What does it take to prepare a Duke Coursera course?

In the past few weeks, the first courses from Duke’s Coursera experiment have been getting underway.  What’s been involved behind the scenes to get the courses off the ground?

Planning and materials preparation for the courses actually started several months ago shortly after Duke’s initial slate of courses was announced.  Staff in Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology and Office of Information Technology quickly pulled together resources and processes that faculty could use to plan and create their Coursera sites.

The CIT has organized bi-weekly meetings for faculty, teaching assistants and staff supporting the Coursera courses to learn about features of the platform and share experiences with planning and running the courses.  Some of the topics in recent weeks have included creating effective quizzes, managing discussion boards, strategies for using peer assessments in Coursera, and approaches to effective overall design of the course site itself.

Planning the course

CIT consultants prepared a suggested course building process for faculty, highlighting areas they would need to take into consideration when planning their Coursera course.  Some of these areas were typical of building any online distance course, while others were specific to Coursera’s unique model.  The CIT’s recommendations were based on Quality Matters and on an Online Teaching Guide developed by the Duke School of Nursing.

Faculty were encouraged to plan overall learning goals for the course and to arrange those expectations into weekly units that would build towards understanding of concepts students would take away from the course experience.  While this is good practice in any course, Coursera sites require much more detailed thought since the model includes almost no direct interaction with students that might take place in a face to face or small distance learning experience.

With Coursera, students work through pre-planned modules of videos and computer graded exercises, using forums or peer feedback tools to refine their understanding of the course material.  In a sense, Coursera is a hybrid of an old-fashioned mail-based correspondence course combined with a peer learning support network.  The student experience is guided by an expert faculty member, and announcements, forum posts or a short ad-hoc video can be produced to clarify the concepts, but the focus is put on a large number of students working through videos, homework and quizzes with the help and support of their peers.

Because of the worldwide reach of Coursera and varying interests of students, faculty were encouraged in consulting with the CIT to consider aspects of their content that might not be meaningful in other languages, countries and cultures.  Faculty also had to think about how the goals of their course could be useful to someone with the interest and drive to work through all of the material as well as the more casual student that might be looking for a refresher on a topic or simply exploring subject matter for their own personal enjoyment who would drop in and out of the Coursera site.  Finally, students take Coursera courses who range from experts in the subject matter wanting to see new ways of teaching the subject to those with no college experience at all (some courses have 11 year olds), a challenge for faculty who are used to teaching Duke students.

Copyright and Fair Use

Faculty had to rethink commercial material they might use in the course.  Since Coursera’s courses are open to anyone and the US Teach Act would not apply, faculty had to substitute open source and public domain images or video.  The CIT has assisted faculty in suggested sites for Creative Commons and public domain material they can use.  The Library’s Scholarly Communications Officer, Kevin Smith, drew up a set of guidelines for faculty in using material under Fair Use conditions and has also assisted faculty with obtaining permission for copyrighted works – short videos, examples or illustrations from textbooks and other material – essential to the course.  We found that textbook publishers in particular have been interested in cooperating, since many students enrolled in a Coursera course buy the recommended textbook.

Quizzes and homework

During the initial course planning stages, faculty had to plan generally how they would assess what students were learning in the course.  Coursera offers options for quiz questions that can be embedded in videos to give students an opportunity to reflect on concepts just discussed by the faculty member.  Of course, these short embedded quizzes had to be carefully planned in advance since the videos would need to include a place where the lecture would pause for a quiz.

For more reinforcement, faculty designed quizzes or exercises that students could use to test what they have learned.  These are offered for practice and Coursera includes options that allow the faculty member to creatively use the short answer, true/false and multiple choice format with variations for the most student benefit.  For example, a faculty member might offer a true/false question with several variations of the true and false statements on a particular concept given to students at random each time they take the quiz.

Duke faculty and their teaching assistants have entered quizzes in the Coursera system with some assistance from the CIT staff.  Coursera is a relatively new platform, only a few months old, so some of the tools are not as developed as other learning platforms and there is little documentation.  There is no WYSIWYG text editor in the quiz tools, so special formatting has to be entered using HTML coding, and there’s currently no feature for dividing a quiz into sections, for example.

Some of Duke’s faculty are trying Coursera’s Peer Assessment tools in their courses.  Again, unlike a face to face or more traditional and smaller distance course, allowances have to be made for the worldwide audience of the courses in determining timing of the release and due dates of a peer assessment.  Coursera uses a model where students become “certified” with model material before assessing peer work and students have to assess a specific number of peer submissions to allow for some students in the course that might not participate in the assignment.  This all contributes to a slower turn-around time for the assignment that has to be taken into account in planning the overall course calendar.

