Len White on Building an Online Community -- one Hashtag at a Time

Neuroscience professor Len White discusses using social media tools to create a community for students in his online course

Len White and a student from China who sought White out after taking his MOOC course.
Len White and a student from China who sought White out after taking his MOOC course.

Len White encountered an unusual sight outside his office one day: a young man waiting for him with a suitcase.

White didn’t know the man. But the man knew White through the neuroscience course White teaches through Coursera, the online platform through which Duke distributes MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses.

White’s course, which has enrolled more than 132,000 students in 193 nations since its inception in 2012, had struck such a chord with the man that he left his native China – where he was a medical student -- to come to the US seeking neurosurgery opportunities. He planted himself outside White’s door that day simply to say thank you, one stop in his travels to American medical centers.

“He realized he wanted to become a neurosurgeon, and he did not have that idea before he took the course,” White recounted Tuesday during the annual CIT Showcase put on by Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology. “It was a powerful moment.”

White’s professional life has been filled with such moments since first tackling the neuroscience MOOC four years ago. He went into it determined to build a sense of community around the course, and says now the heavy use of online tools and social media have helped him succeed.

He built the course to be less a series of lectures and more a collection of online tutorials, better to connect closely with students – or ‘active learners,’ in the parlance of online education – scattered across the globe.

He said Tuesday he used Google Hangouts to talk with small groups of students who can see each other on the screen. He designed course lecture videos to be short – his average 13 minutes – in order to better fit the desires of students who dip in and out of the course as they have time.

And, leaning on Duke technology specialists who help faculty design online courses, he used social media channels like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to connect with students and personalize the academic experience. The class created a hashtag -- #getneuro – that encouraged students to share photos of themselves in their own learning environments.

Students responded with loads of photos – some serious, some less so. Not surprisingly, many included photos of their pets.

“It’s been a really wonderful way to be more personal,” White said of the social media engagement.

Tuesday’s CIT Showcase, now in its 16th year, puts on display the many ways Duke faculty and staff use technology to improve education.