For Sallie Ellinwood, it's about networking and updating her professional vocabulary.
For Michael Palko, it's about anytime, anywhere learning.
For Rita Johnston, it's a chance to explore a possible new career direction.
All three Duke employees are taking free online courses offered by Duke in partnership with Coursera, the California-based education company that provides a platform for universities to deliver online courses to thousands around the world.
"The course is coming from Duke, so I know it's going to be high-quality," said Palko, a principal trainer with Duke Health Technology Systems who enrolled in a Coursera course on health care and entrepreneurship. "I've told friends at other places, so we'll all be going back to school together."
Duke employees have more opportunities than ever to expand skills and explore interests with the growth of online learning through "massive open online courses" called MOOCs, as well as services like lyndaCampus, which offers free video tutorials on more than 1,500 topics.
With Coursera and other efforts, Duke is demonstrating its eagerness to experiment and discover the potential of online learning. These new possibilities also raise questions about what role online learning will play in higher education and the workplace.
"Any school that thinks that online learning is the magic bullet that will solve all the problems of education - that's just plain not true," President Richard H. Brodhead said. "There are things you can learn online, and there are things you can only learn in the company and in relationship with other people. The place that gets it right will be the place that offers the best of online learning combined with the best of face-to-face learning."
MOOCs offer employees new ways to connect to Duke's academic mission, said Deb Johnson, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education. At least 10 Duke faculty will participate in the Coursera initiative.
Johnson has always been fascinated by the research of Duke behavioral economist Dan Ariely. This spring, she'll be one of more than 75,000 students taking his six-week online course, "A Beginner's Guide to Irrational Behavior."
"I've been intrigued by snippets I've seen online, and I would love to understand and learn more without taking a whole class," Johnson said. "And with Duke's focus on innovation in teaching, I thought the best way to get a feel for online learning would be to experience it."
That experimentation brings opportunities and challenges for a workforce, Ariely said.
"With online education, people can take classes in their own time and engage with others. There's a real hope of lifelong learning, which would be good for employers and for employees," Ariely said. "The real question is, are people going to have the self-discipline to do the work, and will the workplace be flexible enough to allow them the time? The challenge is how to make learning part of the work experience."
Michael Palko, a principal trainer with Duke Health Technology Systems, won first prize during a Duke "photowalk" last year. He honed his iPhone photography skills by exploring lyndaCampus video tutorials.
For now, most employees are fitting in online learning when they can.
Palko, the principal trainer with Duke Health Technology Systems who is part of the MaestroCare team, used lyndaCampus video tutorials - available free through Duke - to learn how to create diagrams in Microsoft Visio. That led to him exploring other tutorials in iPhone photography, a personal interest. In his spare time, he honed his skills and one of his photos won a Duke contest.
"The real benefit is that it's all accessible on a mobile device, so I can watch any tutorial, whether work or personal, when I get a break at lunchtime or if I'm waiting at the doctor's office," he said. "I can take advantage of that anytime access."
He's looking forward to taking Duke's Coursera course on health care and entrepreneurship as a way to connect beyond Duke as well. "I see Duke getting bigger and wider, and folks working together aren't always in the same geographic area. Online learning can bring a lot of people together wherever they are, and save on cost," he said.
Christine Vucinich, right, training coordinator for Duke's Office of Information Technology, looks over the lynda.com website with Alonzo Felder, an IT analyst at Duke, during a recent "tips and tricks" session on lynda.com.
Online learning allows employees to continue professional development in a perpetually changing work environment, said Christine Vucinich, training coordinator for Duke's Office of Information Technology. More than 2,500 Duke staff, faculty and students have viewed a video tutorial through lyndaCampus in the past six months, she said.
"The technology we use at Duke and in our personal lives is constantly evolving," Vucinich said. "What's attractive about the lyndaCampus service is that new tutorials are added regularly. That helps us stay on the cutting edge."
Sallie Ellinwood, director of development for the School of Nursing, had never taken an online course before but enrolled in two Coursera courses - one in nutrition from the University of California at San Francisco and a second in human physiology from Duke.
"I majored in biology, but so much has changed since then. The vocabulary is different, and there are new technologies and new ways of doing things," said Ellinwood, who worked in research and pharmacology for almost two decades. "This seemed like a great way to expand my knowledge, learn some of the new theories about medicine, and connect with people in different geographic areas."
Online learning also has limitations.
Rita Johnston, a digitization specialist in Duke Libraries, enrolled in Duke's Coursera course on evolution and genetics last fall because she's considering science archiving as a career. She was impressed by the high quality of the course content and the level of interaction in the online discussion forums but was surprised by the time commitment required.
"You have to take a lot of initiative to make sure you understand the materials," she said. "You can learn a lot, and it's a great way to explore without committing any money, but you don't get the same level of interactivity with the professors."
Educators are still trying to figure out what works - and what doesn't - in this new learning environment, said Cathy Davidson, a Duke professor of interdisciplinary studies and co-founder of the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory. The group, known as HASTAC, is a network of people who study new forms of learning for the digital age.
She and Ariely are teaching a "meta-MOOC" this spring as a way to explore those questions.
"We're really at the horseless carriage stage of MOOCs. We're taking the lecture - the most traditional form of education - and motorizing it," Davidson said. "Where can we go from here? It's possible for certain kinds of vocations in the future that a college degree will be less important than a constellation of classes, some face-to-face, some online. It is also possible that in the future we'll be taking 'refresher' classes lifelong. Education is more important than ever, in other words. We just don't know the form it will take in every situation."
In today's workplace, where the average worker will change careers four to six times, Davidson's advice to employees is simple: First, know yourself.
"Research shows that most of us don't know how we learn best," she said. "Think about what you want, what you need, and what your best ways of learning are. Then shop around. There's a lot out there, and there's nothing to lose. Even shopping makes you a more digitally literate citizen."