Duke students who enroll in Denise Comer's next Writing 101 class will receive a set of goals and objectives far more specific and fine-tuned than the course has previously provided.
For that, the students have 80,000 strangers to thank. They will be the beneficiaries of lessons Comer gleaned from her first experience, earlier this year, teaching a MOOC. Short for Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs are part of a new movement in online education with which Duke and dozens of other American universities are now experimenting.
Comer, director of first-year writing with Duke's Thompson Writing Program, taught an online version first-year writing through Coursera, the digital education platform with whom Duke has partnered. It enrolled more than 80,000 students from across the world, a class size Comer quickly realized would require a different sort of teaching and preparation strategy. Now, she's adapting the lessons learned online to her Duke classroom -- and believes she's bettering the Duke classroom experience as a result.
"A couple of years ago, I probably didn't have very specific goals and objectives on the syllabus," Comer said. "My project assignment sheets now have much more specific purposes. I make course materials very transparent now, showing how work relates to our overarching objectives."
More than a dozen Duke faculty members have taught Coursera courses since the university joined the venture in 2012. Comer is among a handful who have already been able to implement resources, tools, technology and ideas gleaned from the Coursera experience in their campus classrooms, where the university's paying customers -- Duke students -- benefit.
"Because our Coursera courses are open-access and non-credit, our faculty have lots of room to innovate and then bring that innovation back to campus courses," said Lynne O'Brien, Duke's associate vice provost for digital and online education initiatives. "This has always been part of our promise in this online education venture -- to use technology and other lessons learned through Coursera to better the experience for our Duke students here on campus."
Among the chief lessons Comer learned in teaching 80,000 students: The value of preparation. With a class that size, you can't possibly answer every student question, so it's in your best interest to anticipate and answer as many questions as possible at the start of the class.
Comer and other Coursera instructors are challenged to hold the interest of students with widely varying interest levels. Some students will see an online course all the way through. Most won't make it to the finish line, unsurprising since the product is free and many students are working adults or other non-traditional students with busy lives.
"I had to try to keep them motivated to stay in the class," Comer said. "Coursera learners need to see a clear purpose for their writing, since they're probably working full-time jobs or have other responsibilities."
Coursera's global reach also has created language challenges for professors dealing with students who don't speak English fluently. For Comer, this cross-cultural exchange has broadened her teaching worldview and enabled her the opportunity to think carefully about how people from other parts of the world approach writing.
"Until you see it from 80,000 perspectives, it's hard to grasp how writing is different within cultures and between different cultures, as well as across individuals," she said.
And her Coursera experience has led to a research project as well. She and chemistry professor Dorian Canelas recently won a $25,000 grant in the MOOC Research Initiative, a project run by Athabasca University and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Their grant analyzes peer-to-peer learning in MOOCs. Essentially, they will examine ways students enrolled in MOOCs work and learn together -- lessons she hopes to eventually adapt to her classroom.
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong has gained a lot from his Coursera experience, including new tools and resources at his disposal. But a lightened workload isn't among the benefits.
The philosophy and ethics professor, who last fall co-taught with UNC-Chapel Hill's Ram Neta one of Coursera's most popular classes -- "How to Reason and Argue" -- is happily using new technology in the Duke version of that course. By utilizing recorded lectures and other digital resources, Sinnott-Armstrong has flipped his classroom, scrapping the traditional lecture almost entirely and using class time to discuss the recorded lectures and other homework assignments. The result appears to be a more engaged classroom experience, though Sinnott-Armstrong reserves final judgment.
"I used to stand up in front of 150 people and just lecture to them, but now maybe 10 percent of the class is lecture," said Sinnott-Armstrong, whose Coursera course in 2012 drew more than 220,000 enrollees. "In my book, it's an experiment. We'll see if the students think it's better."
When he first taught the Coursera version of his course last fall, Sinnott-Armstrong hoped to use the recorded lectures, digital homework exercises and other resources in his Duke classroom. He's still fine-tuning the class, picking and choosing from the new resources and figuring out where they best fit in the course..
"The main gain is not in reducing hours I spend on the course," he said. "The main gain is interacting with more students one on one or in small groups instead of just standing in front of them and hoping some of them are paying attention."
At the conclusion of his most recent Coursera genetics class, Duke biologist Mohamed Noor received an email from an Australian student with a background in software engineering and a desire to help. Within months, that student had helped create "Genetics and Evolution," a free mobile application for iPhones and other Apple devices patterned after Noor's course. It demonstrates class concepts, generates practice problems and runs simulations that Noor presents in his class.
Noor next teaches his on-campus Duke genetics course in the spring. While he can't mandate the app since not all students have Apple devices, those who do can use it to their advantage.
"Students always say they want more practice problems, and this app will generate literally an infinite number of practice problems," Noor said. "It's a tool for students to test themselves and figure out why concepts work the way they do."
The app lets users apply mathematical formulae to random, fictitious populations to test genetic or evolutionary hypotheses, and then lets them know if they got the correct answer.
The student, Russell Myers, is a 48-year-old husband and father of two who works as a software developer in Melbourne. Impressed with the time put in both by Noor and the students in the genetics class, Myers worked on the app because he wanted to give something back to the venture. (See related story.)
While it's largely a tool for students, Noor himself expects to find it helpful as well.
"I use it too," he said. "Hey, I don't want to make up the problems. I'm perfectly happy to use the app to make up practice problems or even some test questions for me!"