For Now, a ‘No’ to For-Credit Online Courses

In new role, associate provost will lead discussions on the issue.
September 17, 2013

After a debate described as both passionate and civil, the Arts and Sciences Council declined Duke’s involvement in a pilot project offering for-credit online courses. The 16-14 vote (with two abstentions) reflected concerns expressed in April by council members that the proposal to work with the private, for-profit company 2U had not received a thorough vetting from faculty. In November 2012, the university had signed a preliminary agreement to participate in the Semester Online consortium, using an online learning platform developed by the company.

Although the proposal had been considered and revised by four faculty committees, several faculty members said during the April meeting that they were just hearing about the project and feared departments would have little control over the consortium’s ability to offer courses related to their field.

Other faculty members pondered whether others in the presumed consortium, which included Emory, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Brandeis, Boston College, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Washington University, were peer institutions.

Those in favor saw the project as a small experiment that would be evaluated carefully, providing data needed to understand what is effective in online learning. Faculty members who have taught online courses described how the experience helped them be more creative and innovative in their classrooms.

Perhaps that’s why the rejection wasn’t a dismissal of the concept. In the end, the council passed a resolution stating its commitment to continuing Duke’s “current practice of exploring and adopting a variety of online platforms.” That fits squarely with the path Lynne O’Brien wants to take. In the newly created post of associate vice provost for digital and online education initiatives, O’Brien sees her role, in part, as facilitating conversations about online education and helping those interested in trying it to do what they want to try. She wants to be clear: The discussion isn’t about in-person versus online education. “Rather, it’s about the best blend of both and finding out what makes sense in a Duke education,” she says. “It’s enrichment and extension.”

O’Brien says in the fall the university will offer a class on the Supreme Court and Constitutional law using the 2U technology platform—although separate from the consortium—as a way of gaining experience to have answers to the questions some faculty have. She says she’ll hold a series of discussions as well to talk about the issues concerning online education, discussions that will be independent of the pressure to vote.

Duke will be offering eleven new MOOCs (massive open online courses), is re-offering two others, and has ten more MOOCs in development.