From the President: The Coursera Experiment

Online courses will enhance Duke—but never replace the classroom experience.
November 5, 2012

“This is a great course and I am excited it is only the beginning.”


“You have no idea how much this course is affecting me on a very personal level.”


“I’m highly impressed and grateful for education like this.”

These comments were written by students taking a course, “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution,” taught by Duke professor Mohamed Noor. As you can see, it’s a lively class, taught by a brilliant professor who presents challenging material with passion and inspires his students to want to learn more. But you won’t see these students walking across the quad to class. In fact, most of them— and their 31,000 classmates—have never been to Durham, never set foot on campus, never met Professor Noor in person. Around the world, they’re taking the class online, for free, through a company called Coursera.

This past summer, Duke announced a partnership with Coursera, and this fall Duke is offering ten not-for-credit online courses, which have attracted 320,000 students from 120 countries. Some of the students are in high school; some have Ph.D.s. Some are looking to build up their expertise in a field with direct relevance to their academic or professional paths; others are motivated by pure intellectual curiosity. Upon successful completion of the course, students will receive a certificate, but no Duke credit or degree. Of course, they’ll have the satisfaction of acquiring new knowledge, engaging in discussions, and mastering a complex subject.

Clearly, there is a great hunger for learning outside a formal classroom. But why is Duke stepping in to feed this hunger? I would answer that Duke has embarked on this online venture for three main reasons.

First, we see the online environment as a sphere for experimentation where faculty can develop and pilot new teaching methodologies. If the pedagogical innovations prove successful, faculty members can devise ways to import these ideas back into their Duke classrooms. Professor Noor, who is the Earl D. McLean Professor and associate chair of biology, plans to teach the same class on campus this spring. Using the videos he’s already produced for his Coursera course, he’ll ask students to master the content knowledge before they come to class, and he’ll devote classroom time to discussion and problem- solving. Known as a “flipped classroom,” this model has been demonstrated to promote a deeper level of learning.

Second, as one of the thirty-three universities participating with Coursera—including Brown, Princeton, and Stanford—Duke can provide educational opportunities to people around the world. We see this mission as a natural extension of Duke’s commitment to knowledge in service of society. No matter what their background or experience with formal schooling, students enrolled in the Coursera courses can learn, grow, expand their horizons, and connect with fellow knowledge- seekers, either online—mostly in English but also in Russian or Greek—or in person, through the many “meet-up” groups that have sprung up from Boston to Budapest to Bangkok. Duke is proud to be part of this venture and views it as a compelling role for a leading university in our complex world.

Our third reason for pursuing this experiment is that it enables Duke to project itself and its values of excellence through the domain of online education, drawing the attention of many people around the globe to our world-renowned faculty and their teaching. The 31,000 students enrolled in Professor Noor’s class equal the number of students who applied for undergraduate admission last year: In this arena, we have room for everyone. These students now have a direct experience of Duke and a connection to Duke, perhaps for the first time. And they see Duke as the kind of institution that shares its knowledge and faculty with a generous hand.

Alumni may worry that as Duke faculty offer courses for free, we risk devaluing a Duke degree, but I do not think there are grounds for this concern. The best online education will never replace the education through face-to-face, living relationships that a great residential university provides. It’s revealing that even as we make this foray into online education, we’re also restoring the West Union building on West Campus—a brick-and-mortar commitment to the importance of lived community. The revitalized West Union will have inviting spaces for students to share a meal, collaborate on a project, plan a conference, or simply hang out with friends. The environment will facilitate all kinds of interactions, scheduled and unscheduled, among students and faculty with shared interests. (Professor Noor himself is frequently seen lunching with students.) This richly personal learning milieu holds the key to the value of a Duke education.

In the rapidly changing landscape of online learning, it makes sense for Duke to proceed cautiously. But we believe our early participation will yield insights about the nature of learning that will benefit our campus community. The best strategy for Duke is not to regard online and in-person education as rivals. We’ll serve Duke best by figuring out how to combine the best of online instruction with the best of face-to-face education—a worthy challenge for a great university.