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ModU Offers New Social Science Resource

ModU Offers New Social Science Resource

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Jim Speckart filming Will Goldsmith for ModU Technical social science models can be difficult to understand the first time students are introduced to them. Like with CliffsNotes and Schaum’s Outlines, students often need a supplement to classroom instruction to fully grasp a concept.

Social science students at Duke now have a tool specific for their needs: ModU.

An open resource for students and researchers, ModU teaches social science concepts and methods through self-paced learning. Located at, the site features Duke experts talking about their work in a way that emphasizes the theories and methods involved.

Named for its organization, individual videos are organized into modules of related content so users can cater their learning to their own needs, getting either a quick introduction to a concept or learning more in depth about it.

It may not sound like a revolutionary idea since Lynda, Coursera, and YouTube already offer videos that help build skills and explain concepts, but the focus is unique. With highly technical social science topics broken down for an audience of different levels, ModU offers something new in the online learning landscape.

Intended for a Duke audience, the site has generated some buzz outside of Duke. In fact, many of the initial views have come from YouTube users searching for terms related to content on ModU.

“They’re topics that aren’t being discussed in a non-technical way,” said Jim Speckart, program manager for instructional design at SSRI. “When we can offer a non-technical talk and give some sense of what it’s like to use these concepts in practice, that really appeals to a broad group of people,” he said.

User friendly design

Speckart leads the project with oversight from Alexandra Cooper, associate director of Education, Research, and Evaluation at SSRI. The site is collaborative, with other staff and faculty at Duke providing content and support.

ModU users can browse by topic, instructor name, or course number to find the video or module that suits their needs. This way students assigned modules as a supplement to classroom instruction can easily navigate to them on the site a number of different ways.

student working at SSRIThe goal was to make the site so easy to use that people could jump right in while still giving curious users the opportunity to browse around.

Curating content

Modules already on the site range from qualitative methods to quantitative methods. Current videos include Introduction to Research Ethics, Modeling Basics, Ethical Photography, and Regression Discontinuity.

The content progresses from introductory to more advanced concepts as users work through the module. When this kind of linear progression isn’t well defined, videos are grouped thematically instead—like with the Research Ethics module. Either way, there’s something for all learning levels on the site.

“It’s crafted to serve a wide range of audiences, from new students seeking an introduction to experienced learners wanting a refresher course to faculty seeking accessible teaching tools,” Cooper said.

With new content added regularly, Speckart stays busy scheduling and producing videos for the site. In his downtime, he edits film and strategizes how videos can be compiled into connected modules. The challenge, he said, is keeping the content flexible while showing how it connects.

“If you make things too intricately woven, then they aren’t modular anymore and can only live in one place,” Speckart said.

But since everything fits together in some way under the social science umbrella, grouping content by topic provides some crucial infrastructure.

Currently, ModU features faculty and researchers from various disciplines and the number is sure to grow. Speckart is regularly seen around Gross Hall, camera perched on one shoulder, filming experts as they discuss their work.

Recently he filmed Will Goldsmith, a graduate student in the history department, speaking about the history of education in America. The module they’re producing will be a thorough look at the history of educational policy, especially relating to North Carolina’s integration of education into economic development policy in the late 20th century.

As a scholar interested in education, Goldsmith was eager to help develop the new educational resource.

“It seemed like a great opportunity to get an apprenticeship in online education,” said Goldsmith. “[It] also served as an impetus for developing course materials that will help me land an academic job and do a better job of teaching once I get there.”

Goldsmith liked that ModU could reach beyond the traditional classroom. Signs point to the site already having that reach, with partners outside of Duke interested in developing certain content.

Postdoc Kyle Endres working on ModU Data science at EBay

Though intended for a Duke audience, data scientists at EBay have also found the modules useful for their work. As with most Silicon Valley companies, they collect an incredible amount of data from their users. Teams of data scientists then work with that data to gain usable insights for the company.

The e-commerce giant discovered the Causal Inference Bootcamp module while looking for resources for new hires. They found it was especially helpful for teaching their new data scientists how to tease out cause and effect in their data.

Recently, EBay signed a contract with SSRI to produce interactive content supplementing the Causal Inference Bootcamp module. The interactive content will help EBay’s new hires learn how to apply data insights using statistical software (namely R) among other possible applications.

Bridging the gap

The hope is that ModU will be a place where people can brush up on concepts and methods that might have otherwise fallen through the cracks.

Cooper and Speckart expect it will be a great resource for interdisciplinary Bass Connections teams especially, helping students from different academic backgrounds get on the same page before they tackle their work.

“It’s created as a tool to support 21st century learners,” Cooper said, “[students] who are prepared to develop their own itinerary and who’ll need to need to update and improve their substantive knowledge and methodological skills across their life courses and careers.”

With flexibility for how, when, and where the videos are viewed, ModU acts as a content bridge for students in the social sciences.

“We’re hoping that people will have a little more material to then feel confident asking a question in class or going to office hours,” Speckart said.

“Those can be intimidating situations, and no one wants to look like they don’t get it. So maybe ModU can help break down those barriers and give students something to grasp onto and take more control over their education,” he added.

With over 100 videos so far, and plans to add another 400 videos in the coming months, students should have much more to grasp onto in the social sciences.


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