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Coursera connections: Examining online education at Duke

Vincent Price spearheaded online initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania

When Vincent Price, provost of the University of Pennsylvania, takes over Duke’s top office in July, he will bring with him his wife, decades of experience in academia, two dogs and a passion for online learning initiatives.

Coursera is an online platform that allows faculty at institutions like Penn and Duke to teach massive open online courses. Price served as the founding chair of Coursera’s University Advisory Board from 2012 to 2015 and was influential in Penn becoming one of the first four universities to start using the platform in 2012. Duke currently offers 50 MOOCs on Coursera, up from 42 in Fall 2015. Penn currently offers 80 MOOCs—the highest number of any U.S. institution using Coursera, according to the website.

When Price was announced as Brodhead's successor, Price spoke a number of times about the importance of online education.

"I think Duke is very well positioned, having made investments in online learning and teaching, to capitalize on those technologies to redefine the way we do our research and how we teach, so I think meeting that challenge is an important one," he said in an interview with The Chronicle.

Ed Rock, former director of online learning initiatives at Penn and current professor of law at New York University, said that Price's leadership was key in bringing online learning to Penn. 

“Having Provost Price become your president promises that Duke will continue to be a leader in online learning and, more importantly, in ways in which online learning can improve learning on campus,” Rock said. 

During his time at Penn, Price secured a large grant from the Association of American Universities to use technology to improve STEM teaching. He used his knowledge of the governance structure, as the former chair of the faculty senate, to gain support for initiating the University’s relationship with Coursera in January 2012, Rock explained.

“I don’t think we had any outcry, problems or resistance from faculty as we moved forward, which I think clashed with the experience of other universities,” Rock said. “This is really because Provost Price believes in shared governance and the consultation of faculty.”

In contrast, Duke's Arts and Sciences Council, the faculty governing body of Trinity College, has previously voted against joining an online education company known as 2U to provide online courses.

In Fall 2013, the Council voted down a proposal 16 to 14 that would contractually engage them with 2U. Although the vote did involve online learning, Thomas Robisheaux, chair of the Arts and Sciences Council at the time and a professor of history, said that it “was more complicated than that.”

The faculty had numerous concerns regarding the agreement, ranging from the flexibility of the online format to issues involving details of the contract.

One important issue, however, was that the proposal faculty voted on would have made the courses offered through 2U count for credit at Duke—a procedural irregularity that many faculty members took issue with, Robisheaux explained.

Regular courses at Duke have to go through an extensive approval process and appear before a standing course committee, but the agreement with 2U would not have subjected the online courses to the same rigorous process.

“There were many faculty members who were very uneasy about a blanket agreement that did not clearly articulate the process of approving credits,” Robisheaux said.

As it stands, the University’s policy towards online courses and whether or not they should count for credit has been left up to its individual schools—with some straying from Trinity’s stance and offering courses for credit.

Lynne O’Brien, associate vice provost for digital and online education initiatives, wrote in an email Wednesday that some schools, such as the Fuqua School of Business, the Pratt School of Engineering, the School of Medicine and the Divinity School’s master’s degree programs include for-credit coursework online. 

Many faculty members, however, have turned to Coursera to offer MOOCs instead. 

Leonard White, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery and neuroscience at Duke, has been teaching a medical neuroscience Coursera course since 2013. He said that teaching the class online has shown him the passion and creativity of the learners, and that the course has been well-received.

He said he uses the videos produced for the online course to supplement the on-campus class he teaches called “Brain and Behavior." The resources that became available through working with Coursera to create the online course have resulted in better videos for his in-person teaching, he noted.

White added that he would like for departments to be able to consider online courses and decide whether or not to grant credit for them, noting that they often grant students credit for transfer courses with little more than a syllabus to evaluate, whereas they could consider an online course in its entirety.

Mine Cetinkaya-Rundel, who teaches a Coursera course called “Data Analysis and Statistical Inference,” has found the online course to be very beneficial for students in her on-campus Statistics 101 course, which is taught in a flipped-class format.

“I think it’s pretty naïve to think, in this day and age, that you can completely ignore online courses,” she said. “There is a lot out there, a lot of innovation, that can make things easier for students and more enjoyable.”

Bennett Carpenter, a fourth-year PhD candidate in literature, had a different take on online courses from White and Cetinkaya-Rundel.

He wrote in an email Wednesday that technology should not be seen as a “panacea for our social ills,” and cited research out of Penn’s Graduate School of Education as showing that only a fraction of users of their MOOCs ever finish the online courses they start.

“Proponents of MOOCs often tout their 'revolutionary' potential to democratize education and break down barriers to access—whether economic, geographic, racial, gendered or otherwise,” Carpenter wrote. “Yet online education has failed to live up to the hype.”

He criticized Coursera’s for-profit status and business model that “essentially charges users for the privilege of watching YouTube videos,” and referenced Arts and Sciences Council's previous vote against joining the online consortium 2U. He wrote he was concerned that selecting Price means Duke is "gearing up for another push."

O'Brien noted that the Coursera courses Duke currently offers are some of the most highly rated and largest ones on Coursera, and that Price will likely be interested in expanding the University’s stake in the online platform.

“President-elect Price has been an innovator with online education and led successful efforts to implement new online models at the University of Pennsylvania,” she wrote. “I’m sure he will engage with the Duke community to develop plans that extend Duke’s leadership in online education.”

Bre Bradham

Bre is a senior political science major from South Carolina, and she is the current video editor, special projects editor and recruitment chair for The Chronicle. She is also an associate photography editor and an investigations editor. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief and local and national news department head. 

Twitter: @brebradham



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