“There’s a tsunami coming,” Stanford President John Hennessey has said of elite universities joining the growing trend of online education. This summer Duke decided to make the online leap through a partnership with Coursera, a web education company started by two Stanford computer science professors. Starting this fall, Duke will offer free online courses to anyone with an Internet connection. It will join Stanford University, the University of Michigan, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and 11 other schools, both international and domestic, in teaching subjects ranging from robotics to Roman mythology.
Online learning furthers many of Duke’s major institutional goals. First, it enhances Duke’s global vision. With initiatives like DukeEngage and foreign campuses, it is no secret that Duke desires worldwide influence. Now the university is one step closer through Coursera, which boasts more than one million students from 196 countries. Online learning could extend Duke’s reach to countries like India and China, where the demand for higher education is seemingly insatiable.
A related goal is branding, which online learning can also strengthen. Previously, online learning was most strongly associated with for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, many of whom turned out to be fraudulent. However, now that universities like Princeton and UPenn have joined the game, an elite niche has been created. Harvard and M.I.T. are also moving online through a different partnership called edX. The Internet is shaking up higher education—just as it has destabilized many other fields—and the major players are scrambling to adapt.
But Duke must remember that quality ultimately achieves influence and recognition, not the speed with which one can follow a trend. If Duke wants to pursue online learning, it must do so in the right way. What exactly constitutes high-quality online coursework has yet to be seen. However, it can safely be said that the simple transmission of knowledge will not suffice.
Any student who has had a professor post lecture slides on Blackboard knows that—while they can help one cram for a test—they are no substitute for a positive classroom experience. Real learning is the result of a complex emotional and social process. It starts with the personalities of one’s professor and peers, that inspire one to truly care about the material. It involves countless interpersonal details—a gesture, a question, a clarification, a piece of praise—along the way. And it ends with a fair and effective assessment, the heroic culmination of a semester’s worth of effort. These elements are especially vital for humanities courses, which rely on a strong classroom community to stimulate learning.
It is a mightily ambitious goal for a website to recreate the absorbing quality of an actual Duke class. However, if the Internet has taught us anything, it is that remarkable things are possible. Online learning has already attracted top-tier universities and potentially hundreds of millions of students. The next step is to create the most innovative educational platform possible, one that emphasizes the learning process as well as the academic content. If Coursera can create groundbreaking online techniques for interactive lectures, one-on-one tutoring, collaborative projects and genuine assessment, then online learning may indeed be the way of the future.