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Duke ethics professor teaches thousands how to argue

This Fall, ethics professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong launched an online class on Coursera, which now has the largest enrollment of any class on the site.
This Fall, ethics professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong launched an online class on Coursera, which now has the largest enrollment of any class on the site.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Chauncey Stillman professor of practical ethics, launched the highest-enrolled course last Fall on Coursera, the massively open online education platform. He teaches “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue” with Ram Neta, associate professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Shortly after its inception, the course boasted the largest enrollment of any Coursera class. The course is the third to appear under the Duke banner and is offered free of charge. The Chronicle sat down with Sinnot-Armstrong to discuss the opportunities of the new online initiative, the institution’s global trajectory and quick fundamentals on assessing arguments.

The Chronicle: In the Fall, enrollment for your course, “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue” was the highest in Coursera. How many students are currently signed up?

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong: Currently, there are well over 180,000 enrolled students. I think that the highest it’s been was 187,000. Someone told me that enrollment in Dan Ariely’s course [“A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior”] recently passed mine. My course and his actually complement each other quite well: His class is also about decision making, but it’s more from a psychological and empirical point of view. If you take those two courses simultaneously, you would have a really cool curriculum.

TC: What do you believe has been so appealing to students on a global scale about your course?

WS: Everybody makes decisions, and everybody wants to make better decisions. Everybody forms beliefs, and everyone wants to form better beliefs. Arguments help us make better decisions and form better beliefs. This course is useful to everyone—that makes it have a broad appeal. It is a practical course aimed at teaching people how to improve their thinking and their decision making. So, it appeals not just to academics, but people out in the world who want to improve their logic.

TC: Do you view the courses on Coursera as enhancing or competing with the traditional courses students receive on campus?

WS: I have never taught this course [on campus]. But, what I plan to do is to offer it in the Fall. The idea is to flip the classroom and have students watch the videos on Coursera and do all the exercises and quizzes, all of which will comprise about half of their grade. The other half will come from the work done in small groups with either me or other instructors and TAs. During this portion of the course, students would be asked to turn in short writing assignments and assess each other’s writing. Peer assessment will take up a large component of this section so that students can learn from each other how to write effectively.

TC: From your own experience in preparing for the course, do you foresee the large amount of work required for professors to convert their course into an online format as a hindrance from entering Coursera?

WS: The amount of time that you have to put into a project is always a barrier, and Coursera is no exception. I was lucky in that I did not have any courses to teach this Fall, so I was able to put in a lot of time preparing. It would be very difficult—if not impossible—for me to have put that much time into the course if I had had to teach two courses at the same time. I would recommend to other professors that they begin preparation over the summer because to try to do all of this work during the teaching term would be difficult.

TC: What is the role of online education in today’s landscape of higher education?

WS: I don’t think it has one single role, but what I consider to be the primary role is to make high-quality education available to a wider range of people—not only people in the United States but also people overseas. Two-thirds of my students are from outside the United States and many of them do not have access to this type of instruction. To many people, this provides life opportunities that they never hoped for in prior years.

TC: What are your thoughts on the recent expansion of the University—whether it be via the web with Coursera or its expansion into China with Duke Kunshan University? Should we continue on that global trajectory?

WS: Yes, definitely. I think Duke has so much to offer. It would be a shame if what the [institution] had to offer was limited only to Americans. As I understand it, one of Duke’s slogans is “knowledge in service to society” and this program fulfills that slogan perfectly.

TC: In a subject like philosophy, where discussion is essential, what are the benefits or disadvantages of teaching it to a class so large?

WS: The disadvantage for me is that I don’t get to engage in those discussions as much as I would like. But, I’m not sure that’s a disadvantage for students, because they are able to access the forums and hear what other students think. I have been amazed by the level of sophistication of some of the people within the forums, especially their ability to explain the concepts better than I did.

If students go to the forums and help each other out, there’s not that much loss in discussion. It is simply that the discussion occurs over email, or over the web in the form of Google hangouts and chat rooms. The report by PBS NewsHour showed a particular group that met in a bar in San Francisco to discuss the course materials—a great example of how there can still be discussion in these large groups. It just takes a bit more effort.

I suppose the biggest disadvantage is that when there’s a discussion group in a course, everyone is required. [However,] when there is a forum or a meeting in a bar in San Francisco, there’s no requirement, which means that some students won’t get as much out of the course as they would if they were required [to partake in discussion]. It also means, on the other hand, that students who don’t have the time to go to those discussion groups will still get what they are able to get out of the course.

TC: If there is one thing that you hope students will take away from “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue,” what would it be?

WS: The goal of arguments is not to beat down your opponents and make them look silly and make you look good. Instead, the point of understanding arguments is to understand people because you don’t understand another person’s views unless you understand the reasons why they hold that view—that is what you learn from looking carefully at their arguments.


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