Hybrid Online-Classroom Education: How’s It Working?

A Duke University bioengineering professor offers his first impressions of Coursera

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”




My name is Roger Barr, and I’m the professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University. This course is about bioelectricity. So why should you be interested in bioelectricity? Fundamentally, it’s the way your brain works, your heart works, your nerve works….

That’s from an introductory video to a course being taught this semester simultaneously at Duke University, in North Carolina, and on the Internet.

Longtime listeners may recall a show I did back in February with computer science professor Daphne Koller of Stanford University about that school’s hybrid model of online learning, in which video lectures and digital assessment tools are used to free up valuable classroom time. Koller was a bit guarded in that conversation; a couple of questions couldn’t be answered, it turns out, without talking about a stealth company she and a colleague were about to launch.

That company, Coursera, is up and running. It has an office in Mountain View, Calif., with more than a dozen programmers, and its courseware is being used by classes at a number of schools this fall.

One of them is that Bioelectricity course at Duke. I thought it would be interesting to follow up on the February podcast by hearing from a professor using it, what the Coursera experience is like.

Roger Barr is the Anderson-Rupp Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. He’s an IEEE Fellow and a longtime member of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society.

Roger, welcome to the podcast.

Roger Barr: Well, thank you very much.

Steven Cherry: Well, so, Bioelectricity is an eight-week class, and as we record this, you just started the third week. How much of it is still done in person, and how much of it is video and software?

Roger Barr: The entire course is either video or software. The only part that is, in a sense, live and in person, is the “forum,” as it’s called, which is kind of a discussion board where people put up questions. Some of the questions are answered by students, and then some are answered by the course TA or by me.

Steven Cherry: So how often does that meet?

Roger Barr: Well, the course runs on a weekly basis; the discussion board runs nonstop. There are questions being posted, I’d say, almost every hour of every day. If I go to look at it, it’ll be three minutes since the last question was posted, or maybe five minutes, or maybe no minutes—just some number of seconds.

Steven Cherry: So that’s real time, but it’s not in person?

Roger Barr: That’s correct. It’s real time, but it’s not in person. It’s all Internet based. Now, of course, the student who’s a Duke student who’s doing this classroom is also attending in-person classes at Duke, and those in our case meet three times a week.

Steven Cherry: And is that with you or with TAs or both?

Roger Barr: Once with me and twice with a TA.

Steven Cherry: So that time used to be lecture time and then discussion sections with the TAs, I guess. What is it now?

Roger Barr: Well, it’s essentially 100 percent discussion. It’s putting up questions on the board. It’s talking about having different students come up to the board and talk about it, having comments from me, and quite often having comments from other students. It really is a much better use of the time.

Steven Cherry: So how many students are taking it at Duke, and how many online?

Roger Barr: So in the course that I teach at Duke, there are 20 students that are currently enrolled, and online there are maybe 11 800, or something like that.

Steven Cherry: And it’s probably too soon to tell, but do you think the Duke students will do better this semester, or about the same, or what?

Roger Barr: The Duke students always do well, so it would be hard to compare one semester with another. But I think the course is more fun this way. The part that is different is that the class time is used more extensively for things people really enjoy doing. They enjoy talking to each other, they enjoy commenting on how problems are done, they enjoy thinking about alternatives, and more of the class time goes to that. It’s a better class.

Steven Cherry: And are you getting specific feedback along those lines yet?

Roger Barr: Well, since the Coursera part is only three weeks old, I hear comments that people like it, or they’re having no problems, or it’s going well, but it’s not possible to look back on it in the way you can do at the end of the semester.

Steven Cherry: So the lectures that I gather are being delivered by video, it’s your standard lectures broken up into smaller chunks?

Roger Barr: That’s right. They’re standard ideas, core ideas, and each one is broken up into 10-minute pieces. That’s to say 10 minutes on the average—some might be a little bit longer, some might be a little bit shorter. And those are recorded segment by segment. This is a plan, at first I was very doubtful about it, but as I started doing it, I really started to like it. It’s easy to focus on what you’re going to do in 10 minutes and try to do that well.

Steven Cherry: Are there things that you can see yet that you might want to be done differently by Coursera or by yourself?

Roger Barr: So, the good thing about recording and then playing back material is you get to review your own performance, and, of course, you have a lot of people to help you review your performance. So where you make mistakes in a live class, they’re just made, and maybe you correct them later on. Here I can go back. I can rerecord that segment and things I said before. I can fix a lot of little mistakes that I make and that other people make, and really, over time, make it a much better course.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I was going to get to that. I would imagine all your academic life your lectures have been ephemeral, like a play, and now it will exist forever, like a movie. And you cited some of the benefits of that, but do you have any qualms as well?

Roger Barr: You know, to do this, you just have to have a sense of adventure and hope that it’s all going to work out in the end. So if I were to reflect on it, I’m sure I would have qualms about it, but I don’t even think about it. I just enjoy doing it right now.

Steven Cherry: Now there’s a kind of dynamic to a classroom. You can sort of deliver an idea better than you thought you could have because of that dynamic. It’s sort of the same dynamic in a Socratic dialogue. Do you feel the loss of that?

