” -- that means an old-style film?


Peter Decherney: Yeah. Until recently, we didn't need a term for that, because that was everything. 


Michael Carrese: Right, right. Well, while we're on that subject, talk to us about virtual reality filmmaking. I think probably a lot of us aren't too familiar with that. How is the process different? Obviously, you must think differently about, you know, what you're going to present?


Peter Decherney: So that's the real challenge and excitement is it's a completely different way of thinking about making media, and it really just opens up whole new ways of storytelling. I think, in some ways, VR has been around for a long time and in different formats, depending on how we define it. But it's really just the last six or seven years when the technology’s created something really new and opened up a lot of possibilities. It's really kind of like making films in 1902, where all of a sudden, we're just creating the new style and grammar of storytelling, and things that we used to think were mistakes -- were jump cuts -- might actually be really effective. 


There are three elements that make virtual reality storytelling different or make virtuality a different kind of media. The first is presence. When you put on a headset, you feel like you take up space, that you’re embodied. The other is things you encounter have volume, and I think that dramatically changes the way we interact with subjects, with other people we’re watching. They take up space. We engage with them differently, and studies show there's actually more empathy, although that's a complex and controversial area. But the third is there's also kind of active engagement. You can look around, you don't have to look at exactly what the filmmaker has told you to look at, and filmmaking is often about this kind of obsessive control. It's a challenge to be able to give up some control and create lots of different opportunities and experiences. But also, I think it creates a kind of deeper learning…as in it's like active learning, and in the experience of watching or being part of a VR experience, some kind of deeper knowledge is created.


Michael Carrese: So, take the serious subjects that you've tackled that I mentioned. How did you decide which one of those was appropriate for which medium?


Peter Decherney: So, let me tell you a story about making the film in Ethiopia. This was a film where I felt like I wanted more people to see it, and so we started to make a flat film. I really had something I wanted to say and so I wanted that control of making a flat film, and all that made sense. It's on Discovery+ now and more people have seen it. We are able to craft something that more people can see and engage with. But on the other hand, we also brought VR cameras just because we have them and I like to use them. So, I shot a few things. 


There's a Torah service we shot in VR and a scene with weavers, and I've just shown those at a few different venues. And actually, the experience of people watching people experience those is very different from watching them see the film. When people watch the Torah service, they might know more about the religious practices than I do, they might know more about Ethiopian culture than I do, they might know more about building construction than I do and they see things that I didn't know to focus on. For me, I learned more from watching them and engaging the people who are watching the VR than from the other film, which I also love. 


Michael Carrese: Sure. God, that's fascinating. We could obviously spend all of our time on that, but I do want to get to talking about online learning. You've got a position there with the Online Learning Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. Talk about that initiative and what you do.


Peter Decherney: I do see these as kind of connected. You can see that as I talked about VR, it's often about its potential to open up learning experiences and engagement, and that's partly what online learning does as well. So, I'm in the Provost Office and we've had this initiative for about ten years now. Really, we've been offering online courses since 2000 -- for-credit online courses -- but it was MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in around 2011, 2012, that really caused us to start a new office, this new initiative, to start really experimenting first in non-credit and later in for-credit programs. 


The twelve schools at Penn now each have their own separate offices. So there are quite a lot of people and a lot of expertise around campus. We have eleven fully online degrees, which is actually a pretty high number for a school like ours. We also have over 200 open online courses, MOOCs. And some of them or most of them are professional master's degree programs. But we have two doctoral programs. We’re actually the first Ivy League bachelor's program online as well. Primarily, these are for working professionals -- people who aren't going to take two years off to come to campus and get an MA -- but are often in probably a population we've served a little bit but not as well as we could have. 


There's often talk about cannibalization or competition between online and on-campus programs. But really we're primarily targeting students and supporting students who we just couldn't have reached as well otherwise. Just thinking about the bachelor's program, for example, it's a BAAS program -- Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences. It's a program that existed in one form or another for over 100 years. We added a BA that was for non-traditional students, and it just makes a lot of sense. Now, if you want to reach working professionals, non-traditional students, you do it online. And so the mission hasn't changed for that program, it's still the same mission of reaching non-traditional students. But the School of Arts and Sciences put a lot of time and effort into talking with faculty and students and employers to think about how to craft a new program that can be delivered online, really scale more than the existing program so it could reach more students than the existing program could, and also create different kinds of assessments and outputs than they might have created otherwise.


Michael Carrese: Now, obviously, the pandemic changed so much about people's awareness of online education and their use of online education. Talk to us a little bit about that and has that redounded to your benefit? Or could it maybe lead to more people doing an online degree instead of matriculating?