Video Lectures

In parallel with designing assessments, faculty planned, scripted and recorded lectures for their course modules.  CIT consultants encouraged faculty to keep the video segments short – ten or fifteen minutes at most – in line with established online course design principles.  This is particularly important with students in Coursera, since the course is more self-paced – it gives students a chance to learn about topics in short segments and reinforce what they have just learned with practice quizzes designed around specific concepts.

CIT and OIT worked together to develop a simple Mac-based check-out recording kit, based on recommendations from Coursera, used by faculty for recording most of the video segments.  The kit includes a drawing tablet, high-definition camera and high quality microphone for the best results.  Faculty use Screenflow screen recording software to record video lectures in several formats – professor lecturing alone, with PowerPoint slides, or drawing on slides or a blank screen.  OIT also offered advice to faculty on lighting setup in their office and, through the Multimedia Project Studio, sound proof rooms where faculty could record lectures or do interviews.  OIT has also worked with Duke Media Services to help faculty develop short segments for use in the video lectures of staged experiments and other material or more refined editing options needed for some of the videos.

OIT also provided network space for storage of raw Screenflow projects and video files and archiving of the final videos for later use.  Faculty have used teaching assistants they hired specifically for their Coursera experiment for editing videos or have had additional work done on their videos by OIT or Duke Media Services staff and the storage space was used for easy exchange of working materials.  The final projects are being archived in the network storage space so they can be modified or reused if the course is offered again in Coursera or another MOOC platform or if the faculty member would like to reuse the segments in a face to face Duke course.  CIT and OIT provided a template spreadsheet to faculty and teaching assistants working on the videos that can act as a record of the video segments in the course, any outside copyrighted or public domain material used in the videos, as well as their placement in the course and connections with quizzes or other course media objects.


Forums are a key component in a Coursera site.  Not only do faculty need to think about how they will use the forums in course activities, they also need to plan on managing discussion boards that will have many more users than a typical face to face or distance course.

In planning the course, faculty were encouraged by the CIT to think about the overall structure of the forums and prompts that would allow students to discuss concepts and ideas covered in the course and create opportunities for students to discuss the content in a meaningful way with their peers.  Many Coursera instructors create a structure that mirrors the modules of the course, encouraging students to work through each week’s material together.

Faculty at Duke are also using teaching assistants to monitor and manage the discussion boards, watching for the inevitable “spam” or abusive posts that occur in an open environment in addition to answering some questions or responding to issues with the content or technical aspects of the course.  The course planning process involves creating clear roles and guidelines for the teaching assistants and how the faculty member themselves will manage the time and effort spent looking at the forums and responding to student needs with announcements and additional course material.

Final preparations

As the course start day approaches, faculty work through a myriad of details with their teaching assistants and staff of OIT and CIT including testing of videos, course materials and assessments and making sure that the course structure is easy to understand.  The CIT encourages faculty to have most or all of their course materials, video lectures and assessments online and ready to use well before the start date of the course.  Although faculty members in a Coursera course have little or no direct contact with individual students, monitoring the course as it runs and responding to technical issues, questions, or misunderstandings about content doesn’t leave much time to create the video lectures, quizzes and other activities that are at the heart of the course.

Awaiting the results

Planning to teach a course through a MOOC is a lengthy process and can involve many support staff and units at the university to create a quality online student experience.

Through summer 2013, Duke will be offering ten courses through Coursera.  Two courses (Bioelectricity and Genetics and Evolution) have already started and more will be going online later this month.  CIT staff will be surveying students about their experiences in the courses, gathering feedback from students in forums, and obtaining information from faculty about the time spent designing and running the courses and their experiences as a MOOC instructor.

Watch the CIT blog and website in the coming months to see what we and the Duke faculty learn from the Coursera experiment.

For more information on Duke’s online courses, click here: http://onlinecourses.duke.edu/.

Randy Riddle

Author: Randy Riddle

Randy Riddle is a Senior Consultant in Duke Learning Innovation and consults with faculty in the Social Sciences on pedagogy, learning, student assessment, and integrating technology into teaching practices. His professional interests include active learning, “flipped” classroom methods, inclusive classroom strategies, and integration of e-learning tools, social networking, video and multimedia, and data visualization into the daily work of teaching.