Roger Barr: So, you do in the sense of when you’re talking, you don’t have anybody there who’s looking at you and grimacing or smiling or whatever their emotion might be, so that is a loss in making the videos. On the other hand, when the videos go live on Coursera, and I assume any course, you immediately get feedback via the text messaging and the discussion boards, so there is a dynamic to that that is much more intense than I had anticipated it to be. Partly because online, the Duke students are saying, but so are lots of other people. And some of the other people are very focused, very attentive to detail, and they bring their own specialized knowledge.

Steven Cherry: Now, in addition to the videos, the Coursera strategy includes homeworks that might be a little different than the homeworks that you might assign, and something that you didn’t have before at all, which would be the assessment tools. Tell us about those.

Roger Barr: So, the Coursera mechanism as I use it involves occasional interruptions of the lectures, where you ask students, “Did you understand this? Do you want to continue?”—things that are within the lectures themselves. Then, in addition to that, it involves two quizzes every week, and my class, we have a conceptual quiz that involves multiple-choice problems and has to do with the ideas, and then we have questions that have to be answered with numbers and equations in the fashion that is normal for engineering courses. So it has a multifaceted sort of structure. The part that is really different is that in the online course you can do the questions multiple times, so doing it multiple times, on the one hand, makes it easier to make a higher score in the end. On the other hand, you have to keep coming back and back and back, perhaps maybe three or four times, in order to get to that point, and I like that. That’s nice.

Steven Cherry: So people are getting a higher grade, but they’re, in fact, earning the higher grade because they’re really learning it a little better.

Roger Barr: Well, if you think of ordinary life, if you’re working with your child or your friend or somebody, and you do this or do that or ride a bike or whatever, they don’t get it quite right at first, or not at all right. You say, “Let’s try it again,” and that’s what’s happening online: You’re trying again, perhaps with more review, perhaps with more thought, but you’re coming back, you’re spending more time with it, and I’m sure you’re learning more.

Steven Cherry: Now, in your own discipline, are there classes that you teach, or that others teach, that you think would be unsuitable for the Coursera treatment?

Roger Barr: Well, obviously a course that’s a laboratory course, that depends on online laboratory experiences, where you need equipment or preparations in electricity or some kind of biological preparation. It’s hard to replicate that online. You could do some steps through video, but that would not be the same thing. And at the other extreme, a course that involved a lot of interpersonal discussion back and forth between a student and a faculty member, direct one-on-one, or just a small group discussion, that would be hard to replicate. But there’s a huge world in between that I think is actually done better in the Coursera format.

Steven Cherry: Now, potentially, other schools will get a chance to choose between having their own bioengineering professor record his or her lecture or just using yours. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Roger Barr: So what I’m trying to do is do the best I can as the instructor of this particular course, not make that decision on behalf of other people. But I can say that here at Duke, we have discussed using the lecture sequences from other schools where we know the school and we know the instructor, and incorporating that within our own program, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that happened in other places.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I was going to ask you about the flip side of that: What if Duke or your department decides that somebody else’s bioelectricity lecture is better than yours?

Roger Barr: Well, I’m not worried about them doing that, because I think ours will be better than theirs, and we’ll change it to make it better if we can. But the thing that I think is true is that Duke, like every other university, Duke has a big program here, and we have a lot of smart students, but there are a lot of things we don’t do either. We’re not specialists in everything. So there are other places that do things very well, which we don’t have anybody here that’s equivalent, so we could adopt some work done in other places very much to our benefit.

Steven Cherry: And so those would be sort of elective courses within the program, and I guess you would still run discussion sections but use the others’ lectures and assessment tools and so forth?

Roger Barr: We’re still trying to figure out what the best way is to do that. I think that’s the most straightforward thing to do, is use other people’s lectures and incorporate it within an existing course that has labs or discussion or whatever as a part of the total framework. But I wouldn’t want to rule out the possibility that in the future, under certain circumstances, we might accept an online course for course credit, or for course credit after an exam, or something like that. We just don’t know. The whole thing is so new, we’re just trying to figure out what the best thing is to do.

Steven Cherry: Very good. So I have to close by asking you kind of an offbeat question. One of the frequently asked questions on the Web page for the bioelectricity course asks, “What’s the coolest thing I’ll learn if I take this class?” And the answer is, “How a battery can be in saltwater for 100 years, used over and over, and yet never discharge.” So I just have to ask you, How can a battery be in saltwater for 100 years, used over and over, and yet never discharge?

Roger Barr: It can be like a nerve or a muscle in your body, and it has a sodium potassium pump. And it takes the saltwater, separates the sodium from the potassium, and uses their diffusion to generate voltages, and it keeps on doing that for as long as you live. So it doesn’t fight against the saltwater; it makes use of the saltwater.

Steven Cherry: Well, thanks. It sounds like a really good course, and I’m sure the tens of thousands of students are enjoying it. And good luck to you, and good luck to them.

Roger Barr: Thank you, and thank you very much for talking to me today.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Duke University professor of biomedical engineering Roger Barr about his experiences so far with the hybrid classroom-and-Internet way of teaching promoted by Coursera, a California start-up.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 9 October 2012.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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