Editor's note: This article is the first of a two-part series examining online education at Duke. Today, The Chronicle looks at how professors have embraced massively open online courses and adapted these tools for the physical classroom. Tomorrow, The Chronicle will investigate Duke's future of online education.

Through online education, Duke faculty have brought their classes to the farthest reaches of the world while furnishing a stronger on-campus experience—though some professors have found integrating digital strategies into the physical classroom to come with a steep learning curve.

The proliferation of massive open online courses, commonly known as MOOCs, started in 2012 with the emergence of national platforms such as Coursera and edX. Duke has offered MOOCs through Coursera since Fall 2012—a partnership which has been at the center of the University’s efforts to expand and refine its online education initiatives. Although MOOCs are not offered for credit in any of Duke’s schools, materials and strategies from the courses have been integrated into different classes on campus. Lynne O’Brien, associate vice provost for digital and online education initiatives, said online education has allowed faculty to develop inventive new teaching approaches and broader perspectives. For some professors, however, results have been mixed.

“Two years ago, creating something like a MOOC was very innovative just because it hadn’t been done before," O'Brien said. "Now there are hundreds and hundreds of those courses, so just creating a MOOC alone isn’t necessarily innovative. But what we’ve seen is that courses that were developed last year or the year before are starting to morph into other kinds of formats.”

Although MOOCs are a relatively new development, Duke has had experience with other forms of online education in the past. The University has offered online degree programs for more than 10 years, including programs in the School of Nursing, the Fuqua School of Business and the Nicholas School of the Environment. In 2013, the University signed on to join offer online undergraduate seminar classes for credit through a consortium known as Semester Online. Faculty vetoed the proposal, however, and the partnership fell through.

Flipping out

The most common way that MOOCs have been integrated into the campus classroom has been the “flipped classroom” approach. Under the flipped class format, students watch prerecorded lectures before coming to class. Professors are then free to use class time however they choose, such as answering students’ questions or creating additional assignments. One popular approach—known as team-based learning— creates in-class assignments for students to work on in groups.

When she first started teaching, Mine Cetinkaya-Rundel, assistant professor of the practice of statistical science, experimented with "clickers" in an attempt to make her class more interactive. Students would use clickers—small devices used to respond to multiple choice questions—at various points in the lecture. Cetinkaya-Rundel’s search for ways to increase interactivity soon led her to a flipped class using videos that she created for a MOOC.

“Students like having videos,” Cetinkaya-Rundel said. “I think teachers have forever been assigning, ‘Read the chapter before you come to class,’ but I think sometimes reading might be a little dry. It might be a generational thing.”

Students in her on-campus class and students enrolled in the MOOC watch the same videos, but do not interact directly in any way. Both groups have offered positive responses to the videos and other MOOC materials, Cetinkaya-Rundel said. It remains unclear whether or not the flipped format has improved grades, though Cetinkaya-Rundel said the format has certainly paid off in other ways.

“We know that it has improved engagement,” Cetinkaya-Rundel said. “If you walked into my class and looked at what’s on students’ screens, the majority of the time it’s actually related to the class. I think the important question is—has learning improved? I’d like to give it a little bit of time so that I can collect some data to be able to answer that question.”

Growing pains

But not all classes have enjoyed the same level of success with the flipped format.

Before teaching Physics II last Spring, Daniel Gauthier, Robert C. Richardson professor of physics, had successfully used team-based learning in small graduate-level courses. In the much larger Physics II class, the transition from traditional lecture to flipped class proved difficult, Gauthier said.

“It was outright riot,” Gauthier said. “Part of it was that it was my first time trying to scale up to a large class. There were issues that were hard to anticipate. You learn some things from doing it with a small group, but that scaling is always a bit of a challenge.”

In addition, most of the students in the class had never experienced the team-based learning format. Compounding the problem was that the class was one of the final requirements for many pre-health students in the class.

“Just think about it: you have a teaching approach that you’ve learned how to succeed in, and suddenly someone’s pulling the rug out from underneath you and putting a different rug underneath you at the last moment,” Gauthier said.

Gauthier noted that issues with the class were not limited to the team-based learning format, with a new online homework system and a new textbook that turned out to be riddled with errors also causing issues. Despite complaints about the class, Gauthier said that the level of learning did not suffer.

“What is interesting is that if I look at how well students performed on the exams, they were at a very similar level to the past several years,” Gauthier said. “Students did just as well, if not a little bit better, than in past years. At the time students filled out the evaluation, I’m not sure that they felt that way, but in the end…I think it was much better.”

A global classroom

Some faculty have taken advantage of the global nature of online education to bring new perspectives into the classroom.

William O’Barr—professor of cultural anthropology, English and sociology—teaches Advertising and Society, the most recent Duke MOOC to be made available through Coursera.

“I’ve enjoyed teaching this class to hundreds and thousands of Duke students over the years,” O’Barr said. “But one thing that invariably happens is that when we have foreign students in the class, they bring different kinds of perspectives, especially when we talk about global advertising. What the MOOC offers is the opportunity to open up discussion about advertising in society to a much wider group of people beyond Duke.”

The amount of geographic representation was “absolutely incredible,” O’Barr said. The list of enrolled students included people from dozens of countries, with less than 30 percent from the United States. The class is also diverse in other sorts of perspectives – only about a third of enrolled students reported themselves to be full-time students.

The MOOC will be offered again in the Spring, when it will be taught concurrently with O’Barr’s on-campus course of the same name. The two classes will be integrated in some way, though the details have yet to be worked out, O’Barr said.

“This is the difference between what happens in the classroom at Duke and having a class that has these people from all these different countries with all these different perspectives on advertising,” O’Barr said. “They can talk about their experiences with it and share these with American students. It’s a kind of magical transformation of the classroom into one that is completely global in nature.”

Bringing writing online

One criticism of online education has been the distribution of classes among the different disciplines, which has typically been skewed toward the natural sciences. O’Brien noted that the University has taken steps to expand upon its humanities and social sciences offerings. These types of courses may require especially creative approaches to reach the large audience expected of a MOOC.

Denise Comer, assistant professor of the practice in writing studies, taught one of the first online writing MOOCs in 2013. That course is currently in its third iteration on Coursera.

Although a video lecture component is included, the course is largely built around four main writing assignments. For each of these assignments, online learners can choose to submit a draft for peer assessment. They are then expected to review each other’s drafts based on a rubric devised by Comer and her staff. Ideally, this would allow each online learner to receive three or more sets of feedback from their peers. In practice, Comer said that this system has proven “successful but also somewhat uneven.”

“It’s possible that in one week, one of [the reviewers’] family members got sick or they were really busy at work,” Comer said. “Instead of getting three sets of feedback, maybe you’re only going to get two.”

Comer added that the wide range of experience of students in the class may contribute to the unevenness of the peer assessment system. She noted, however, that many students have been able to find ways to ensure that they receive feedback.

“A lot of the learners formed writing groups outside of the course so they could exchange drafts,” Comer said. “I had one group of learners that called themselves the MFFs – ‘MOOC Friends Forever.’”

There have been a few instances in which videos from the MOOC were repurposed for classes or programs on campus, including an enrichment suite for multilingual undergraduates, Comer said. But the primary impact of the MOOC on campus learning has been indirect.

“The integration is more in terms of shaping my pedagogy rather than direct integration,” Comer said. “I direct First-Year Writing, so I also train and work with incoming writing faculty…and encourage them to continue increasing learner autonomy and creating more space for learners to connect with each other.”