Illustrations by Bruno Mallart
Illustrations by Bruno Mallart


Will massive open online courses challenge the resilience and relevance of major research universities like Duke?
Photographer or Illustrator: 
April 28, 2014

I’ve been welcomed officially into a parallel universe. It’s called “Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach,” which embraces biology, my certifiably worst subject in college; electricity, a force I consider semi-mystical and rather scary; and quantitative thinking, which is my least familiar thinking.

“Bioelectricity” is an offering in the Duke roster of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. It’s an eight-week course, first launched in September 2012—a spinoff of what biomedical engineering professor Roger Barr ’64, Ph.D. ’68 has been teaching at Duke for more than twenty years, typically to no more than twenty or thirty students. That summer, Duke announced a partnership with Coursera, an education company founded by two Stanford University computer-science professors that provides a delivery platform for universities.

In 2012-13, Coursera offered thirteen Duke-originated courses; this academic year, the number is twenty.

Mastering “Bioelectricity” wouldn’t entitle me to Duke credits, but only to a certificate. Just what I would get out of it, it turns out, would depend a lot on what I would put into it; in that sense, it’s not unlike a college education.

As I took the virtual plunge, I was asked to project how many of the lecture videos I would be watching and how many assignments and quizzes I would complete. I also was asked to sign an honor code, affirming that the answers on homework and quizzes would be my own and that I wouldn’t share those answers with anyone else.

From there, Barr, or his videotaped self, was the low-key but affable star in the bioelectrical universe. Watching the introductory video, I couldn’t help fixating on Barr’s vibrant necktie, with its romping, intertwined, brilliantly colored Keith Haring-type figures.

Some of the lectures that followed took me back to those difficult days in the biology lab, where I was a dangerous presence around delicate equipment and small animals alike. But I was lured by other topics—a brief history of the debate on whether electricity in biological systems resembles electricity in the physical world, a Confucian-influenced discourse on the slippery task of assigning names to abstract concepts. A dead alligator is passive, Barr told us; a live alligator can be passive, but don’t count on it.

Some observers of higher education are anything but passive, if not alligator-aggressive, around MOOCs—as in “The MOOC Racket,” an essay published in Slate last July. Private companies, university administrators, and politicians are “already planning an all-MOOC future for most of tomorrow’s college students,” asserted the writer, Jonathan Rees, a history professor at Colorado State University- Pueblo. “Unlike today’s MOOC participants, these future students will have to pay for access to them. Only the most privileged students will still have in-person access to highly qualified professors.”

Blogging for Forbes, Mike Lenox, who taught at Duke for six years and is now a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, didn’t sketch such a restrictive MOOC future. But he did predict a disruptive impact. (Though not to the extent of Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford research professor, Google fellow, and cofounder of an online education startup. He’s predicted that in fifty years the world will have only ten universities — maybe the University of Google among them, one skeptic suggested sardonically.) Online education is improving quickly, Lenox noted, including the production values of video lectures, which have evolved from placing a camera in the back of the classroom to “slickly produced videos” that feature “animation and high-end graphics.” Online education isn’t a perfect substitute for residential education, he said. But it’s emerging as a low-cost alternative that, at a certain price point and quality level, will grab market share from traditional residential-based education.

“In the same way that General Motors was remiss to dismiss the entry by Japanese upstarts such as Honda and Toyota into the U.S. auto market in the 1970s as cheap substitutes, those who dismiss MOOCs and online education in general as inferior to residential education are missing the point and may be sealing their fate. In the same way that a KIA is not a Porsche, online education is not at the same level of quality as residential education. This will likely not matter. As long as there is a price differential, some students will choose the lesser, cheaper option. KIA sells far more cars than Porsche.”

Peter Lange, Duke’s provost for the past fifteen years, doesn’t talk about Duke’s Porsche-like status in a field of KIAs. He does agree that MOOCs aren’t poised to threaten universities like Duke that enjoy a sort of rarified standing. When I sat down with him shortly before his departure from the position, he told me that MOOCs can spark teaching innovation, spur collaborations with other universities, and extend Duke’s global reach—all for a relatively modest investment. But the idea of trying to replicate, in cyberspace, a full-fledged Duke experience? That’s nowhere on his screen.

A few months before the Slate piece appeared, the reliably wry A.J. Jacobs, editor at large at Esquire, was in the MOOC mode for a New York Times essay, “Two Cheers for Web U!” Jacobs’ version of Web U came from eleven online courses, including “Bioelectricity” and another Duke-based course, on evolution, taught by biology professor Mohamed Noor. Overall he found the instructors “impressive” and even “entertaining,” but also “only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon.” Student-to-student interaction was largely through online discussion boards—only a poor imitation of “latenight dorm-room discussions at my nonvirtual college.”

An analysis of the first offering of “Bioelectricity,” from Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology (CIT), suggests that MOOCs can provide an avenue to engagement. “Bioelectricity” discussion threads were carried out in Russian, Greek, Portuguese, and Romanian, as well as English. Students also built a course Wiki, essentially a community website, with lecture notes, tips of their own for the exercises, and supplementary content. Some joined a Facebook study group. On the discussion boards, I found everything from self-introductions (“My name is Shraddha. I am from India. I am studying in Canada in molecular biology and transgenics”), to meeting-up invitations (“Are there some Italians with who is possible have some elucidations?”), to problem-solving tips (“I think there are a couple of threads where people solve that differential equation”).

