Duke University Professor’s MOOC has 180,000 Students
While the launch of new platforms for massively-open online courses, also known as MOOCs, have been getting a lot of attention over the past year, very little has been said about the success of individual courses themselves. But now, a professor of philosophy at Duke University has been garnering quite a bit of attention due to the unprecedented success of his online course in logic that has attracted over 180,000 students from across the world.
Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s course, “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue,” launched in November as the largest course offered by Coursera, which itself hosts over 200 online classes from 33 universities, having attracted 180,000 registered students. Reportedly, some of these students come from places as far away as Fiji, Afghanistan, and Germany.
While debate has recently increased on how MOOCs can be utilized to award academic credits that may be used towards attaining a degree without incurring massive financial loss for traditional educational institutions, Sinnott-Armstrong and his co-teacher, Ram Neta of Universivy of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, view the enormous roster of students for the class as a confirmation of people simply wanting to learn despite inability to attend college by regular means.
“There are millions of people out there who want better education and can’t get it,” Sinnott-Armstrong said. “This is a way to help them.”
For Sinnott-Armstrong, one of the highlights of the course’s success has simply been the feeling of gratification that comes from reaching out to more students than he ever would’ve been able to in his normal academic career at Duke, where he typically teaches between 100 and 200 students a year, or approximately 8,000 over his 40-year career. Compared to the 2.5 million separate views for the videos he has posted on Coursera, Sinnot-Armstrong believes that this new avenue for education is a vital way for educators who are enthusiastic about their subject matter to reach out beyond the regular constraints of the traditional collegiate system.
“I’ve got almost a million downloads of my videos already,” Sinnott-Armstrong said. “I mean, c’mon. That’s just amazing! This is over 20 times as many students as I would reach in my career. If you really believe that your subject matter is important and you want to reach students and teach them a skill that they can use and it’s going to be helpful to them in their everyday lives, then what could be better than reaching so many students so efficiently?”
Critics of the sustainability of MOOCs, however, are less than impressed with the class’s 180,000 student roster, and point to how many of the registered students have continued to actively participate in the course since it began. Over 70,000 of the course’s registered students failed to watch the first video posted, and as of now, roughly 26,000 are now actively participating in the course.
To Sinnot-Armstrong, however, this disparity represents one of the advantages of online education, rather than a failing. The ability to participate in a class on a student’s own terms and only to the extent that their schedule allows for shows that a greater degree of flexibility can only allow more people to learn.
“They just don’t have the time or the motivation or the stamina to do the entire course,” said Sinnott-Armstrong. “They can do what they want and what fits their interest.”
Additionally, according to Sinnott-Armstrong, one of the benefits of fostering an online community has been the level of interaction and assistance between the students. The class’s discussion forum currently has over 24,000 posts, and many students have reportedly gone out of their way to help others understand the material.
“They’re all helping each other and it’s a very nice, cooperative attitude,” he added, “instead of a classroom where people are competing for the best grades and they know that the person in the chair next to them is going to be applying to the same med schools that they’re applying to …. I think it’s inspiring.”