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At Stanford, scholars debate the promises, pitfalls of online learning

Tanner Lecturer and respondents tackle the challenges of preserving the best of higher education while venturing onto new ground.

L.A. Cicero William Bowen speaking at Stanford

Now is the time for innovation in online learning, scholar William Bowen told the Stanford audience.

For the first time in centuries, university administrators and intellectuals are seriously questioning the logic of how we teach and learn, and for the first time, we may actually have the technology to shift the education paradigm. The bad news, according to scholar William G. Bowen, is that there is no quick fix, though clearly technology is a large part of the solution.

Online learning is not just one thing, and it is far from static, he said during his lecture Oct. 11 titled "Prospects for an Online Fix: Can We Harness Technology in the Service of Our Aspiration?" But it is here to stay. He was once a skeptic, he emphasized, and he rarely has visions, but today he's a convert.

"Now is the time" for online learning innovation, he stated at the start of his lecture, but he went on to point to three barriers to implementation: little hard data, no shared software platforms to ensure widespread adoption and the need to change our mindset.

Can we imagine a different sort of university? That was the challenge he presented his audience in the second of two lectures. Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton University and of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, was the keynote speaker for the 2012 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford last week. He also is a former professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton and the author or co-author of more than 20 books, most of them concerning higher education.

Regarding what he called the "appalling" lack of hard data, Bowen referred to a study by his nonprofit educational organization, Ithaka, on a single online course offered by Carnegie Mellon University. (The study, and his lectures, are on Ithaka's website.) Researchers found no statistically significant differences in learning outcomes between traditional classes and hybrid-online classes, and this finding was "relentlessly consistent" across campuses and subgroups – undermining arguments that online learning is suited only for certain groups.

The study also explored how institutions might save money by gradually shifting to hybrid-online learning, though the writers found it difficult to compare cost outcomes. They plan to expand the sample to various massive open online classes, or MOOCs, across different platforms.

Regarding the missing shared platform for hosting online classes, universities are taking different approaches. Some are putting classes onto the Coursera platform, an education technology company used by professors from more than 30 universities, including Stanford. Others, including Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and MIT/Harvard, are developing their own platforms for hosting MOOCs. Stanford's homegrown platforms are Class2Go and Venture Lab; Coursera and Udacity were developed by Stanford professors but are now off campus.

"I believe that the educational community should make every effort to take advantage of the great strengths" of existing platforms, Bowen said, adding that there is a formidable challenge in making them suitable for instructing tens of thousands of students worldwide while also serving the needs of a particular institution.

He ended his Thursday evening lecture with a call for patience, "that rarest of virtues."

Thoreau and the railroad

Waiting patiently all night were Bowen's respondents, who have been garnering headlines for their innovations and ideas: Daphne Koller, a Stanford computer science professor who currently is on leave, is a co-founder of Coursera. Andrew Delbanco, director of American Studies at Columbia University, is the author of the widely reviewed College: What It Was, Is and Should Be, which Stanford President John Hennessy said was on his reading list when he was on sabbatical earlier this year.

L.A. CiceroHoward Gardner, John Hennessy and William Bowen

William Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton, right, speaks Wednesday evening at a discussion of the first Tanner Lecture on 'The Productivity Problem in Higher Education.' Also pictured are Howard Gardner, Harvard professor of cognition and education, left, and Stanford President John Hennessy.

Delbanco began his remarks at a discussion session Friday morning by pointing to two recent magazine covers: Newsweek's asked, "Is College a Lousy Investment?" and showed a young couple strolling arm-in-arm across an empty, verdant lawn with lovely neo-Gothic buildings in the distance. The image, Delbanco said, is a "gross caricature," given that one-third of U.S. students are working adults enrolled in underfunded public schools. Boston magazine, meanwhile, depicted a young man eating breakfast in his pajamas while working on his Mac. Above him were the words, "Is This the College Classroom of the Future?" Together, Delbanco said, the images capture public perceptions of the state of higher education and indicate – as Bowen pointed out the previous evening – that public support may be eroding, yet another imperative for reinventing higher education.

"The smart money is on the survival" of universities, Delbanco said, but they will not look the same. The faculty as we know it will undergo deep transformations as numbers diminish and stars emerge. The world of for-profit and nonprofit enterprises will collide. And the humanities, said Delbanco, a scholar of American literature, may be left behind.

"The future is coming; that's the definition of the future," he acknowledged, then turned to Thoreau to underline his point – and his fear: "We do not ride upon the railroad; it rides upon us."

Delbanco used the cautionary quote, yet he said he shares Koller's enthusiasm, though with "certain constitutional doubts." He remains unconvinced that new educational technologies necessarily suit the neediest students, and he also observed that new technologies outside the realm of education have not exactly raised the level of discourse, whether private, public or political.

'Missionary spirit'

Riding high atop the railroad is Koller, who followed Delbanco in responding to Bowen on Friday morning. Online learning is an opportunity to "release ourselves from the shackles" of traditional teaching, she said. Yes, some virtues will be lost, but many more will be gained, and the social interaction of the classroom – what Bowen referred to in his lecture as "minds rubbing against minds" – can to a certain extent be built into the technology.

Koller expressed disappointment with Ithaka's findings that there is little difference between traditional and online learning and with the study's inability to detect cost savings. She turned to Bowen's own speech to make her argument: We have very few cases to go on, she said, and the initial costs are enormous. "We weren't trained" to teach in a flipped classroom, she noted. "It's hard." But as it gets easier, it gets better and cheaper. Bowen agreed.

Koller also pointed to the enormous potential of the analytics gleaned from online learning, where hundreds of thousands of students show us what works and what doesn't. This is "truly a miraculous opportunity," she said, whose possibilities will be revealed only over time.

Reflecting what Bowen called her "missionary spirit incarnate," Koller appealed to the values of higher education so unanimously embraced by all the Tanner series participants. Online learning offers the chance for risk-free intellectual exploration, which in turn makes us better members of society, she said. It opens people's minds to new places, it enables gifted students far away to learn about and even enroll in Stanford, and it could help reduce population growth as more women expand their horizons.

"If we could educate people, we could make the world a much better place," Koller said. The poorest people in Africa wish for more food, of course, but above all, she said, they want education for their children, and online learning can make that possible.

Bowen's reply to his two interlocutors returned to his plea Thursday for a "portfolio approach" to curricular development with a carefully calibrated mix of learning styles. Some learning involves fairly simple delivery of facts; other learning necessarily entails face-to-face tutoring or group discussion. "We have to avoid the all-or-nothing, one-size-fits-all approach," he said. The Ithaka study provided a baseline, a starting point.

Questions from the audience Friday morning concerned the humanities, the danger of a decreasing choice of courses (just as many fields today essentially have only one or two standard textbooks) and student retention in online courses. Concerning that last point, Koller said she is unconcerned if thousands of students cease attending class after one or two sessions. They will have learned something, she said, if only that the course subject – say, machine learning – is not their thing.

And, she cautioned for probably the millionth time this year, "We've only been doing this since January!"

Hennessy, speaking from the audience, had the last word: "How do we preserve what we most love and treasure" about higher education, he asked, "while improving learning and reducing cost? That's the fundamental question."