Peter Decherney: We're kind of in an interesting moment, and it's a little hard to answer that question. If you’d asked me and lots of other people in the early days of the pandemic, we had kind of a pat answer, which was that the pandemic accelerated online learning -- things that were already changing -- and was just happening a little bit faster. Instead of working with 20% of the University, all of a sudden that was working with 100% of the University to offer online courses. Our MOOCs doubled in enrollment, and that's what most people saw as well. And so it just seemed natural that we would see more of what was already happening.


I'm not exactly sure if that's the right answer anymore, and that's what the future holds. I think what happened, and this happened in many aspects of life, is the pandemic was a moment of reflection. Universities pivoted very quickly, and it was kind of amazing to see people across campus -- faculty, administrators, support staff, and students -- just think about education and pedagogy in a really deep and new way. It was clear the goal was the same, which was to offer the best educational experience we could, and it really just caused a lot of reflection on what that meant. So, there's a lot of experimentation and I hope a lot that continues forward, but I don't exactly know what it looks like on the other side, to be honest.


Michael Carrese: What about the work in helping instructors be effective online? For many, they had some familiarity with it. Maybe some had none. So, talk about what UPenn did to support that.


Peter Decherney: We had so many different initiatives. We tried to give faculty a kind of home menu, from taking a two-week course themselves in online education, to just looking at online resources that we had created to help.  We took ten high-impact courses -- courses that reached lots of students -- and we had a whole team work on each one of those courses to rethink it from the ground up as an online course. Those are all resources that we have going forward, and those courses are forever changed I think in a great way. 


What really impressed me was how many faculty members decided to sign up for the two-week long, intensive course and wanted to just jump in and learn as much as they could about how to be effective online teachers. Something else that surprised me was two years later -- when we had a very brief period where because of Omicron, we started classes virtually and then went to in-person -- we radically underestimated the number of faculty members who want to go back and do another workshop. We just couldn't even meet the demand for all the faculty that wanted to just keep learning about becoming better teachers.


Michael Carrese: Well, that's interesting. So I guess that's another looking-forward question. What are you hearing from faculty aside from that example you just gave? Are they worried about needing to live in this online world at some point entirely, and not have face-to-face instruction?


Peter Decherney: Unfortunately, sometimes people approach this like an either-or question: Is online learning better or worse? And the answer is, really, there's a whole new set of tools. You can teach well or badly in person, and you can teach well or badly online. But ultimately, I think that we have all these new tools and ultimately, they can only help make teaching better. I often think about what happened with computers versus chess masters. For a long time, people thought, ‘oh, a computer could never be a good enough chess player to beat one of the top chess masters because there's intuition, and they understood the other person they were playing.’ Of course, ultimately, the computer did beat the top chess master. And then what happened was, it turned out that even a pretty good chess player with a great program could beat any Master. It was the combination of once you had the tool and human intuition, that that was a kind of unbeatable combination. I think the same thing is true of online learning. We have all these tools, and if you put them together with someone who really wants to use them well and do a great job in the classroom, that's when you can go the farthest. 


Michael Carrese: I mentioned at the beginning that you teach a very popular online course yourself. What do you like about the online format?


Peter Decherney: So, it's amazing. In some ways, it's what I like about showing VR: you don't know what to expect. I put this course together on the history of Hollywood, that was a lot of fun to do. We actually rented out an old movie palace outside of Philadelphia and shot a lot of the videos there, which was interesting. Also, it's still one of the only courses of its kind because we used hundreds of movie clips. It's very clearly fair use, but it took the Penn lawyers a certain amount of time and study to say, ‘Okay, we agree this is fair use. And we don't need to get permission for all these clips.’ 


What's really interesting is to see the different ways people use it. Some people just watch the videos of me and don't engage at all otherwise. It's more like any kind of audiobook or multimedia textbook, which is okay. Other people really want to get the credential and care about the assessments and doing really well on that. Other people use it to create community. They'll sign on and they'll announce who they are and try to talk to other students and say, “I'm in Mexico City, and I want to start a film production company. Who else has had experience with this?” And so it's really interesting to see the different ways people use it, engage with it.


Michael Carrese: As you know, Osmosis is a company that uses media to educate in what I guess you'd say is a non-traditional way. We love asking our guests to identify something that they want us to work on in terms of filling a knowledge gap or shattering a myth. What's something along those lines that you really think is important where you would say, ‘Hey Osmosis, why don't you guys work on that one.’


Peter Decherney: So, I'll say I'm a big fan of Osmosis. The thing I like most about Osmosis is how learner-focused it is. In every detail it really thinks about the student, the learner, and how they can get the best experience -- even things like the number of words per minute that are used, and the way the animation works. I think there's really this great opportunity that Osmosis has to be kind of an apolitical scientific authority on issues of science that have become very politicized these days. Right now, a lot of what you do is for medical students and science education, but I can see Osmosis really being very valuable across a wide range of fields, where we need a kind of trusted authority who can explain complicated concepts very, very simply, and clearly, as Osmosis does. 


