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The Believer: Duke’s Sally Kornbluth

Duke’s provost says there’s no question that students are getting value from online learning.

Of all the U.S. universities offering free online courses to the world, Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, is among the most active. Its professors have filled Coursera’s distance-learning platform with 30 courses, in subjects ranging from astronomy to dog emotions. Since 2013, the university has assigned one administrator exclusively to digital and online education initiatives. There’s even a collection of sunny haikus about online education on Duke’s website.

“A few years ago, the question was ‘Should we be teaching online or shouldn’t we?’ says Duke provost Sally Kornbluth, a geneticist by training. “That conversation has passed. Now it’s a conversation about what kinds of innovative things we can do.” In a discussion with MIT Technology Review contributing editor George Anders, Kornbluth explained why Duke is bullish about online education—and what new opportunities lie ahead.

Universities have been relying on books, lectures, and seminars since the 1400s. Does online learning provide a fourth channel that can rival the others?
It’s supplementary. It hasn’t replaced in-person lectures or books. But there’s no question that students are finding it another avenue for getting the information they want. Frequently, that’s complementary to traditional settings. In other words, they’re looking for more background. Online learning actually enriches their in-person experience.

Tell me more about blended learning—where instructors use a mix of online tools and classroom settings. How much is that happening at Duke, and what are the results?
We have a lot of “flipped classroom” education going on. It’s not in every corner of the university, but you will see plenty of situations where students do online exercises or watch material online ahead of class. Then faculty can use class time for experiential learning or discussions, rather than straight-on delivery of didactic material. Students still get in-person interactions with fellow students and the faculty. We create touch points that interface with the technology, rather than having the technology be stand-alone.

Which specific techniques in online education strike you as game changers?
I’m really interested in the trend toward bite-sized pieces of education. The first MOOCs were replicas of the traditional, full-semester experience. Now, though, we’re seeing professors offer 15-minute modules, or three-week pop-up courses. People are experimenting with a lot of formats that break with traditional content delivery. In fact, I caught my son taking online physics courses at Yale, watching them at double speed.

What’s the impact of MOOCs on the way your professors do their jobs?
At Duke, it’s revitalized the notion of pedagogic innovation, in a way that’s spilled out of the online space and into the regular classroom. You can take your base course, add some content, and then re-tailor it for alumni education or executive education. You can interact directly with people all over the world to address a common issue. Or if you’re wondering how you can possibly read 400,000 essays, you can have 400,000 students read one another’s essays. There’s a lot of unexplored power that can be harnessed.

What are some issues associated with online learning that you haven’t solved?
One of the things we haven’t grappled with is how online teaching factors into things like promotions and tenure. Right now it doesn’t have a formal role; it’s still just an add-on. And at the undergraduate level, we aren’t offering stand-alone online courses for credit. That would be a much more serious conversation that would involve a lot of faculty discussion and approval. I really don’t know the answer to that at this point.

When people apply to study at Duke, is MOOC completion a relevant factor yet, in terms of how the admissions office sizes up candidates?
It’s really interesting. We aren’t yet doing anything on an aggregate level. But we have been seeing home-schooled kids who took a couple of our classes online to see if they could do Duke-level work. Also, faculty who have been teaching MOOCs have reached out to their best students internationally and have encouraged them to come to Duke as graduate students. So MOOCs are entering the larger universe of recruiting modes for us.

How well can we gauge whether online students have mastered the material?
We have a pretty robust assessment process. We have staff dedicated to seeing whether students are really getting what we hope for out of the classes. I get the feeling it’s going pretty well.

Online education providers are still working out their business models. What approaches seem wisest to you?
It’s tough. A lot of the original motivation for MOOCs was altruistic—connecting worldwide with people who might not have access to a Duke-level education. I think a lot of faculty members are still really motivated by that. Being paid or for-profit takes that away. Charging for accreditation seems reasonable, but you almost have to have waivers equivalent to financial aid.

Have you tested out any MOOCs yourself, as a clandestine student?
I always wanted to take a good biostatistics class. I tried one, but then I realized that my college math skills had become so rusty that I would have needed to back up and do a more introductory course first. Right now, I just don’t have the time. But when I retire, I’ll take some.

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