Although faculty rejected a proposed online teaching contract with online education company 2U's Semester Online consortium last spring, the Arts and Sciences Council has committed to pursuing new avenues in online learning. As the expansion to online learning becomes more and more popular, however, the problems associated with such a move—such as decreased student-faculty interaction—have become more apparent. As the University places an added emphasis on online education, it will have to remain extremely proactive in combating the problems that accompany the transition.
A move to online education could prove very beneficial, particularly for large lecture courses. The one-way interaction between teacher and student that characterizes a large lecture class lends itself to an online flipped-classroom format. A move to online education also creates a new opportunity for collaboration between institutions of higher learning. Students at Duke will have much broader access to classes that might not have been available prior to online courses.
But online education does not come without flaws. Many courses in the humanities would not survive in an online-learning environment because they rely on small seminars and human interaction. It is very hard, if not impossible, to digitally reproduce seminar classes where student-to-student interaction is paramount.
Critics of online education also claim that intermingling with other colleges and universities might dilute Duke’s brand and prestige. They believe that, because Duke’s brand is largely a function of peoples’ perception, partnering with a school of lower academic standing would tarnish our reputation. There is nothing wrong with academic collaboration between Duke and other universities though. In fact, partnerships allow for a fuller and richer academic experience.
Although it has some advantages, the new focus on online education forces us to ask the question: can we envision someone earning a full degree from Duke online? The answer is a resounding “no.” The Duke experience—both within the classroom and without—cannot be reproduced in an online class. Not only are there networking and recruiting opportunities on campus, but there are also a slew of co-curricular activities that shape and define the Duke experience in ways that online education cannot. The residential experience, DukeEngage, study abroad and student organizations play a huge role in educating Duke’s students. Moreover, the liberal arts model thrives on informal, non-classroom interactions in which students discuss ideas with each other in an unfiltered environment.As the University moves forward with online education, Duke’s administrators and supporters will have to avidly defend those elements of a liberal arts education that cannot be replaced by an online model. The growing popularity of online courses suggests that, for some fields, the brick-and-mortar university may become unnecessary at some point. The demand for the “college experience” will likely never disappear, but, as online courses replace large lecture classes, small seminar courses and co-curricular activities will become increasingly central to Duke's identity.