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In massive online course offered by Stanford, teams unleash diverse approaches to creativity

Innovative 'Crash Course' inspires students around the world to think in new ways.

If there's one thing everybody in the world can agree upon, no matter where they are, who they are or what language they speak, it's that they don't get enough sleep.

L.A. CiceroTina Seelig speaking with student

In her online course 'A Crash Course in Creativity,' Tina Seelig created global teams of students.

That was Tina Seelig's thought when she devised one of the assignments for her 8-week-long online course, A Crash Course in Creativity, offered fall quarter. The software platform for the course was Venture Lab, which was developed at Stanford and is predicated on students working in teams.

In Seelig's view, teamwork is extremely valuable for generating creative solutions to a challenging problem. Each person brings a different point of view and unique experiences. By connecting and combining their ideas, teamwork dramatically expands the solution set.

"By opening this course to thousands of people from around the world, the experiences they collectively brought to each project were astounding," said Seelig, a professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering (MS&E) and faculty member of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school), as well as executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.

From the very start, Seelig was clear that an online version of her Stanford course on creativity (MS&E 277: Creativity and Innovation) would not just multiply the number of students; rather, she could entirely change the way she taught. By the end of the course she was convinced that she had, indeed, pulled off something very, very different.

"I was amazed by how much effort students from around the globe put into the class and the remarkably diverse work they submitted," she said. "With so many students working on the same challenge, we all got to see such a vast array of creative solutions. Instead of a painting, it was a collage!"

Working in teams

The most challenging aspect of the course, Seelig said, was also one of its chief virtues: the opportunity to build global teams of students. At the d.school, teams are reshuffled frequently, but replicating that process online with thousands of students turned out to be a bit daunting.

On Venture Lab, teams can be formed algorithmically, based on information that students submit about themselves. The program then sorts them based on their preferences. Or, they can be formed organically, with students choosing their own partners. Seelig's course did both, and she found that the algorithmic process resulted in many teams with participants with wildly different levels of commitment, which led to frustration. Most students spent 4 to 6 hours a week on assignments, but there were some who spent much more or much less.

The next time she offers the course, Seelig said, she will let students choose their own teammates after a couple of individual assignments, and those teams will stay in place for the entire course.

Creative solutions

Assignments alternated between individual and team-based, but all were aimed at encouraging students to look at old things in new ways. For example, one individual assignment, called "Framing and Reframing," challenged students to "look at bread in a new way" and to share their results by posting videos, slides or drawings on the class website. Another, called "Connect and Combine," asked them to invent a new sport using any two household items.

The final team assignment, called "Challenging Assumptions," was the one on sleep deprivation. It was a four-week team project. The first week, teams had to frame the problem by picking the sleep issue they wanted to tackle. The second week, they brainstormed to generate a list of at least 100 solutions. The third week they reflected on the effectiveness of their team dynamics. For the final week they had to create an imaginative presentation.

A team in Prague created a sleep pillow that projects images of leaping sheep; others offered methods for disposing of noisy neighbors or resisting work demands; and a six-member team from Russia created an updated version of Agent 007, James Bond, who is swiftly dispatched to liquidate Dr. No(isy).

"Tina's creativity exercises really put the spotlight on the students, not the professor," said Venture Lab designer Amin Saberi, an associate professor in MS&E, who currently is on leave while he seeks partners in other universities who want to offer courses on his platform.

"Her class is a powerful example of the pedagogical approach we want to promote, in which teachers don't give answers, or even pretend to know them, but help students unleash their own potential."

The student survey Seelig conducted at the end of the course yielded valuable information both for her and for all Stanford faculty involved in online teaching. More than 40,000 students signed up for the class, and approximately 5,000 students completed it. This drop-off is common in classes that require a significant investment of time and effort.

Participants came from all over the world. Most had college degrees and half were women. All were eager to get comments on their submitted work, Seelig said. Most of the feedback came from their classmates, another key feature of the Venture Lab platform. Seelig plans to have several teaching assistants to help with providing feedback when she offers the course again.

"This time I didn't have a TA because I wanted to see everything," she said. "This course was a huge learning experience for me. It was the students' crash course on creativity, and it was my crash course on online learning. My homework was to have my finger on the pulse of the course so that I could see exactly what was working and what can be improved in future iterations."

At the end of the course students were asked to take a picture of themselves, in a representative location in their town, holding up a sign with one key lesson from the course. The final video montage shows beaming students from Brazil, Saudi Arabia, India, Romania, Peru, Italy, the Philippines and Mexico, with children and shopping centers and apartment buildings and Christmas trees and traffic jams, all holding up hand-written signs.

"I was on the class website yesterday," Saberi said in early January, "and I noted there were hundreds of students logged on even though the course ended more than two weeks ago. They're still collaborating, working on projects together and staying in touch."

Looking ahead, Seelig said she is excited about experimenting with online learning. There are endless variables to change, tools to test and methods to try.

"Instead of eight lectures, I plan to create a set of one-week modules that can be used on demand, so that students can access them when they need them," she said. "This new platform gives us the opportunity to rethink every variable of teaching: the number of students, the number of classes, the length of each class, evaluations. This will have a significant impact on learning experiences for Stanford students, in executive education programs and for the community at large."

Media Contact

R. F. MacKay, Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning: rmackay@stanford.edu