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Coursera: Teaching to the Masses

A Duke professor gets an education while putting together a free, online course

Part of the Online Learning Series
Duke professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, (left), records a Coursera lecture in his cramped office, which for months was used as a recording studio. A student, Joe Metz, (right), helps with video editing.
Duke professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, (left), records a Coursera lecture in his cramped office, which for months was used as a recording studio. A student, Joe Metz, (right), helps with video editing.

The halls and classrooms of the West Duke building at Duke University are pin-drop quiet on a humid Wednesday afternoon in early August. No students, few faculty, just a couple of staff members traipsing about.

But in his office, door closed, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong is in mid-semester form, lecturing away feverishly, speaking not to students but to a tiny camera on a tripod mount. He's talking about "conversational implication," the notion that a person can impart information not by saying it specifically, but by framing a sentence a certain way or omitting certain details.

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He locks eyes on the camera. His voice rises and falls. He pauses, eyebrows raised. He's into this. You can tell. For Sinnott-Armstrong, professor of philosophy, this is fun.

Watch Sinnott-Armstrong explain the steps to developing his online course.

By day's end, Sinnott-Armstrong will have put the wraps on eight of 18 lectures he's recording for Coursera, a California company that provides an online platform to deliver online courses. Duke has joined a rapidly growing group of universities in the United States and abroad that have partnered with Coursera to provide courses, free of charge, to anyone who wants to try them out. Sinnott-Armstrong, who is always looking for a better way to teach, was one of the first to commit.

Coursera provides a single home for courses from multiple universities. Though students receive no credit, the courses are rigorous. They may include interactive quizzes, collaborative online forums and interactive assignments, along with recorded lectures that students watch.

Sinnott-Armstrong is determined to use Coursera to better his teaching, and to that end he plans to season his recorded lectures with silly, candid moments on campus and elsewhere to help make his points. One day in October, he filmed himself randomly approaching students on campus and loudly pronouncing them man and wife. His lesson then: context matters. If you're in church and a priest marries you, it makes sense to be pronounced man and wife. If a middle-aged philosopher does it to you out on the quad as you head to class, it clearly does not make sense, he'll point out.

The course is called "Think Again: How to Reason and Argue," and Sinnott-Armstrong is co-teaching it with Ram Neta, a UNC-Chapel Hill philosophy professor. It starts in late November and will be the third Duke course to debut under the Coursera banner. Roger Coke Barr's bioelectricity course started in late September, followed closely by an evolution course taught by Mohamed Noor.

These professors are quickly learning the difference between a traditional course and a MOOC - higher-ed shorthand for "massive open online course," which Coursera and other technology companies are championing.

For many faculty, creating an online course isn't nearly as simple as just setting up a video camera to record a series of lectures. Technology questions abound. Should they record themselves in front of a class? At a desk? In a studio? Who does the video editing? How long should their lectures be?

Duke's Office of Information Technology and its Center for Instructional Technology (CIT) are each supporting Coursera faculty with expertise and resources ranging from overall course design and online teaching strategies to the loaning of equipment and help with video editing and other technology needs. The university assigned an intern specifically to help faculty work through copyright issues related to the materials they use in these courses.

Each faculty member receives $20,000 to put toward course development.

It's a new, unusual and untested venture, leading some faculty members to wonder just how much time and energy they should spend on it.

"It's more work than anybody anticipated," says Lynne O'Brien, the head of CIT and director of academic technology and instructional services at Duke's Perkins Library. "People are upbeat and enthused, but it's a lot of work."

Rising Enrollment

Professor Ronen Plesser is also teaching a course on Coursera platform. Watch him describe how he created it.

Sinnott-Armstrong isn't intimidated. He has long infused video into his lectures and has a background in radio as well, having been a regular guest on a local radio show while a member of the faculty at Dartmouth College, where he worked from 1981 to 2009.

As summer turns to fall, he has continued tweaking his Coursera lectures, all the while marveling at the popularity of the course he's still creating. Soon after it was announced, 10,000 people signed up; then 20,000, then more and more.

By September, the burgeoning enrollment pushed him to make the class even better.

"This is going to be a production; I want it to be entertaining and engaging," he says in September. "Not everything will do that. Not everyone wants to. And it doesn't fit all subject matter. You don't need a lot of jokes, for example, in a course about death and dying."

Part of Sinnott-Armstrong's ease in front of the camera stems from work he does speaking to doctors, lawyers and other industry groups, audiences entirely different from the 20-something college students in his Duke classes.

That experience is paying off now, Sinnott-Armstrong says, because the students enrolled in his Coursera course will likely come from all walks of life, including professional folks in the middle of their careers and retirees who may have never studied philosophy.

"You change the message to fit the audience," he says. "A lot of professors only ever talk to their students and their colleagues."

Sinnott-Armstrong wants to provide a quality course for all these students he'll never meet. He craves interaction, yet knows he can't have it. If he does, it might overwhelm him. What if just one percent of his students email him with questions?

"Whoa! That's a lot!" he says. "I'm a bit apprehensive about what will happen. I just don't know."

Because a professor can't provide feedback to tens of thousands of students, Coursera encourages students to help each other. It provides discussion boards through which students can ask and answer questions among themselves.

In an early October speech at Duke, Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller, a Stanford University professor, said the average time it takes students to respond to each other's questions posted on a discussion board is 22 minutes, adding "That's a response time I've never offered in my classes."

An international audience

So far Duke faculty are teaching 10 courses on Coursera. Watch the introductory videos for the classes.

Faculty are also preparing lectures with wholly different audiences in mind. While most of the students signed up for Duke's Coursera classes so far are from the United States, tens of thousands hail from other parts of the world, including Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom, India and elsewhere.

A pop culture devotee, Sinnott-Armstrong will often drop references to politics, current events and even pop music into his lectures. But with Coursera, language and cultural divides may prompt him to restrain himself.

"Ram and I are planning to include a lot of pop culture references, but we are trying to put them in context so that anyone can understand the main points," Sinnott-Armstrong says. "We decided to use them to make the course lively, but also because our impression is that many international students will want to learn more about American and British culture while they're learning to reason and argue."

It is now early November, just a few weeks from the start of Sinnott-Armstrong's foray into the world of online education for the masses. And it will truly be for the masses. Week after week, as Sinnott-Armstrong recorded lectures, dabbled with fun extra features and pondered this new venture, enrollment continued to soar. By the second week of October, enrollment topped the 100,000 mark, an achievement that is both invigorating and intimidating for this longtime college professor.

In fact, the fast-climbing enrollment has caused him to make some last-minute changes to how Coursera students will experience the class.  As the numbers rose, Sinnott-Armstrong realized that some early lectures, while fine for Duke students, may be too demanding for others, including those who don't speak English perfectly, so he made them optional.

And he has lost sleep pondering the sheer number of students he'll try to serve. He knows a large portion of students enrolled won't make it all the way through. But Sinnott-Armstrong wants to fight for their attention, and he understands the value of a good first impression.

"As the numbers have risen, our assumption has been that many of those people are vaguely interested, want to see how it goes, will try it for a few lectures, but won't stick with it unless we grab them," he says. "So we've revised the first lecture five or six times."

The course begins Nov. 26. More information is available here.