Michael Carrese:  We focus a lot on the healthcare system, of course, on this show, but higher ed is another huge area of overlap with what we do. And I wonder what you're thinking about in terms of the lasting impact of COVID on higher ed?


Peter Decherney: This is something I've mentioned already, but I think we learned a few things about higher education. One is that community is absolutely central to everything we do from the classroom, to creating cohorts and programs, and also to creating experiences for students who want to connect with each other or with faculty outside of their own disciplines. That's more of a challenge online than it is on campus when people can bump into each other and have serendipitous experiences. And so that's one of things I've been most focused on lately is thinking about how we can bring that sense of community online for students and faculty. The other thing is, we always think about universities moving slowly, and we pivoted so quickly and created the infrastructures we needed -- the technical structures, the committees we needed -- and were able to drop things and change. So we can't fall back on this notion that universities can't change quickly anymore. We absolutely can.


Michael Carrese: We’ve heard folks from the healthcare sector talk about how large hospital systems are like supertankers and take a long time to get anything done sometimes because people want to do their due diligence and make sure they're making the right move. But if you'd gone to a hospital president or a college president and said, “Okay, we’ve got to move everything online tomorrow,” they would have said, “Maybe let's have a five-year plan or a 10-year plan.” So, that realization now that they can move more quickly than they thought -- maybe not everything has to be studied to death and perfect before they make the first move -- could end up creating more improvement, quicker improvement down the road.


Peter Decherney: On the other hand, it just wasn't true online learning. It was an emergency version of online learning. My course took almost a year to create. And, you know, it's in the courses where there's really the right kind of design and study and research and following best practices that we get the highest quality online learning. So, the answer is somewhere in between.


Michael Carrese: Right, right. So, you obviously deal with a lot of students. We always like to end these conversations by asking our guests to give some advice to the students in our audience and early career professionals about approaching their careers. What's your favorite advice to handout?


Peter Decherney: One of the reasons I think online learning has become so important is that people change jobs more quickly than ever. Their lifespans are longer, their work lives are longer, the jobs are changing from underneath them faster than ever because of AI and other changes. The thing I try to impart to students is -- and actually just try to internalize myself -- is that our careers will change quite a lot. You can fall by too easily into thinking of yourself as one kind of narrow definition of a career that can't be changed. Or you can get stuck thinking once you've chosen a career, that's what you're doing forever. And it's possible to be retrained and change. That's one of the reasons there's so much interest in online learning right now, is people trying to create and get new skills, rethink their careers. There are more opportunities than ever to change. It's just a part of what it's like to have a career in 2022. 


Michael Carrese: Well, you're probably a good example of that. You're an artist, an expert in film and cinema and you have this other hat you wear with online education. 


Peter Decherney: Yeah, no, that's true. 


Michael Carrese: Was that something you ever sort of envisioned yourself doing?


Peter Decherney: I don't think so. And it still sounds hard to me. I think, “Oh, I'm a professor. I write books. That's who I am.” But then there are these other roles that I play and I feel like I'm still getting my head around that being part of my identity.


Michael Carrese: What are you working on now in terms of your film work that we can look forward to?


Peter Decherney: I just got back from Ethiopia and Kenya, over the last month. The film about the Ethiopian Jewish community really takes you inside that community today, and hopefully gives you a feeling for what it's like to be there. But I saw how people want to know more about the history and the context. And so I've written a book that gives the longer history from Moses to today. But it's primarily a book of photography. You get to learn about the lives of people who live there today, specifically, as they're preparing for the Passover holiday. I've always wanted a photography book like that, and so I'm excited that that's ready to go to a publisher. 


We were in Kenya working with a group I've worked with a number of times now for the last five or six years called FilmAid which is basically a film school in refugee camps. Their biggest presence is in two camps in Kenya -- Dadaab, which is by the Somali border, and in one by the South Sudan border called Kakuma. Like a lot of organizations, they've been thinking over the last few years about how they can take what they do and scale it and bring it online. So, I brought a group of Penn students to the Kakuma camp by the South Sudan border, and they partnered with the FilmAid students and put together an online course that's a version of the training program they already have. So that will be available, hopefully, in the fall through Coursera…a program they have called Coursera for Refugees, and also anyone who wants to try to take the course. 


Michael Carrese: What a wonderful opportunity for those students. Oh, my goodness.


Peter Decherney: I mean, it's kind of that's where the magic happens to see the Penn students and the FilmAid students working together towards a shared goal.


Michael Carrese: Well, I tell you, you have a really cool career that you've built here.


Peter Decherney: Thank you.


Michael Carrese: It must be so nice to be able to shift between all these things, and it's been really a pleasure to have you on the program today. Thanks very much for spending time with us.


Peter Decherney: My pleasure. Thank you.


Michael Carrese: I'm Michael Carrese. Thanks for checking out today's show and remember to do your part to flatten the curve and Raise the Line. We're all in this together.