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The making of a massive online course

Team works behind the scenes to build Coursera 'MOOC'

Part of the Online Learning Series

Ronen Plesser arrived with his whole bag of tricks: a hot-pink bowling ball, a vacuum pump, a transparent globe, a Slinky, and a collection of light bulbs and carabiners.

Plesser, a Duke professor who has taught physics for more than 20 years, brought his best lessons to Duke Media Services' on-campus studio. His audience: 35,000 students almost as geographically dispersed as the stars in the nighttime sky. That's the current enrollment in his introductory astronomy course, one of 10 massive open online courses (MOOCs) Duke is offering through Coursera.

"I've never done a video of this, so I don't know yet how to optimize for it," said Plesser, who brought his props to the studio to record demonstrations of key astronomy concepts (the vacuum pump, for example, helps illustrate why there’s no water on the moon). "But I'm excited to see what we can do.As faculty members take center stage in sharing their courses with more students than they'd once hoped to teach in a lifetime, universities are learning that it takes a team behind the scenes to deliver this new kind of course to a worldwide classroom.

"We've been recording lectures for a long time, but I don't think anyone at Duke has experience in teaching in this kind of environment," said Lynne O'Brien, director of the Center for Instructional Technology. "There's a huge learning curve, and we're building infrastructure and processes while we do it. But we have been well-prepared because Duke has encouraged messy experimentation with technology. There's a culture for the faculty and staff that encourages people to try it and figure it out, even if it's not always perfect or smooth."

That's one reason Duke is offering more courses with Coursera than any other university, O'Brien said: "We wanted to try different subjects, different styles of teaching, and learn from the experience."

Some of the earliest decisions involved the basics of course planning: How might you structure a course if you don't have to deliver it in 14 weeks of 50-minute sessions? "Once people are freed of the standard way of doing things, their imaginations take flight, and that has been fun," O'Brien said.

Duke's Center for Instructional Technology assigned two consultants to each course, helping faculty members determine the optimal duration and structure, keeping in mind that materials might be reused in a variety of ways later.

Next came decisions about how to record and edit videos, working around the schedules of highly in-demand faculty.

Duke staff quickly put together video "kits" that included a laptop, high-quality camera, tripod, external microphone, cabling and recording software for faculty who wanted to record their own videos.

Some instructors worked in Duke's newly renovated Multimedia Project Studio or (like Plesser) in Duke Media Services' on-campus studio.

The volume of media "assets" -- more than 90 videos were produced in about six weeks for Duke's first Coursera course -- immediately raised questions about how much content to archive, and how.

"We haven't had time to figure out a long-term solution, but we have a solution that works now and will give us time to figure out what to do," said Elizabeth A. Evans, who’s directing video production as part of Duke's Office of Information Technology.

Duke also hired an intern to help navigate tricky copyright issues, tracking down open versions of images and working with publishers to gain access to textbooks and journal articles.

"Some things that are OK to do as fair use in a classroom aren't OK to do in MOOCs," O’Brien said. "The publishing world is not sure how to deal with this. One of our faculty is in the uncomfortable position that he can't assign readings of his own journal articles (due to copyright issues)."

Meanwhile, Duke also is seeking to quantify just what's involved in building a MOOC. And as the first Duke courses get under way, staff are sifting through a vast wave of student data, trying to get their arms around assessment on a grand scale.

"The big question everyone has is: Who's out there? Who signed up and why, and what do they hope to get out of it?" said Yvonne Belanger, program director for Duke Libraries.

Early numbers provide some answers: About two-thirds of the 11,000 registered students in Duke's first MOOC, for example, hail from outside the U.S. In the first weeks, about 5,000 signed on to the site, watched a video or took a quiz. (A substantial chunk of students admitted in an early questionnaire that they plan to only do just a little bit of the course.)

Most interesting, though, is the feedback on the discussion board, where the most popular thread was a "thank you" to the professor.

"Students are hugely appreciative of the opportunity to participate in this kind of learning," said Belanger, who described the feel as less like a class and more like an informal learning community. "From the very first day, we've seen students forming virtual or in-person study groups," organizing Facebook groups, Google hangouts and in-person meetings in locations as far-flung as Russia, Brazil, Greece, Australia, China and India.

"We don't know whether what we're seeing is typical. We’ll start to connect with other schools and compare, because we all want to start learning from each other. That will be part of the future," Belanger said. 

In the meantime, the project has inspired faculty who aren't participating with Coursera to explore new possibilities for their own courses.

"This will impact on-campus teaching and learning in ways we did not imagine when we started," Belanger said. "It's important to Duke to focus on innovation in teaching, and this looks like an effective vehicle for doing that."

For more on Coursera and Duke's other online ventures, click here.