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Duke’s Massive Open Online Courses: Eight months after the launch of its first course

May 23, 2013

Duke announced plans last summer to begin offering not-for-credit courses free on the Internet through a partnership with Coursera, a California-based education company that provides a platform for universities to deliver online courses. The first of Duke’s massive open online courses (MOOCs) launched in September, and enrollment for the university’s 13 MOOCs sessions—from neuroscience to English composition—surpassed 725,000. The university will add courses from 10 additional faculty members in the next academic year.

Lynne O’Brien, director of the Duke University Libraries’ Center for Instructional Technology, has worked with faculty, campus IT planners, and academic technology groups around the country to develop programs to support the use of technology in teaching and research initiatives, including MOOCs. She will participate with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, the Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke, on the “College Without Classrooms: Massive Open Online Courses” panel discussion at Duke Forward in Washington, D.C., on June 1.

O’Brien provides an overview of Duke’s MOOCs experience so far.

Q. It’s been more than six months since the first MOOCs course was launched. What has been the most surprising and gratifying aspect?
A: The worldwide participation in Duke's Coursera courses and flood of positive feedback from participants have made it clear that there are talented students of all ages and in all locations who are hungry for the kind of high quality education that Duke faculty provide. Our faculty has been impressed by how hard some people are willing to work in a non-credit course and by how much students help and encourage each other. 

Q. What has been the most challenging aspect?
A: At the time we announced our Coursera courses, we had no experience with teaching a MOOC, and no familiarity with the Coursera technology. The faculty and support team had to learn together and create our first set of courses on a faster timetable than any of us had done in the past. Our instructors and the staff working with them really were pioneers with a spirit of adventure and a willingness to try things before they were totally comfortable with this new model of education.

Q. What have been the most popular courses?
A: In terms of enrollments, our largest course was Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s and (UNC-Chapel Hill Professor) Ram Neta’s philosophy course called “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.” Dan Ariely’s course on “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior” also had over 100,000 people enroll. But even our “smaller” courses were immensely popular, with students creating humorous nicknames for the professors, writing songs for them and expressing the wish that they might someday meet in person.

Q. How do you see MOOCs evolving in the near future?
A: I expect MOOCs to change quickly as people experiment with different formats and lengths of courses and learn how to work effectively with communities of people with common interests. Some courses are beginning to offer projects where participants with different kinds of expertise work together to apply what they are learning to a real-world challenge or work process. We’ve heard from high school students using MOOCs to explore where they might want to go to college and from Duke students using MOOCs to follow new interests without getting a grade. Alumni are interested in reconnecting with their former professors and with current Duke students.

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