Academic Council considers role of technology in teaching and learning

The role of technology in teaching and learning was the focus of President John Hennessy's annual address to the Academic Council on Thursday. Also announced was the upcoming 2015-16 Year of Learning, which will spur discussion about teaching, learning and research in the 21st century.

Interactive, online technology will play an increasingly important role in improving higher education. But first, credentialing challenges must be overcome; mastery of subject areas must be demonstrated and lower costs must be achieved without sacrificing quality.

Those were among the assertions made by President John Hennessy during his annual address to the Academic Council on Thursday. In a talk titled “Technology in Teaching and Learning,” Hennessy also expressed his skepticism about whether online educational experiences can ever replace traditional undergraduate degrees.

John Hennessy on stage

President John Hennessy addressing the Academic Council on Thursday. (Image credit: Aaron Kehoe)

Technology, he said, can be used specifically to increase access, especially in underserved areas; to reduce costs; and to improve learning and degree completion rates in a cost-effective manner. But the challenge for online education, he said, is that society places a high premium on college experiences offered at schools like Stanford that encompass a broad and coherent collection of courses and that emphasize life skills as well as intellectual achievement.

Hennessy told faculty, staff, students and others in the audience at CEMEX Auditorium that massive open online courses – known as MOOCs – are not necessarily the panacea once predicted, though they may be useful in certain circumstances.

But, he said, “We’ve learned that MOOCs are not the answer, at least not the only answer.”

What makes MOOCs attractive, Hennessy said, is also what makes them ineffective. MOOCs are accessible to a wide range of students, but the diverse backgrounds of the students make the classes challenging to teach.

The president expressed support for hybrid approaches, including the flipped classroom model, where students watch online lectures on their own so they are able to better engage with faculty during classroom time. Research suggests, he noted, that the interactive video experience of a flipped classroom can be as effective as traditional lectures.

He cited the example of students who sit in the back of lecture halls with their laptops open to such distractions as Facebook. “The large lecture doesn’t capture students, especially students with short attention spans,” he said.

Looking to the future, the president made five predictions:

  • Online educational technologies will begin to dominate the market for vocational certificates, skills and training, and post-graduate continuing education.
  • Online analytics will become more sophisticated and yield better learning through real-time learning measurement.
  • Online learning will become more engaging and compelling and supportable through reuse of materials.
  • Online grading will be improved, enabling, for instance, automated grading of short-answer questions and, someday, complex problems.
  • Online technology will make smaller group and project-oriented classes easier to offer through, for instance, virtual team meetings. He cited as an example Stanford’s Design Thinking Action Lab.

Hennessy noted that computer-assisted instruction has been anticipated since the 1960s, when educators imagined highly interactive and tailored educational tools.

“It didn’t happen,” he said. “There were a lot of things that were not right.” Scholars discovered, he said, that “human learning is far more complicated than we realized early on.”

Future progress, he said, will require experimentation, sufficient computing capacity and – perhaps most important – time to try different approaches. But he expressed optimism that technological tools will evolve to act as “amplifiers” to continue to help improve teaching in the future.

Year of Learning

To discuss the subject in more depth, the president invited three faculty members to join him, including John Mitchell, vice provost for teaching and learning (VPTL); Amir Eshel, professor of German studies and of comparative literature; and Candace Thille, assistant professor of education.

Mitchell, whose office supports innovative teaching and works to leverage digital technologies, used the occasion to announce the 2015-16 Year of Learning. In collaboration with schools and programs across campus, VPTL hopes to spur discussion about a range of subjects involving technology, including how Stanford and other institutions can best pursue teaching, learning and research in the 21st century.

Among the subject areas Mitchell anticipates exploring through the Year of Learning are advancing the art and science of teaching and learning; the changing ecology of higher education; and the future of Stanford teaching, learning and research in higher education’s changing environment.

Eshel’s comments built on the experiences of humanities scholars who have created the online Lacuna Stories, a collaborative annotation platform that allows students and instructors to become a community of active learners. The platform, used to learn about historical events, for instance, enables the gathering and integration of materials from a wide variety of sources to create a variety of narratives that have the potential to engage students in a more creative way.

“We saw levels of creativity I have not seen before,” Eshel said, adding that students were “engaging in serious, critical discussion.” He said technology can make a difference for students in what he called the five C’s: the collaborative, the communal, the creative, the critical and the civic arenas.

Thille, who also serves as a senior research fellow in VPTL, works on applying results from the learning sciences to the design, implementation and evaluation of open web-based learning environments.

She said that technology has many “big powers,” including the ability to make learning accessible and convenient, as well as interesting and interactive. But, she said, “the biggest power of this technology is that it makes the process of learning visible” and thus measurable for research and improvement.

“Our role as a research university deeply committed to teaching and learning is to step out in front and start co-creating really interesting research questions,” Thille said.

Highlights of the year

In his opening remarks to the Academic Council, President Hennessy characterized the 2014-15 academic year as a successful one, noting 12 important events and accomplishments, including the February visit of President Barack Obama for the White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection. Hennessy noted that the event was the first summit of the Obama administration that was held outside of Washington, D.C.

Hennessy also highlighted faculty members honored with awards, including chemistry Professor W.E. Moerner‘s Nobel Prize and mathematics Professor Maryam Mirzakhani‘s Fields Medal. In addition, psychology Associate Professor Jennifer Eberhardt was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, while mechanical engineering Professor Sheri Sheppard was named U.S. Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Hennessy noted appointments made throughout the year, including Persis Drell as dean of the School of Engineering and Michael McFaul as director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

The academic year has also seen advancements in campus facilities, including the opening of the Anderson Collection at Stanford University, which features modern and contemporary American paintings and sculpture; the near-completion of the new Arts District; the renovation of the new Lathrop Library; and the addition of the Windhover contemplative center. Also notable, the president said, was the completion of the Stanford Energy System Innovations, which will cut the university’s greenhouse gas emissions by 68 percent.

The president also praised the expansion of financial aid offerings during the school year.

Russell Berman, professor of German studies and of comparative literature and chair of the Faculty Senate, also summarized the accomplishments of the 47th Senate of the Academic Council. He highlighted specific efforts to focus on such areas as the wellbeing of students; the campus climate; academic opportunities, improvement and challenges; faculty governance; research and teaching policies; and the university’s physical environment.