Penn Launches New Blended Learning Initiative to Expand Academic Access

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto | | 215-898-4820July 16, 2014

A new summer program at the University of Pennsylvania is aimed at developing a model that will narrow the achievement gap for underserved populations by preparing a diverse group of high school students for college and steering them toward greater academic success.

The Blended Learning Initiative, a collaborative partnership developed between Penn and Steppingstone Scholars Inc., is a three-week pilot to encourage 24 public and private high school students from Philadelphia to pursue a path to higher education. The program mixes online learning, classroom interaction and mentoring to provide participants with a college-level academic experience.

The pilot combines Penn’s open learning offerings of free college-level online classes, the Provost’s Summer Mentorship Program and the University’s classrooms, labs and research centers with Steppingstone Scholar’s college preparation and counseling curriculum.

In the Blended Learning Initiative pilot, the students spend in-class time reviewing and discussing what they’ve learned in their online lectures, meeting with college mentors and participating in post-class internships or research experiences.

As the inaugural class this summer, the students are taking an online Greek and Roman mythology class with Peter Struck, an associate professor of classical studies. Part of the learning experience included visiting the Greek and Roman sections of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

They also are preparing to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test, in an SAT Prep class run by Penn’s Summer Mentorship program. In addition, they are introduced to the college admissions process, scholarship applications, campus life, mock interviews and financial smarts. By the end of the program, they will develop a list of colleges to which they will apply, write a research paper and draft personal essays for college admissions purposes. 

The Blended Learning Initiative pilot aligns with the local-engagement and increased-access principles of President Amy Gutmann’s Penn Compact 2020.

“Low-income and racial minority students are educationally underserved, not intellectually deficient,” said William C. Gipson, the associate vice provost for equity and access at Penn. “Better instruction, interventions and family support focused on narrowing gaps and enhancing academic rigor and completion will not fix all things, but they will give many millions of striving students a better chance of using their talents to the best of their abilities for their own social mobility and the general benefit of society.”

Gail Oberton, director of the Summer Mentorship Program, said, “The students taking the course are from both the Steppingstone Scholars and Summer Mentorship Programs, and this collaboration has the potential to serve as a national model for cooperation between non-profit organizations and universities.”

The Blended Learning Initiative pilot will allow organizers to refine its content, create a cohesive program and explore its overall impact and scalability.