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Stanford Report Shares Snapshot of Online Learning

A new report from Stanford University examining the use of online technologies and methods for delivering education says that 1.9 million people around the world have registered for one or more of the public courses taught by the California university's faculty. According to "Stanford Online: 2013 in Review," since fall 2012 four million hours of instruction have been delivered. That delivery of massive open online courses (MOOCs) takes place on three platforms: Coursera, NovoEd and Stanford OpenEdX.

Stanford has found that instructional content that's modular would better fit with the time participants spend interacting with their MOOCs. Four in 10 students spend between one and 20 minutes each week with the material, 32 percent have sessions that exceed an hour, and 29 percent engage in sessions between 20 minutes and an hour.

The major geographic markets for freebie classes? Students in the United States led by a landslide, followed by participants in India, United Kingdom, Canada and China. Within the country, California enrollments set the pace, followed by New York, Texas, Washington and Illinois. Stanford has found that the bulk of its OpenEdX students (73 percent) are male.

In initiatives supported by the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL), online instruction takes three forms at Stanford: as MOOCs, of course, but also as flipped or blended classes and as course components in standard and continuing education fare.

To encourage experimentation and innovation among faculty, VPOL has issued 66 grants to support design and development of online and blended tools and courses. As the report stated, "The goals of these grants are to challenge the understanding of what’s possible in online learning and leverage emerging technologies and teaching strategies to promote deep learning experiences for learners at Stanford and beyond."

Among the experiments in online learning at Stanford is a project to create scalable virtual labs that provide advanced laboratory access to "the masses online." Lambertus Hesselink, a professor of electrical engineering, and his collaborators came up with the idea of using prerecorded versions of specific experiments that cover every potential set-up a student might try.

Another grantee, Clinical Assistant Professor Kristin Sainani in health research and policy, developed a flipped course on "statistics in medicine," and then offered the same class to the public as a nine-week MOOC. Each week Sainani would explore a provocative question ("Should you be worried about lead in lipstick?") and then show students how to use data to "read, interpret and critically evaluate statistics in medical research." Each unit had short instructional videos of narrated PowerPoint slides and embedded quizzes and online homework assignments. Teaching assistants put together supplemental videos, demonstrating the proofs for the questions. When compared to other MOOCs, that one, according to analysis of the data, maintained a "much higher percentage of active users."

"Stanford's vision is much broader than MOOCs," said Vice Provost John Mitchell, who directs VPOL. "We're thinking about how we will best educate students for generations to come."

That exploration, he added, moves the focus away from MOOC "completion rates," and towards how participants engage with the material. "In the process, we are asking important questions: How can we help students learn more effectively? How can we better leverage classroom time? How can technology enable educators to better meet the needs of particular learners?"

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