Even with a new campus under construction in Kunshan, China, Duke’s largest global venture is taking place in cyberspace.

The University has committed itself to online education through two enterprising ventures—Coursera, a platform for massive open online courses, and now Semester Online, presented by 2U, which will offer smaller for-credit courses to students at Duke and nine other universities. The two systems are targeted at different audiences of different scopes. Both serve to project the Duke brand, but the merit of this publicity is contested.

The online initiatives represent the University’s attempt to dive into an emerging and constantly shifting field, Provost Peter Lange said.

“It’s an incredibly fast and dynamic world,” he said. “We’re trying out different things... so that we can be flexible and prepared in what is a pretty dynamic environment.”

MOOCs offered through Coursera are accessible to anybody around the world with internet access, and enroll tens of thousands of people at a time. Semester Online, on the other hand, offers smaller scale education with lecture classes capped at 300 students alongside 20-person discussion sections. Duke signed onto both ventures within the last six months, denoting the increasing prevalence of online engagement in higher education.

“There are a lot of goals that one might have with regard to leveraging technology to improve education,” said Jeremy Johnson, co-founder of 2U. “The goal of a MOOC is very different from the goal of Semester Online.”

Come one, come all

Mohamed Noor, Earl D. McLean professor and associate chair of biology, has discovered the privileges of reaching thousands of students at a time through the Coursera platform. He currently is teaching a course titled “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution,” which has just under 30,000 students enrolled, having peaked at about 33,000. Noor said he has “really, really, really thoroughly enjoyed” the experience, adding that he has had the opportunity to reach an extremely diverse group of learners.

Participants include an 11-year-old and an 81-year-old and a spectrum of learners in between, Noor said, noting that although participation in assessments and assignments has declined since the course started—it is currently in its eighth of 10 weeks—numerous students are still auditing the course.

“Everybody is so overwhelmingly appreciative of the opportunity to be a part of this class,” Noor said. “These people really fundamentally, genuinely want to learn.... They’re getting no credential whatsoever.”

Noor stressed the satisfaction of teaching a class that is so enthusiastically—albeit virtually—attended.

“It’s like running an ice cream store where the ice cream is free,” he said. The openness of Coursera, however, has the potential to decrease the value of the Duke brand, said Jacob Vigdor, professor of public policy and economics, a higher education expert.

“We justify how expensive we are... by ensuring quality control—offering more in-person interaction—and by keeping the Duke degree scarce,” Vigdor said. “Exclusivity is the name of the game, and the concern with Coursera is by marketing ourselves as a competitor to the University of Phoenix, we are damaging our perception of exclusivity, which is necessary for our contingent survival.”

The University has a duty to share knowledge with the rest of the world, though, and Coursera is a new manifestation of this duty, Dean of Arts and Sciences Laurie Patton said.

“All public service is benefit to the University because the University’s mission is about sharing knowledge with the world,” Patton wrote in an email Monday. “That outreach is going to look different in each generation, and we happen to be living in a particularly vibrant time.”

Likewise, sophomore Sofia Manfredi said she believes the University’s offering of free courses is only positive.

“I don’t think Duke loses anything by providing public service,” Manfredi said. “I don’t think it detracts from our education.”

Noor said that although both free online courses and a four-year degree have the Duke brand attached to them, he does not believe Coursera jeopardizes the value of a full Duke degree.

“We’re not giving away the same product,” Noor said. “Think of it like apps in the app store—the light version and the paid version. We’re giving away the light. There’s a big advantage to buying the full app.”

Increasing flexibility

The 2U platform is designed to emulate an on-campus class experience, including small class sizes with discussion sections and group work, Johnson said. For discussion sections, a student’s computer screen “looks a little like The Brady Bunch,” allowing students to raise their hands like they would in a physical classroom, he added.

“Half the [educational] experience is being surrounded by students,” Johnson said. “They challenge you. The notion is if you’re going to create something really high quality online, with the same degree of rigor, you need to engage with other smart, thoughtful, driven students who you’d experience on campus as well.”

2U’s merit lies in the opportunities it provides students, Vigdor said, noting that Semester Online allows students to take more specialized courses they might not otherwise have access to on campus due to low enrollment.

“Out of 6,000 undergraduates, there might be five students interested in taking a course of a relatively obscure subject—but something of great interest to those five,” Vigdor said. “The promise of 2U is that you can take five students here, and a few students from other universities that are partners, and you group them together. You take advantage of economies of scale that way.”

Participation in Semester Online courses will be limited to students enrolled at the participating universities and a select few others, chosen through an application process.

Duke students will be able to take advantage of Semester Online during time abroad or during the summer, Lange said. The online courses offered by Duke and the other universities involved in the initiative—including the University of Notre Dame, Northwestern University and Vanderbilt University—may constitute a worthy and convenient alternative to taking summer courses for credit at other local universities or community colleges.

Logistics have not yet been determined with regard to how many 2U courses may be taken for credit, and what Trinity Requirements they will fulfill. Many of these parameters will be up to the discretion of professors offering the courses, Lange said.

A growing field

Duke is experimenting in a very new field, Lange said, noting that Coursera did not exist one year ago. The two platforms offer different benefits for the University, he said.

“We’re learning a lot through the Coursera courses we’re offering about things we can do for our own courses,” he said. “How do we use group discussion, how do we use online materials, can we construct online—not face-to-face—experiences that are richer? There’s a lot to learn from this experience.”

On-campus teaching has been bolstered by the experience of offering online content, Noor said. Students in his class next semester will be able to watch online lectures instead of doing textbook readings for homework, allowing time for more interesting activities and deeper engagement with material during class time.

The University’s willingness to explore such uncharted waters in the field of higher education demonstrates the flexibility it wields as a relatively young institution, Vigdor noted. The current climate of economic instability fosters the need for experimentation and innovation, he said, adding that Duke can pull out of the ventures if it determines that they are not beneficial.

Junior Danish Husain said he has used online platforms in the past, such as MIT OpenCourseWare and Khan Academy, both of which post course materials and lectures online. These resources have proven useful as reinforcements for difficult concepts, Husain said, noting that the online materials are particularly helpful for math and science courses. Online higher education fits into modern trends of globalization, he added.

Husain said he is looking forward to the launch of Semester Online, noting that apart from getting credit, one of the main draws is the opportunity to learn in a new environment.

“Getting to know people outside of Duke University is always a plus,” he said.