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Alumni can now go online and take a popular advertising course
Writer: 
December 8, 2014

For four decades now, William “Mack” O’Barr has taught an advertising course so popular students routinely are turned away. Now they’ll get another crack at it.

The digital version of O’Barr’s “Advertising and Society” course debuted October 27 through the Coursera online education platform. He hopes word will reach alums who, years and perhaps even decades later, would still like to hear what he has to say on the topic.

“Coursera draws from a very wide range of interested folks, from students to working professionals to retired people who just love learning for its own sake,” says O’Barr, who joined the cultural anthropology faculty in 1969. “I’m sure there are likely to be some Duke alums who’d like a chance at it as well, if they only knew about it.”

The class is always full when he teaches it in White Auditorium— which holds about 100 people—or the Bryan Film Theater, where 400 can enroll. in the past, students have tried to negotiate their way in, pleading that they need it for their Markets & Management certificate or other programs.

“Many just said they’d like to take it because it sounded fun and had been recommended by a friend,” he says. Duke partnered with Coursera in 2012 to offer free online courses, and dozens of faculty members have subsequently tested the digital waters, some enrolling hundreds of thousands of students. Many students are Duke alumni who have praised their alma mater for making a broad variety of high-quality courses from professors they remember available for free, said Lynne O’Brien, Duke’s associate vice provost for digital and online education initiatives.

“I think Professor O’Barr is on to something,” O’Brien says. “We’ve heard from a number of alums who say they seek out online courses they were sorry to miss out on while students here on campus.”

DAA is responding to this desire as well. Plans are under way for a series of small, somewhat less formal online courses created specifically for Duke alums, says Jennifer Chambers ’01, director of alumni education. She, too, hears from plenty of alumni who lament the course they never got to take.

“It’s the thing they missed—that one item they weren’t able to cross off their list when they were in school here,” says Chambers. “I think the ability to do it later in life is appealing to a lot of people.”

O’Barr believes the topic resonates because people have such love/hate relationships with advertising. “It can be fun, entertaining, and memorable, but also extremely inyour- face and annoying,” he says. “We rarely treat it seriously and examine what it really is, where it comes from, and what effects it has on us.”

While the course content is similar, the Coursera delivery will differ greatly, O’Barr says. In many ways, the online course feels more like a television documentary than a classroom lecture, he adds.

And of course, advertising itself has changed dramatically, so an alum from the 1970s will get a far different experience taking O’Barr’s class now than he or she would have as an undergraduate. The TV commercial was king back then, O’Barr says. Today, companies aren’t telling consumers what they need as much as they’re building relationships with them.

“You can see this when you go to an Apple store and deal with sales associates—not ‘clerks’—who are really knowledgeable,” he says. “You can try everything out on your own and be a part of the whole Apple environment. That’s the new kind of advertising.”