PUBLISHED:August 26, 2014

Helfer’s MOOC on International Human Rights a Duke Law first

Laurence Helfer, the Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law, taught a massive open-access online course — a “MOOC” — on international human rights law during the spring semester, bringing high-level legal instruction to a global audi­ence. More than 18,500 students initially enrolled in the six-week course, which is comprised of video lectures, discussion forums in which students debate cutting-edge human rights issues, weekly quizzes, and a final exam.

The MOOC, titled “International Human Rights Law: Prospects and Challenges,” was the first law-related course offered through Duke University’s two-year-old partnership with the California based education com­pany Coursera. The MOOC addressed such topics as genocide and humanitarian inter­vention, the right to life and capital punish­ment, the right to health and HIV-AIDS, and counterterrorism and human rights.

Helfer, whose expertise includes inter­national law and institutions, international adjudication, and international intellectual property law in addition to human rights, designed the course to appeal to multiple audiences, including nongovernmental organizations, university students, and practicing attorneys.

More than 18,500 students initially enrolled in the six-week course, comprised of video lectures, discussion forums, weekly quizzes, and a final exam.

“I designed the MOOC to introduce the key legal rules and institutions of the inter­national human rights system as well as the achievements and challenges that the system now faces,” Helfer said. He believes the glob­al accessibility of the course free of charge was particularly helpful in disseminating information about human rights.

“Human rights are universal,” said Helfer, who co-directs the Center for International and Comparative Law and is a senior fellow with Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. “They can be a source of empower­ment and a tool for advocacy for legal, politi­cal, and social change. At the same time, human rights are often violated, sometimes on a widespread scale.

“What I’ve learned from prac­ticing, teaching, and writing about human rights for the past 20 years is that it’s essential to understand how international law protects human rights and how international monitoring mechanisms can be used strategically and selectively to pressure governments to improve their respect for those rights — even if some­times slowly or imperfectly. This course allowed me to share these insights with a global audience.”

Students enrolled in the course by a simple mouse click. As of early May, approximately 9,000 students had watched Helfer’s video lectures or joined in the discussion forums, and 4,000 students had been actively engaged with the course materials and weekly tests. No univer­sity credit is awarded for enrolling in the MOOC, but students can elect to enroll in a “signature track” which offers a verified certificate that the student has completed the course and its assignments.