At the Founders' Day Convocation Friday, the Duke Alumni Association awarded the Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award to Mohammed Noor, Earl D. McLean Professor of biology and chair of the biology department. A panel of undergraduates selected Noor for the award, citing him as a pioneer in online education and innovative teacher and researcher. We would like to congratulate Noor, who is highly deserving of the award, and use this as an opportunity to consider the University’s attempts to expand online education at Duke.
Noor is known at Duke for using the flipped classroom model and online educational platforms to transmit his lectures to a large number of students around the world. Honoring Noor partially for his involvement in online education shows Duke’s renewed commitment to expanding online course offerings.
Despite encountering opposition from some faculty and students, Duke’s administration continues to explore opportunities to promote online learning. In July, Duke appointed Lynne O’Brien to serve as the University’s first associate vice provost for digital and online education initiatives—a position created to oversee Duke's experiments with online education. O’Brien’s appointment suggests that Duke plans to proceed more carefully and deliberately as it develops its approach to online education.
Earlier attempts to integrate online courses into Duke’s curriculum were met with significant resistance. Last semester, the Arts and Sciences Council voted against for-credit online courses, blocking the University’s proposed partnership with 2U, an internet education company.
Faculty opposed the partnership with 2U not only because many faculty members have concerns about online education, but also because they felt the administration had failed to solicit or consider their input. Some professors felt that the administration dove headfirst into online education without adequately consulting with them on the subject.
Although faculty have many legitimate concerns about online courses, some of the opposition to online education derives from knee-jerk reaction to change and misunderstandings about what online education would look like at Duke.
This semester, Duke seems to be tackling the issue in a more productive way, and we commend the administration for proceeding more slowly. Duke should continue to build up the institutions necessary for a structured approach to online education and give more weight to the input of faculty members. Faculty members not only have a right to contribute to University-wide decisions, but they are also primarily responsible for successfully implementing Duke’s online education initiatives. Their support is essential.
Online education offers considerable opportunities for the University. If implemented carefully and selectively, it promises to enhance the learning experience of Duke students and students around the world. Although online courses have proven valuable in certain contexts—as Noor’s success illustrates—much work remains to ensure that they are appropriate and useful in other disciplines.
For these reasons, the administration should seek faculty input early and consider it seriously. Noor’s flipped classroom teaches us that embracing digital technologies in the classroom can improve educational access and quality. It will require commitment and ingenuity like his if we hope to expand this model into new academic territories.