After faculty voted to reject online courses for credit, the specifics of Duke’s future in online education remain unresolved. 

Following the Arts and Sciences Council’s April 25 vote, the University withdrew from a contract with Internet education company 2U and left Semester Online, a consortium of universities offering courses via the 2U platform. But the faculty’s decision not to participate in the program does not indicate a stop to the University’s involvement with online education—far from it, say faculty and administrators. 

“We’re just beginning,” said Thomas Robisheaux, chair of the Arts and Sciences Council and Fred W. Schaffer professor of history. “I see this as just the first step in a lively discussion where there are going to be many different solutions proposed, and we’re going to have to maybe try some—some may work, some may not work.”

Although the University currently does not have concrete plans concerning its future role in online courses for credit, the discussion is still vibrant, officials noted, and Duke is pushing forward with online education in other ways.

Initial plans

In November 2012, Provost Peter Lange signed a contract with 2U, entering Duke into a consortium of 10 schools that would offer online classes for credit through a platform called Semester Online. The contract was signed before the Arts and Sciences Council voted on how online courses could be included in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences curriculum and graduation requirements.

Had the motion to approve for-credit online courses passed, Duke would have offered courses for credit through Semester Online for at least a three-year pilot program.  Not all academic departments would have been obligated to teach courses or to give credit to the courses taught by the professors from the other schools, however, as an “opt-in/opt-out” clause would have given each department the ability to decide whether or not it wished to participate. 

 “It was a very modest proposal that was put before the council and defeated,” Robisheaux said. “It was a miniscule number of courses offered, departments could opt out if they wished—the actual impact would have been very small. But it had symbolic significance. It raised the question of, ‘How do you teach in this new information age?’”

Two Duke professors—Emma Rasiel, associate professor of the practice of economics, and Tom Metzloff, professor of law—had already begun to develop courses with 2U. Metzloff’s course had already been advertised on the company’s website. 

At the April meeting, some faculty members expressed discomfort with the idea of online classes, but, for many, issues with the proposal arose from other factors— the choice of consortium, a perceived lack of communication between administrators and faculty, a possible dilution of the quality and prestige of a Duke degree. 

“For some, there was a conflation of the consortium with the platform and the platform with the company—three different things, some people conflating all three,” Robisheaux said.

The majority of the proposal’s critics were humanities professors, particularly from small departments.

“Smaller departments felt threatened—in terms of their way of life, how they had been conducting their affairs—by a lot of newer developments,” said physics professor Steffan Bass, a member of the Executive Committee of the Arts and Sciences Council. “Online education became the drop that got the bucket to overflow.” 

After the vote to withdraw from Semester Online, a motion encouraging Duke faculty to continue pursuing online education passed. 

“It’s a very thorny set of issues because of so many different variables,” said Bill Seaman, the visual media studies professor who proposed the motion. “I’m hoping that Duke will not just close down and not think about this, but instead look at what the potentials there are in other areas going forward."

Going forward

It is unknown when the council will hold another vote on online courses for credit, but in the interim, the University is pursuing online education in several other ways. 

“What I would expect is that the administration may seek ways and means to move ahead with online education without the faculty having to decide,” Bass said.

A vote of the Arts and Sciences Council will only be required to make an official change to the curriculum, such as offering online courses for credit. For other decisions—such as faculty offering online courses not intended for Duke credit—a faculty vote is not necessary. 

In July 2012, Duke announced a partnership with Coursera, a platform designed to offer massively open online courses—free classes, commonly known as MOOCs, that are accessible to anyone anywhere and often have hundreds of thousands of students. In Fall 2012, 10 Duke professors offered classes through the platform, and 10 more have been announced for Fall 2013.

Some professors of Coursera classes have brought the technology to their Duke courses in a model known as the “flipped classroom.” Through the model, students watch their instructors deliver Coursera lectures outside of class and spend class time working on activities such as solving problems or small group learning. 

The landscape at large

The field of online for-credit education is relatively new, but it has been an area of great focus in recent months. 

Duke’s departure from the consortium was highly publicized, with media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education covering the outcome of the vote.

Duke is not the only school to have opted out of Semester Online. Vanderbilt University’s administration chose to break its contract with the platform, and the University of Rochester decided not to participate after being described as a possible partner for several months.

 “At Vanderbilt, we were concerned that the decision to charge full tuition for the 2U courses was at odds with our own commitment to meet demonstrated financial need in full for all of our undergraduate students,” Cynthia Cyrus, Vanderbilt’s assistant vice provost for undergraduate education, wrote in an email June 21. “We were also uncomfortable with 2U’s financial decision to focus the energy of early curricular developments within Semester Online around the larger-enrollment courses instead of an array of niche courses which would have enhanced our student’s access to a broader curricular content.” 

Over the course of the last several months, for-credit online courses have been announced by a number of universities, with several different companies offering platforms. At the end of May, Coursera announced that it would join the field and begin offering courses for credit in addition to the MOOCs it currently provides. 

Duke does not have plans to expand its involvement with Coursera to courses for credit, Lange said. He noted that the Coursera model is not as interactive or as well suited to small courses as are some other platforms, including Semester Online.

“The key point is that this is a very dynamic area of education innovation at the moment,” Lange said. “Lots of different things are being tried—we’re trying to gain the most for our faculty and for our students.”  

Regardless of the specific route Duke pursues, online education will likely somehow be a part of the University’s future, Bass noted.

“You innovate, or you die,” he said.