Still those avenues to engagement may seem clunky compared with the conventions of the classroom (and the dorm room). And that’s not the only MOOCtaking aspect that’s clunky. Students need to feel validated—or at least expect to be evaluated. I asked Duke’s David Schanzer, associate professor of the practice at the Sanford School, about grading in the MOOC universe. Early on, Schanzer, whose MOOC is on the subject of 9/11, invited students to post essays on the course discussion board and picked a few to illustrate a peer-grading rubric: Did the essay have a main theme? Was it well-organized? Did it lead to a clear recommendation? With each assignment, then, you’d get five randomly assigned people to grade. In turn, those five people would grade you. To successfully complete the course, you’d have to complete the grading as well as the assignments.

Whether or not they thread themselves into discussions and submit themselves to grading, many who join a MOOC don’t stick around long. Earlier this year, a survey of MOOCs offered through a Harvard- MIT consortium found that just 5 percent of all registrants earned a certificate of completion; 35 percent never viewed any of the course materials. For “Bioelectricity,” a total of more than 12,000 students initially enrolled, from more than 100 countries, at least ten pre-college students among them. The numbers dropped from there: 3,658 took a quiz during the course, 346 attempted the final exam, and 313 earned a certificate.

From my own MOOCing, I wasn’t enamored of a certificate or even concerned about replicating the classroom. And that’s pretty typical, as the Harvard-MIT researchers told The Chronicle of Higher Education. Many are happy enough to be samplers of the material— as I was happy enough to plug into “Bioelectricity.”

According to the Duke CIT analysis, student interests typically can be collapsed into categories that include, for starters, lifelong learning or the specific subject matter. Duke’s Denise Comer surveyed her students’ motivations for her writing-composition MOOC: “They wanted to have writing make a deeper impact in their lives in whatever way. Sometimes it was career advancement. Sometimes it was creative aspirations. Sometimes it was just a lifelong attitude toward learning and growing. And English-language facility was something a lot of people were interested in.”

On a visit to Durham, David Johnston Ph.D. ’04, assistant professor of the practice at the Marine Lab, was pretty sure students would willingly ride the currents of his new “Marine Megafauna” MOOC, populated as it is with sea turtles, whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, sharks, and giant squid: “I think people have a general fascination with the ocean. The fact that we’re talking about the most beautiful, compelling ocean creatures means, I hope, that we’ll attract a good number of people and keep them coming back. We try to use as much multimedia as possible, so that students feel that they’re kind of embedded in the situation.”

Even if MOOC takers don’t want to be embedded in the ocean, they may want to be embedded in an experience that promises fun, entertainment, social experience, and intellectual stimulation, says Duke’s CIT. They may be drawn to exploring online education generally. Or they may be creatures of convenience, perhaps having faced barriers to traditional education options. A.J. Jacobs noted that he consumed MOOCs while indulging in a meal and enduring time on a treadmill.

They may not take to a treadmill, but Duke professors told me they’ve spent lots of energy working up their MOOCs. More than 420 hours were required on Barr’s part to build and deliver the “Bioelectricity” course, plus at least 200 hours for the technical team. Comer told me that for some eight months, her writingoriented MOOC “occupied almost every waking thought.”

According to Lynne O’Brien, recently named associate vice provost for digital and online education initiatives, faculty members have committed from 220 hours to 870 hours for the initial course development—less in the second offering, and much less for additional re-offerings. “I think it is important to consider that creation of a brand-new, ambitious campus course also takes a lot of time and, similarly, gets easier over time as the course is re-offered from year to year.”

O’Brien filled me in on the infrastructure that underlies Duke MOOCs. Duke offers a $10,000 “incentive payment” for MOOC instructors to apply to a discretionary account; there’s no reduction in course load or teaching schedule. It also provides the project team that helped fire up “Bioelectricity”: an academic technology consultant to advise on course design and pedagogy; an online course associate to help in creating and uploading material; a videographer and video editor to help create materials and consult on video strategies (Duke also will provide a loaner kit of video camera, writing tablet, and computer loaded with software for instructors who want to create their own video); a copyright assistant to review and help with copyright clearance; a librarian to help in finding open-access materials for the course; and assessment consultants.

“It’s so very different from talking to students, being able to look at their faces and understand whether you’re getting through to them.”

It’s not just a matter of devoting many hours to preparation; it’s also confronting the fact that virtual teaching is different teaching. “It was a little intimidating at first,” Johnston told me. “It was definitely nerve-racking to think about putting yourself out in front of thousands and thousands of people. A lot of it, for me, was learning how to talk to the camera. It’s so very different from talking to students, being able to look at their faces and understand whether you’re getting through to them.”

