Duke's Free Online Courses Proving Popular

More than 157,000 people have signed up for Duke courses offered through Coursera

Community members can take a class on astronomy with Duke's Ronen Plesser through Coursera. Source: Nick Risinger through Wikimedia Commons.
Community members can take a class on astronomy with Duke's Ronen Plesser through Coursera. Source: Nick Risinger through Wikimedia Commons.

The prospect of free, online Duke courses is proving popular.

More than 157,000 people worldwide have signed up for the eight Duke courses thus far advertised through Coursera, the California company with whom the university is partnering with to disperse higher education to the masses.

Duke officials and faculty members involved with Coursera say they weren't sure what to expect from the venture and are ecstatic with the initial response. Duke was one of a dozen universities in the United States and beyond to formally partner with Coursera in mid-July.

Those 12 institutions followed four -- Stanford, Princeton, Michigan and Penn -- that joined with Coursera at its founding a year earlier.

In early August, Coursera announced that total enrollments had topped one million, less than a year after the company's debut.

"Our huge enrollment shows that many people from all walks of life, all cultural backgrounds and all points of view want to learn how to think about the issues that matter to them," said Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, a Duke philosophy professor preparing a Coursera class on reason and logic.

Sinnott-Armstrong is co-teaching that course with Ram Neta, a UNC-Chapel Hill faculty member. More than 50,000 students have already signed up, the largest enrollment among Duke's Coursera offerings.

"I never imagined that I would have so many students in my entire career," Sinnott-Armstrong said. "It would take hundreds of years to reach that number of students in a normal classroom."

Provost Peter Lange said he's encouraged both by the early enrollment numbers and the reaction to the Coursera partnership on campus. The university will continue recruiting more faculty to take part, he added.

"We have had a number of faculty ask when they might be able to join," he said. "We've also had a number of inquiries at a more detailed level about how the whole process works."

Lange and other Duke officials emphasize Duke's involvement with Coursera is largely experimental now, with plenty of questions still to be answered. Will online lectures prove as effective as face-to-face learning? How many students will take the work seriously? And can a professor interact much at all with a class of 40,000?

Another key question: Given that the product is free and no degree is granted, how many students will do all the work and follow a course through from start to finish?

"We don't know how many individuals who enrolled in these courses will be active participants," said Lynne O'Brien, director of academic technology and instructional services for Duke University Libraries. "Some people are just browsing and not likely to complete the course while others will participate fully. One thing we want to understand is the different motivations people have for taking our courses."

Duke's first Coursera offering will be a bioelectricity course taught by Professor Roger Coke Barr. It debuts in late September. Two more will follow in late November, with several others slated for spring. Their lengths will vary.