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On the Tuesday after Memorial Day 2012, Duke University Provost Peter Lange called Lynne O'Brien, director of the college's Center for Instructional Technology, with a simple question: Should Duke begin offering MOOCs? And by the way, he added, we have only about a week to decide.
The university quickly gathered faculty members. Professors wanted in. Duke announced in July that it would partner with Coursera and initially offer eight courses. The first, "Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach," began Sept. 24. The instructor, Roger Barr, who looks like Jimmy Carter in suspenders, had taught the same course on campus for 20 years to about 20 to 30 students a semester. Overnight, he was reaching 7,500 from 110 different countries. Dr. O'Brien tracked the MOOC and in February issued a report confirming what other universities have found: Lots of students enroll, but only a handful stick with it. About 300 ended up finishing the class.
This isn't necessarily a sign of failure. MOOCs have more value than the number of people who persevere through the last digital lesson. They offer students more efficient and cheaper ways to learn. The MOOCs track which people watch every video but never bother to take a quiz, helping administrators identify which students are ambitious, which are gifted, and which are merely curious. Even those who only watch a few lectures can glean information: In the Internet Age, after all, most people prefer to buy music by the song, not the album.
O'Brien, in fact, says the Coursera experience has spurred new thinking about campus learning. As professors sought her help, she noticed that no teachers made their MOOC the same length as the standard campus class. "Not a single course is 14 weeks," she says. That raised questions about how content should be broken up. What if a student needs four weeks of a course – but not the whole curriculum?