MOOCs can compel instructors to stretch themselves beyond comfort with the camera, as I was reminded by Mine Çetinkaya-Rundel, assistant professor of the practice in Duke’s statistics department. She was preparing her “Data Analysis and Statistical Inference” MOOC for release this spring. “One thing I do in my on-campus course, where the target audience is very well-defined, is bring in data sets and examples that I know are inherently interesting to them. If you’re showing a histogram with the number of basketball games attended, you’re going to have a lot of Duke students perking up and listening. When the target audience is this huge question mark, it’s a little harder. So I’ve been trying to swap out some of my examples with some more international data sets. The U.S. is very good at collecting andreleasing certain types of data. That’s not necessarily the case internationally. It’s either that they don’t release it or it’s not accessible.”

Many of Duke’s MOOC instructors entered into the arrangement wanting to blend the virtual and the traditional classrooms. Schanzer, the 9/11 instructor, talked to me about the process of creating a video on how to write a policy memo. He dedicated a week to exploring in some depth the teachings of Islam, a topic for which he interviewed Duke’s Muslim chaplain, Abdullah Antepli. He also brought in guest experts, including journalist Peter Bergen, who has written extensively about Osama bin Laden. All of those online elements are now resources for Schanzer’s Duke students.

For Çetinkaya-Rundel, her own MOOC videos, in which she often works through statistical problems, help “flip” the classroom—that is, shift the basis of homework and the work of the classroom. Any meaningful method to hook students outside class “frees up class time for me to do more activitybased stuff with them,” she told me. “I think that’s when they’re actually engaging with each other and with me, as opposed to listening to me lecture.”

Maybe more than anything else, I found that faculty members are drawn to MOOCs because, well, teachers are drawn to expanding their teaching universe. Çetinkaya-Rundel talked about building a knowledge-base that—across boundaries—is basic to smart living. “Even in the U.S., until quite recently, statistics education wasn’t even part of the common-core education. I’m from Turkey. In high school, we had a pretty rigorous math curriculum, but I don’t remember doing statistics at all. Statistics at all levels of schooling is just not widely taught.” Schanzer told me he was disappointed that his MOOC, in its first version, didn’t penetrate deeply into Muslim- majority countries; he had the highest U.S.-based enrollment of any Duke MOOC. (Anticipating a flood of feedback from the ideological fringes, he included in his first week a lecture he called “Not a Place for Conspiracy Theories.”) Still, in the virtual-learning sphere, “you do get a flavor of both informed and uninformed anti-Americanism— people who are certainly willing to be highly critical of U.S. actions and interventions around the world, in a pretty unrestrained fashion.”

And Comer, assistant professor of the practice and director of first-year writing with Duke’s Thompson Writing Program, wanted to see whether new technology could deliver a classic concern of the classroom—writing instruction. She told me she hadn’t even heard of MOOCs until the summer of 2012, when Barr talked with her about including a writing component for “Bioelectricity.” Could she conceive her own MOOC, one that would make writing electric? Could she encourage people around the world to think about themselves as writers?

A listserv populated by writing professionals gave her some pushback. “One of the main concerns was that people who are not experts in writing studies would see MOOCs as an opportunity to eliminate first-year writing on campuses.” The other, somewhat contrary complaint was that “people can’t actually teach writing in a MOOC.” Well, Comer would answer, it’s just that you can’t teach writing— or find the “interactive space,” as she put it—in the same way. The MOOC did foster connections and community- building around writing, she found. “It just wasn’t necessarily there between me and the students so much as between the students themselves. And that’s the magic of MOOCs.”

There is, of course, that magical, inexplicable, and hardly reproducible force linking instructors and students in physical space. Physical space: It’s a value that pops up in the most recent Freshman Survey, an annual undertaking from the University of California at Los Angeles. Nationally just 3 percent of freshmen at private universities said there is “a very good chance” they will enroll in a fully online course, even though most have used online instructional materials on their own time. MOOCs seem to find their meaning in supplementing, not supplanting.

In late March, I sat in on the faculty’s Academic Council as Duke’s president, Richard H. Brodhead, give his annual address. Brodhead didn’t explicitly mention MOOCs; what he did mention—“the heart of the ideal of residential education”—testified to the virtues of a non-virtual environment. He celebrated a campus community of “engaged, spirited, intelligent people” who stretch and inspire one another “through every encounter, including those marked ‘academic,’ those we term extracurricular, and those that might be labeled merely ‘social.’”

When “everything” can be learned online, he said, “there will still be profound things that can only be learned face to face, by living people interacting with other living people in the fullness of their living humanity.” The “vibrant, successful” places, he added, “are ones that offer the richest chance for smart people to collide with each other in person, to bump into and interact with others in a host of unprogrammed ways.”

To persist in my programmed pursuit of MOOCs, I signed up for the MOOC from Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics Dan Ariely Ph.D. ’98. His e-mail acknowledgement came quickly: “At some point you signed up for my class, ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior.’ That means I like you already!” He went on to promise that “the class is going to be a blast, and I’m looking forward to getting started next week.”

Irrationally or not, I was enthusiastic about inhabiting an environment that, while probably not the all-encompassing wave of the future, represents part of the future. As with any step into a parallel universe, it promised to take me someplace well worth experiencing. But I probably wouldn’t want to park myself there permanently to live—or to learn.