Free online Stanford courses: 'Everything that we're doing is experimental'

At its first meeting of spring quarter, the Faculty Senate heard presentations about three well-established Stanford programs that offer online courses, and on the university's newest online courses, which are available free from Coursera.

Philosophy Professor Debra Satz brought a moment of levity to an otherwise serious discussion of online education at Thursday's Faculty Senate meeting when she asked whether Stanford would be pursuing an in-house or "out-house" approach.

"It is very exciting and scary and it's really important for Stanford to get it right, because a lot of places are looking to us," said Satz, the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society, in a question-and-answer session following presentations on programs offered by the Stanford Center for Professional Development, Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies, Stanford on iTunes U and Coursera.

L.A. Cicero John Mitchell speaking to Faculty Senate

At present, there are more questions than answers about online education, John Mitchell, special assistant to President John Hennessy for educational technology, left, told the Faculty Senate.

"I know we don't really know which way is the right way to go," Satz continued. "One thing I'm interested in is that the first three programs are in-house programs and Coursera is an out-of-house program. MIT, which is also thinking this through, with MITx, [its online education initiative] is doing an in-house version. How do you think about in house, out house? Which is the best?"

When the laughter died down, Provost John Etchemendy said: "We are being very careful to preserve our options. So we haven't made a decision on that question. Everything that we're doing is experimental."

Etchemendy said two of the three free online courses offered last fall by Stanford were in-house efforts. (Currently, the Coursera website lists 11 Stanford courses.)

"We're trying this using Coursera technology," he said, referring to the start-up founded by two Stanford engineering professors. "We are going to be launching some other experiments with some other platforms."

Stanford offers a variety of online learning opportunities, many of which are free and open to the general public.

John Mitchell, who was appointed in January as special assistant to President John Hennessy for educational technology, said there are other paradigms to choose from and a growing external industry providing options for online courses.

"Part of the experiment is to figure out what's a good forum for an external course," said Mitchell, who also is the chair of a faculty committee on educational technology.

Mitchell said that Stanford owns the content of the courses offered by Coursera. The courses are produced on campus. Under Stanford's agreement with Coursera, the company can offer the courses once.

Mitchell, the Mary and Gordon Crary Family Professor in the School of Engineering, said the faculty committee on educational technology is exploring some of the complex issues around providing high-quality, online education.

"Our charge is about five pages long and there are 40 questions per page," he said.

Mitchell said those questions could be organized into three main topics: intellectual property and faculty policy, content production, and content delivery.

Among the questions the committee is considering: What kind of autonomy do faculty have, or should faculty have, with regard to the course material – distributing it, selling it, providing it to a for-profit entity – and what should be our position as a university on that? How can we help people experiment with technology? Should we build our own delivery platform? How should we handle the delivery of this content so that this works in the best interests of the university?

At present, Mitchell said, there are more questions than answers.

Mitchell said it would be beneficial for Stanford to become a leader in online education.

"This appears to be a great opportunity for us," he said. "For faculty that have tried these widely distributed courses so far, they've found it very rewarding in terms of recognition. People talk about flying to some foreign city and being recognized on the streets and being asked for autographs."

Mitchell said the success of online courses has motivated some Stanford faculty to try new approaches to teaching.

"One of the things I've seen that I think is really exciting – regardless of your view of who we should reach off campus and so on – is that many faculty are rethinking their courses, how to present them, how to develop them," he said.

Andrea Goldsmith, a professor of electrical engineering, said online courses may be perfect for some classes.

"But I worry about this being the new model, in the same way that when PowerPoint came along people said all lectures should be in PowerPoint, and they shouldn't," she said. "What is this technology appropriate for? I think that's an important question to ask. A deeper question: Should we be educating hundreds of thousands or millions of students? Should that be Stanford's mission? That's an important element of this experiment. How is that adding to Stanford's educational mission? Is it detracting from it in other ways?"

Goldsmith said that if the experiment works, she would like Stanford to adopt an in-house approach to online courses.

Minutes available next week

The full minutes of the meeting, including the presentations of panelists and the question-and-answer session, will be available next week on the senate's website.

In addition to Etchemendy, who gave a sweeping historical overview of higher education dating back to 1200, and Mitchell, the panelists included Lisa Lapin, assistant vice president for university communications, who talked about Stanford on iTunes U; Paul Marca, executive director of the Stanford Center for Professional Development; and Raymond Ravaglia, associate dean and director of Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies.

The next senate meeting will be held May 3.