Online Course Development Tips from the Trenches: An Evaluation Report on Duke’s Coursera Specializations

writing code on light board
Susan Rodger, one of the instructors for the Java Programming Specializations, filming a video

What does it take to produce 10 online courses in a few short months? A new report from Duke takes a careful look at the process of simultaneously developing two Coursera Specializations on a tight deadline and shares recommendations for others who might take on a similarly ambitious project.

Ten Courses, Six Faculty, Eight Months to Launch

Starting in August 2015, Online Duke and the Duke Center for Instructional Technology (CIT) collaborated with six instructors to develop two Coursera Specializations. Four instructors worked together to create a 5-course Specialization on Java programming; two instructors created a Specialization on business analytics in the same format. All ten courses were launched by March 2016, a much faster timeline for completion than on any prior open online course project at Duke.

The Specializations clearly met a significant demand for career-oriented skills training for people working in, or seeking to enter, professional fields. Over 35,000 people have enrolled in either the Java Programming or Business Analytics Specializations, and over 15,000 of them have completed the entire series and a capstone project. Tens of thousands more participated in at least one of the Specialization courses.

After all the hard work of launching the courses was done, Duke wanted to take a step back to see what it could learn from the experience to inform future projects. Kim Manturuk, manager for program assessment at CIT, collected and analyzed learner demographics, learning activity data, learner feedback surveys, and interviews with project staff and instructors.

Duke’s Top Recommendations for Building a Coursera Specialization

The resulting report provides detailed insight into what worked, what didn’t, and what could be changed to improve the process in the future. Below are some of the top recommendations from the report for anyone interested in building a Specialization or a similar series of short online courses. A summary of the report is available here and you can download the full report here.

Set Expectations and Project Assignments at the Beginning

  • Define specific roles and task assignments within the project team, including those for instructors. Create a process for revisiting and revising task assignments as the course development proceeds.
  • Set realistic expectations for both workload and project outcomes such as revenue and enrollment numbers.
  • Establish the method and frequency of communications within the project team. Will someone email project updates weekly? Who should be contacted about video edits?

Quality Assurance

  • Establish an effective quality assurance process before launching courses. Designate a quality assurance lead on the project team to make sure the process is followed.
  • Quality check every piece of content before release.  
  • Clearly define minimum quality stands, and set a mechanism for embargoing content that does not meet them.

Handling Short Timelines

  • Identify a back-up person for each major task so that if things fall behind, there is a person to help. Build flexibility into your timeline to handle unplanned circumstances, like an increase in instructor workloads or new administrative responsibilities.
  • Begin all faculty-inactive tasks (seeking approvals, gaining copyright clearance, working with vendors) at the start of the project.
  • Overlap course development when possible. For example, have instructors plan all the courses in a series so they have the option to make large amounts of video content for multiple courses when they find time available.