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Stanford's Online Strategy

Stanford is the cradle of the MOOC movement, but the appointment of four high-level administrators to focus on online learning shows that the school now really means business.

Stanford Online Strategy
Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

Stanford University (CA) is MOOC Central. While the school may not have launched the first massive open online course, its efforts have propelled the concept to the forefront of higher education in a matter of months. Starting with Sebastian Thrun's Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course, which enrolled 160,000 students, Stanford and its professors have played--and continue to play--key roles in the MOOC juggernaut, including the launch of two of the principal entrants in the field, Coursera and Udacity.

These initiatives did not materialize out of thin air. Stanford has been on the cutting edge of online learning perhaps longer than any other institution of higher learning. What's changed is the scale involved--a scale so mind-blowing that MOOCs are being touted in some circles as the mother of all disruptive education technologies. So what's Stanford's role in all this? Is the school following a particular strategy, are these efforts just the work of individual professors, or is it all a grand experiment?

This story appeared in the January 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology.

In the eyes of many, Stanford is simply doing what universities are supposed to do--fomenting ideas and experimentation. And it has been doing a very good job indeed: The campus is a veritable cauldron of online learning initiatives. Currently, the university is utilizing three platforms to explore the potential of online learning in higher education. In addition to Coursera, the school is testing Venture Lab, a platform designed specifically to enable students around the planet to collaborate directly on group projects. The first class delivered on the platform, Technology Entrepreneurship, drew 37,000 students from 150 countries.

Class2Go, the newest of the three systems, is an open source platform developed by a team of engineers in Stanford's computer science department. Formally launched in September 2012, it was originally planned as a mobile add-on to CourseWare, Stanford's in-house course-hosting platform. But the add-on strategy was scrapped in favor of replacing CourseWare with a new platform that combines a back-end database with existing tools, including YouTube's video service, Piazza's discussion-forum tool, and Khan Academy's exercise framework.

A Need for Coordination
As the implications of the MOOC phenomenon have sunk in, however, there has been a growing realization on Stanford's campus that a more unified approach to online learning may be needed. In August, the university created an Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning--only the third vice-provost-level office created by the university in nearly two decades--as well as three associate deans to lead the online learning initiatives of Stanford's schools of business, engineering, and medicine.

"Our faculty have been working in online education for some time now and their excitement is growing," said President John Hennessy in a statement. "This is a field that deserves increasing attention and investment, and the new Office of the Vice Provost is in keeping with Stanford's tradition of leadership in innovation and experimentation."

John Mitchell, a computer science professor in the School of Engineering who directed the team that developed Stanford's CourseWare platform, was named to the new vice provost position. "We feel that it's important to have campuswide coordination of the work being done in this area," he notes. "There is a tremendous opportunity now to use new technologies to change the way we teach and provide learning materials to students. Among other things, these technologies can free up additional time for more interactive learning on campus, which is really the best way to take advantage of us all being in the same place. We can improve our on-campus teaching and learning with these technologies In order to do that, though, I think it's important to try a number of experiments and compare our results from those experiments across campus."

Serving Stanford Students
Despite the media hoopla surrounding MOOCs and their potential impact on higher education, Stanford administrators say the school's online efforts are directed primarily at serving its own students. According to Bernd Girod, a professor of electrical engineering and the new senior associate dean for the School of Engineering, Stanford sees MOOCs primarily "as a showcase and a laboratory for online learning methods," adding that "they will never replace the incredibly vibrant campus experience Stanford provides."

Mitchell agrees. "Of course, our main goal here is to reach our own students," he says. "If we can use material that we develop for teaching on campus to reach students elsewhere around the world, that's really great. If we can find ways to make teaching and learning more effective or more efficient, if we can provide more tools for faculty and teachers everywhere to change the way they do things and make aspects of education more efficient, that would be a great outcome for us."

During his first months on the job, Mitchell has concentrated on involving faculty in a range of technology-supporting teaching and learning methods, supporting the production of new courses and their online delivery, and promoting a seed grant program launched in spring 2012. Approximately 40 proposals from individual faculty and small teams received grant funding.

"We have hundreds of energetic, devoted faculty who would like to improve their classes, many of whom have years of experience with the technology," explains Mitchell. "So there's something here that we can build on. On the other hand, the new ways of using technology are new to many of us, so this is also a period of experimentation and innovation for the university as a whole."

The schools of engineering, medicine, and business were chosen first because well-structured knowledge is particularly suited to online learning. Girod sees a combination of "widespread enthusiasm among faculty and students to experiment with new online course formats" and a "healthy and normal" level of skepticism. He adds that students in Stanford's engineering school have been learning online for years. In fact, 9 percent of the school's master's degrees are earned by graduate students at a distance. The engineering school now offers classes with tens of thousands of students working in small groups, says Girod, "something we thought impossible only a year ago."

