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Stanford faculty members share their online education experiences

In a new series of videos, Stanford faculty share their experiences in developing online coursework and their thoughts on where online learning may be headed.

Stanford faculty members are playing a leading role in exploring online education – and a number of them are now sharing experiences about their activities and what they are learning in a new series of videos available on the Stanford Online website.

It was the fall of 2011 when Stanford University professors put a trio of popular computer science courses on the web for free, fueling a wave of publicity over the following year about massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

While Stanford faculty continue to develop MOOCs, the array of online exploration on campus is much wider. Faculty are teaching more Stanford on-campus courses with online components. They're exploring new ways of packaging online content for different audiences with varied needs. And they're asking the big questions about where online is going and what it means for education itself.

"MOOCs are just the tip of the iceberg," said John Mitchell, professor of computer science and Stanford's first vice provost for online learning. "One of the great things about online technology is we can produce one kind of material – a video, an interactive session, an experimental laboratory that is online – and use it in multiple different ways. We're evolving our way of presenting educational material."

Since January 2012, Mitchell said, 64 Stanford courses have been taught fully or partially online by 48 different faculty members using one of three new platforms – Coursera, Class2Go or Venture Lab. Some of this online coursework was for on-campus Stanford students, and some was packaged as MOOCs for the broader world.

Stanford's free public courses have drawn approximately 2 million student registrations over the last year.  Close to 1 million individuals have watched online videos as part of a Stanford MOOC, and an estimated 100,000 have completed all the coursework associated with these challenging online courses.

These numbers are in addition to the tens of thousands of students receiving online Stanford coursework through existing programs not using these new platforms.

For instance, the Stanford Center for Professional Development for years has offered various School of Engineering certificate and degree programs using online coursework either in whole or in part. Stanford was the first university to use iTunes U to provide public access to courses, concerts and lectures. Videotaped coursework has been available on platforms such as the Entrepreneurship Corner, Stanford Engineering Everywhere and Stanford's YouTube channel. Stanford also operates an Online High School for talented students around the world in grades 7-12.

There is widespread excitement and healthy academic debate on campus, Mitchell said. Not all faculty have embraced online technology, of course, and many have questions about its uses and implications.

However, in the new videos on the Stanford Online website, Stanford faculty from a variety of schools and disciplines describe some of things they are learning as they test the waters. For instance:

Online technology is not just for distance learners. It can be used to enhance education for on-campus students, too, because providing lecture material by video in advance can free up classroom time for more interactive discussion.

"When I heard about online education, my first reaction was to say, wait a minute, that's so impersonal," said Maya Adam, a lecturer in human biology. "The magic for me is the performance of a great lecture and that inspiration you get from a really great teacher. What was surprising to me was the fact that I had more of that. I had the ability to engage the students more."

Charles Prober, senior associate dean in the Stanford School of Medicine, said this realization was incorporated into the very name of his school's online effort.

"We're so sensitive that people would misunderstand what we're doing in online learning that we named the initiative at the School of Medicine 'Stanford Medicine Interactive Learning Initiatives,'" Prober said. "It's a combination of the online content enriched by the interaction that then occurs in the classroom, with the students rubbing shoulders with each other and with their faculty."

Experimentation with online education has stimulated new faculty discussions about teaching and learning itself.

"There is enormous excitement amongst the faculty," said Nick McKeown, professor of computer science, who last fall taught a networking course both as a MOOC and as a "flipped" class for on-campus Stanford students. "There has been more discussion of teaching, the right ways to teach, the methods that work, because of this whole online education [movement]."

Online technology can enhance flexibility for both instructors and students – allowing students to absorb lecture material at their own pace and allowing instructors to archive and update their course content.

"Don't try to take your entire 10-week course and move the entire course online," advised Dan Boneh, professor of computer science and of electrical engineering. "I would really suggest doing it in chunks. In addition to starting small and only doing five weeks at a time, this idea of recording very short segments, 10-minute segments, is a really good idea."

Online education will need to take many different forms to address the educational needs of different audiences. Stanford faculty are exploring a variety of options for building out the online experience – including online versions of discussion sections and office hours, more personalized learning opportunities and the development of course "modules" that can be used more interchangeably than full courses.

"We're really excited about exploring creating modules of content," said Tina Seelig, professor of the practice in management science and engineering. "We're calling these JOLTs, or Just-in-time Online Learning Tools. Many classes in our entrepreneurship series require students to be able to read a term sheet or a balance sheet. Why teach that in every single class, if you can have a JOLT that you assign?"

MOOCs offer new opportunities to learn about learning itself.

"In my typical class I might have 40 students," Seelig said. "That means when they do a project, there are 10 teams of four – so when I give a challenge, we get to see 10 solutions to that problem. Well, if I have 40,000 students, then we get to see a huge number of solutions."

Dan McFarland, associate professor of education, said MOOCs also bring Stanford to new populations of students, including those in developing countries and many who are working full time. "Affording knowledge to the world is expanding the function of the university and what the university is relating to," McFarland said. "We're gaining more legitimacy with populations of people without money, with people who aren't elites, and I think that's part of our mission as a nonprofit. Plus, we're finding all these wonderful people out there we wouldn't learn about otherwise."

Despite online offerings, there remains a critical place for a residential undergraduate education like that which Stanford offers.

"There's really no substitute for being in the same place with someone else to really talk directly and communicate most effectively," said Mitchell, the vice provost for online learning. "We're not trying to use online tools to replace a residential Stanford education. We're trying to supplement and extend our set of activities on campus to make being a Stanford student an even richer educational experience."

The data generated through online courses and the larger questions that online education poses for higher education itself offer a rich set of research opportunities for education researchers.

"It's the beginning of a wholesale reorganization of teaching and learning in higher education," said Mitchell Stevens, associate professor of education and co-convener of Education's Digital Future, a hub of academic discussion around these issues. "It will very soon be an unignorable phenomenon. This is not a fringe activity. This is something that will be reorganizing the entire sector."

Media Contact

Brad Hayward, University Communications: (650) 724-0199, bhayward@stanford.edu