Provost Peter Lange presents at Academic Council Thursday, responding to faculty questions and concerns regarding Duke Kunshan University
Jisoo Yoon / The Chronicle
Provost Peter Lange presents at Academic Council Thursday, responding to faculty questions and concerns regarding Duke Kunshan University

Academic Council members added their input to an increasingly prominent debate over the role of online technology in education at their meeting Thursday.

The second part of a three-part series recognizing the council’s 50th anniversary—Council Conversations—focused on the burgeoning influence of technology on shaping the future of education. Peter Burian, dean of the humanities and professor of classical and comparative literature and theater studies, moderated a discussion that touched on the advent of massive open online courses—such as those held on 2u and Coursera, both of which Duke uses—among other topics involving technology in the classroom.

“Education for young people is more than what they get in the classroom,” said Dr. Brenda Armstrong, associate dean of medical education and director of admissions for the School of Medicine. “It’s education by example in many cases. It’s how you integrate into a community and how you communicate... the notion of leadership.”

Burian asked a panel of three faculty members, including Armstrong, whether or not Duke instructors should integrate new educational technology into their classes.

“It’s not so much a ‘should’ question, as simply an ‘are’ question,” said Ian Baucom, professor of English and director of the Franklin Humanities Institute. “It’s emerging organically. I don’t know colleagues who are not in some ways rethinking their classes.”

Mohamed Noor, professor and associate chair of biology, taught 30,000 students through his Coursera course, Genetics and Evolution, last semester. This semester, Duke students enrolled in his classes are participating in a “flipped classroom” approach, which involves students watching pre-recorded lectures before class in order to hold advanced discussions during class.

The novel approach has resulted in better discussions and exceptionally high midterm grades, Noor said.

“Now we’re spending a lot of time on advanced problems with the assumption that they know the basic concepts. I can spend class time actually interacting with them instead of talking at them,” he noted.

The increased workload brought about by the video lectures is a concern, Noor said, adding that instructors should attempt to alleviate this burden where they can.

Another concern was that online coursework could erode the sense of community fostered by personal interactions between peers and faculty.

Baucom mentioned his freshman seminar last Fall—a class in which 15 students read novels, held discussions and wrote essays—as an example of a course that would be considerably less effective if taught online.

Joshua Socolar, professor of physics, pointed out that younger students have grown up accustomed to the globalization brought about by rapidly advancing technology.

“Reproducing the conditions that worked for us may not be the best thing for this generation,” he added.

In response, Armstrong acknowledged the generational differences, but noted that technology should be complementary to education, not a driving force.

“There are some aspects of human interactions that have not changed,” Armstrong said. “Those are not negotiable.”

In other business

Provost Peter Lange addressed faculty concerns raised after the recent announcement of the delayed opening of Duke Kunshan University, as well as increased funding for construction oversight.

The delay will not cause any financial pressures on the University’s academic programs, Lange said.

“We are providing the oversight we think we need in order to ensure the quality that we want,” Lange said. “We’re confident after these discussions... over the last few months, we will in fact get that quality.”

He noted that DKU would account for just $10 million, or 3 percent, of the $363 million budgeted by the Office of Global Strategy and Programs’ strategic initiatives and programs fund over the next five years. Academic programs receive the majority of the SIP funds.

The most recent estimate for Duke’s investment in DKU operational costs is $41 million over the next eight years, Lange added. This is in comparison to $38.4 million over seven years, an estimate from Spring 2012.

Lange provided a similar update at the Arts and Sciences Council meeting last Thursday.

Council Chair Susan Lozier, Ronie-Richele Garcia-Johnson professor of physical oceanography, announced that the administration is considering changes to employee retirement benefits due to University finance constraints. But there are currently no proposals to reduce faculty compensation. The council plans to hold these discussions at the March meeting.

Socolar was named the next chair of the Academic Council and will occupy that position from 2013 to 2015.

The council voted in favor of the proposal of converting the School of Medicine’s Division of Neurology into a department.