Duke University Takes Two Paths on Online Learning

Recognizing that no two problems can be solved by a single solution, North Carolina’s Duke University is working along two distinct paths to expand online education access on its campus. The university is partnering with Coursera, an online education platform, to allow professors to design and offer online versions of their most popular courses to [...]

Recognizing that no two problems can be solved by a single solution, North Carolina’s Duke University is working along two distinct paths to expand online education access on its campus.

The university is partnering with Coursera, an online education platform, to allow professors to design and offer online versions of their most popular courses to a worldwide audience – for free. Its other effort – Semester Online – is targeted a little more locally. Duke, along with nine other universities around the country, have signed up with provider 2U to offer smaller, for-credit courses directly to their own students.

The reason why the university chose the two-pronged approach is because each “prong” is targeting a substantially different audience. According to Provost Peter Lange, going with two different companies gives the school a certain level of flexibility to offer each set of students exactly what they need rather than attempting to shoe-horn them into a one-size-fits-all solution.

MOOCs offered through Coursera are accessible to anybody around the world with internet access, and enroll tens of thousands of people at a time. Semester Online, on the other hand, offers smaller scale education with lecture classes capped at 300 students alongside 20-person discussion sections. Duke signed onto both ventures within the last six months, denoting the increasing prevalence of online engagement in higher education.

Much like other universities that made similar commitments, Duke got into offering massive online open courses partially because of the prestige it might bring to the school, and partially from belief that knowledge is there to be shared among as many people as possible. Dean of Arts and Sciences Laurie Patton calls the latter “a duty,” and while universities have embraced such an ethos for centuries, online learning allows them to fulfill this mission on a much larger scale.

Meanwhile, Mohamed Noor, Earl D. McLean professor and associate chair of biology, who has been teaching his Genetics and Evolution course as a MOOC since the beginning of this year, says that MOOCs provide an excellent advertisement platform for the university. He likens these courses to light versions of an app while saying that actually enrolling at Duke is akin to purchasing the full-featured version.

“There are a lot of goals that one might have with regard to leveraging technology to improve education,” said Jeremy Johnson, co-founder of 2U. “The goal of a MOOC is very different from the goal of Semester Online.”

The 2U platform is designed to emulate an on-campus class experience, including small class sizes with discussion sections and group work, Johnson said. For discussion sections, a student’s computer screen “looks a little like The Brady Bunch,” allowing students to raise their hands like they would in a physical classroom, he added.

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