In a logic course, with 180,000 friends

DURHAM, N.C. — Duke University philosophy professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong has unusual interactions with his students these days.

One contacted him with an excuse for why she was behind in class. She had suffered a personal calamity: Her home in Fiji had been hit by a cyclone. Another claims to be a goat farmer in Afghanistan. And two students — a 12-year-old and her mother — sent the professor a Christmas card from Germany.

They are among the 180,000 students who registered for a class called “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue,” co-taught by Sinnott-Armstrong and Ram Neta, a philosophy professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

When it launched in November, “Think Again” was the largest online class offered through a California-based company called Coursera, which has a lineup of more than 200 online courses from 33 partner universities, including Duke. On Coursera’s site, there is a smorgasbord of academic pursuits — quantum physics from the University of Maryland, startup engineering from Stanford or Princeton’s “A History of the World since 1300.”

All for free, for anyone who wants to jump in to the wild new frontier of global distance education.

“Think Again” is what’s known as a MOOC, or a massive open online course, an experiment that became a runaway phenomenon in 2012, when top universities rushed to join forces with startup companies promising a higher education revolution.

So far, most MOOCs offer certificates for courses completed, not grades or college credit, but that appears to be changing. Two months ago, the American Council on Education announced a project to look at whether free online courses warrant credit that could be transferred toward a degree. The whole concept is all at once exhilarating and frightening to U.S. university leaders, who envision both a grand democratization in higher education and scary financial consequences.

Prof is giddy

Sinnott-Armstrong just sees students, lots of them, learning.

“There are millions of people out there who want better education and can’t get it,” he said. “This is a way to help them.”

Just thinking about the numbers makes Sinnott-Armstrong giddy. He might teach 100 to 200 students a year in his regular classes, or roughly 8,000 over a 40-year span.

“I’ve got almost a million downloads of my videos already,” he said in December during the second week of the course. “I mean, c’mon. That’s just amazing! This is over 20 times as many students as I would reach in my career.”

But it’s not about ego, he said, or racking up video views.

“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,” he said, “then what could be better than reaching so many students so efficiently?”

Now, at the end of the eighth week, there have been 2.5 million separate views of his videos. Each week, the course has up to 10 videos ranging from three minutes to 28 minutes.

Sinnott-Armstrong says the format allows him to present the content in digestible chunks in ways that make sense. He is freed from the constraints of a 50- or 65-minute class period. It’s good for students, too, he said, because if their minds wander, they can replay a video, or if they’re not native English speakers, they can stop the video to look up a word in an online dictionary.

Serge Doussantousse, a 60-year-old French-speaking student from Laos, is a researcher who carves out three hours a night for his work. He watches the videos with subtitles. He took “Think Again” because the subject, logic, is important, though it won’t impact his career.

“Logic is no fun,” he said by email. “I do that to have a better understand of the world and have a better grip at problems.”

Many followers

Sinnott-Armstrong has lots of loyal followers, judging from 24,000 posts on the class discussion forums. He edits madcap skits and photos into his videos. He sometimes leans close to the camera, with his oversized glasses and unruly hair, to make a point. The first week, he started a class with a classic Monty Python comedy sketch on arguments.

But it’s not just funny business. By weeks four and five, the students are taken into the complexities of logic, using truth tables and Venn diagrams. People started to drop out, saying the work was too difficult. Sinnott-Armstrong said the class is about 80 percent of the work he would give his Duke students.

For Monika Delle, a 48-year-old retail business owner from Seattle, “Think Again” was a way for her to push her “creaky brain to greater efficiency,” she said, as she considers going back to school full time in pursuit of a career change. She likes the flexibility of online learning but misses the face-to-face contact with others, though she has made new Facebook friends with some of her fellow “Courserians.”

“I truly enjoy both professors and am honored that I have the privilege of taking a class with them. They are the highlight, by far. I can’t express how grateful I am to them,” she wrote in an email. “An unexpected benefit is my fellow students. What a surprise to discover how many are NOT from the U.S. International students have added a welcome richness and complexity.”

Students in the same city arrange to meet in study groups or they gather in online hangouts. When students talk about dropping out, others implore them to stay. One student named Michel skips around the discussion forums answering people’s questions and encouraging them. “This guy’s a better teacher than I am,” Sinnott-Armstrong joked.

“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.”

Sinnott-Armstrong does not have the same relationship with his Coursera students that he develops with his Duke students, who stop by his office for one-on-one conversations. But he says the online version of “Think Again” will improve his teaching at Duke.

In the future, he will flip his classroom so that Duke students watch the video lectures on their own time. Then Sinnott-Armstrong will spend class time working with small groups rather than a crowd in a 180-seat lecture hall. That will allow more time for discussion and more writing assignments.

Sinnott-Armstrong communicates with his Duke students, but his email autoresponse informs his Coursera students saying that he can’t answer email from them. It would be impossible to keep up with so many.

With 180,000 people registered, there was bound to be a significant dropout rate. In fact, about 70,000 never watched the first video.

By week eight, 26,000 people were classified as active in the class, meaning they had watched a video and worked an exercise in the past week. Only 13,000 had taken the quiz.

That’s OK, said Sinnott-Armstrong. “They just don’t have the time or the motivation or the stamina to do the entire course. They can do what they want and what fits their interest.”

What’s unclear is how Coursera will figure out the business model for offering free classes. Among the options are charging fees for certificates, matching high-achieving students with employers and licensing courses to universities that couldn’t afford to hire top faculty on their own.

Product development

Scott Sandell, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist whose firm kicked in $8 million to Coursera, isn’t yet worried about making money. The key for now is to develop a good product and a passionate following, he said.

“If you do that well and you offer something of real value for free, you can end up in a very enviable position in the marketplace,” Sandell said in an interview. “You can then begin to monetize the business and find ways to make money. That’s especially true if the cost of delivering the service is relatively low, and of course with these Internet-based businesses the costs are low.”

Coursera’s costs are low because the partner universities spend the money to develop the courses. Sinnott-Armstrong is not paid extra for teaching the course, though he did receive money from Duke to pay his assistants. The time investment is significant. Sinnott-Armstrong estimates he’s spent more than 500 hours on the course and says his team, which includes three people who do the videos and technical work, has put in maybe 2,000 hours.

Coursera signs contracts with its partner schools. According to media reports on Coursera’s contracts with public institutions, the universities stand to gain a small percentage of any profits the company sees.

Officials with Coursera, founded by two Stanford computer-science professors, did not respond to questions from The News & Observer.

Sandell said he isn’t troubled that only 14 percent of those who signed up for “Think Again” are still actively taking the course after eight weeks.

“That’s more than twice the population of Stanford University in a single course,” he said. “That’s never happened in history before, and those people are from all over the world. It cost Coursera precisely zero to attract them, not one nickel.”

Sinnott-Armstrong is dangling an incentive to those who finish the course: If one-third of the students complete “Think Again,” he’ll shave his head on camera and post the video for the graduates to see.

So far, 400 students have submitted their final arguments. One from Moscow posted his by video, posting that everyone should carry a sausage at all times to ward off aggressive dogs. It is one of the most popular submissions.

One student is concerned about Sinnott-Armstrong’s hair. She posted: “Now I think it is fine that he has offered us a reward for diligence, but hey, wait a minute! … Cut off that gorgeous head of hair? NO NO NO! Must I choose between being a good student and thereby lending my support to the destruction of his fetching fluffy halo, or, becoming a drop-out in support of the preservation of his charming locks?”

Not to worry, said Sinnott-Armstrong.

“It looks like my hair is going to survive.”