An Interactive Model
Charles Prober, senior associate dean for medical education, now leads the School of Medicine's online initiatives. Already a driving force behind the med school's online efforts, Prober has thought deeply about what makes online learning effective. He allows that providing videos for students to watch instead of sitting through classroom lectures is not particularly innovative. But, he says, not only is the med school applying a more sophisticated approach to how these videos are produced, it is evolving an interactive learning model into which these videos are then woven.

"We've been recording our medical school lectures for almost 30 years," he notes. "But this is about developing an online pedagogy that includes the technology--about creating purposeful videos that present information in shorter bites so students can more readily digest them, and then having those students come to the classroom to engage with the professor."

To facilitate strategies for making student-faculty interactions as rich as possible, the medical school has created the Stanford Medicine Interactive Learning Initiatives, a program that Prober describes as a much-needed "messaging opportunity."

"It's a way of letting people know that this isn't just about making videos and calling it a day," he explains. "It's an opportunity to bring together interested parties from different parts of the medical school--indeed, from all over the campus--to strategize and data-optimize the interactive part of this whole package. We're really calling on our entire community of teachers and learners."

Prober says the med school is actively creating online content, developing courses, and evaluating their effectiveness. Among the med school's first online successes is a required basic biochemistry course.

"Biochemistry can be very difficult for many students, especially if they come into med school with a humanities background," Prober says. "It doesn't get any easier when you hear it delivered in a classroom with no opportunity to interact. That course has changed: The lead faculty created the video content in approximately 10-minute pieces, and the students are required to watch these videos prior to coming to elective interactive sessions."

The online interactive model has transformed the course from a class that most students rated negatively to one that most actually like. The majority of students now avoid the old-style classroom lectures--only 20 to 30 percent attend--but virtually all beginning biochemistry students are attending the optional interactive sessions. The school is currently developing online offerings in genetics, endocrinology, women's health, cardiovascular physiology, and gross anatomy.

"I think one of the most effective ideas here is to combine platform development and teaching innovation in an iterative kind of experimental way," says Mitchell. "When you have a new teaching idea--for example, allowing students to comment on each other's work--then it works best if you also have a change in the platform that really supports that."

That's exactly what's happened with the Venture Lab experiment, where peer evaluation has been built into the underlying platform. Amin Saberi, an associate professor of management science and engineering who also specializes in social media, developed algorithms for computing the reputations of the students within the system. 

"Every time a team of students submits its homework, the students rate each other--everything from 'this person was a no-show' to 'this person was fantastic,'" Saberi explains. "But an individual's reputation within the system also depends on the reputation of the group in which she participates. Even though we get students from all around the world, we create this culture of accountability and transparency within the system, so you feel responsible to your immediate peers and teammates."

In fall 2012, Stanford offered five free classes on the Venture Lab platform. In addition to Technology Entrepreneurship, classes included A Crash Course on Creativity, Finance, Designing a New Learning Environment, and Startup Boards: Advanced Entrepreneurship.

The Impact on Higher Ed
While Stanford insists that its online efforts are primarily for the benefit of its own students, its online leaders acknowledge that there will be broader ramifications throughout higher education. "Nobody knows yet how things will play out," Girod says. "It's likely that, as access to high-quality content is commoditized, credentialing becomes a key differentiator. This will primarily impact lower-tier institutions. We are primarily interested in the potential of online technology to make the experience for our Stanford students even better than it already is."

At the very least, Stanford may look off campus as a way to recoup what promises to be a significant upfront investment. "A video lecture can be used in many different ways," says Mitchell. "If someone has a great lecture on Shakespeare--or Newtonian mechanics, or electronics, or how to program a computer--that material could be used on campus in place of a textbook. It could be used by someone at another university to further his course. Or it could be made available freely or at low cost worldwide to someone who wants to study on his own. Most of our activity is focused on producing things that have multiple uses, and that offers a good way of recouping the effort that goes into them through any number of those channels."

But the advent of a new generation of integrated, interactive online learning platforms could also help resolve the biggest crisis facing higher education--the cost of a college degree--possibly by reducing the number of faculty needed. "Higher education is ridiculously expensive," says Prober, "and rising faster than any other sector of the economy--including healthcare. The most expensive cost in higher education is the professoriate. Having the rich faculties we have in thousands of colleges across the United States is probably not sustainable. So being able to bend that curve becomes very important, and this is one methodology for doing that. Once you've got the videos, you don't have to create them every year. You have to tweak them and update, but that's relatively easy."

Saberi also believes that online education and web technology are going to have a disruptive effect on higher education. In the long run, though, he feels MOOCs will expand the market for higher education. "Online education is going to help us reach more students," he says. "It is going to widen the reach of the universities. Classes that reach only a hundred students will reach a thousand. But that doesn't mean all the classes will be open to everybody without any admission or accreditation. We will be learning our lessons and how best to apply what we learn along the way."

"In some ways, we're only at the beginning," says Mitchell in summary. "We really don't know where all of this will lead. We're just committed to improving education as much as we can."

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