Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, May 16, 2001
University treading carefully as it considers approaches to distance learning


Distance learning long has been part of Stanford's offerings. Courses have been broadcast on the Stanford Instructional Television Network since 1969 to off-campus students, and other innovative programs have, for example, taught math via the radio. But in the wake of a recent announcement by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that it plans to put all of its course material online within the next 10 years, Stanford faculty have a newly invigorated desire to define the university's long-range plan for distance learning.

In a public meeting that focused on distance learning, held Monday night by the Committee on Research, professors, staff and students debated the place of remote course work at Stanford.

An overriding theme was striking a balance between plunging into online programs that could result in increased exposure and profits and preserving Stanford's good name, investment dollars and faculty time.

If we think of distance learning as a wave, said Sam Steinhardt, chief financial and operations officer of learning technology and extended education, then Stanford ought to figure out where to position itself on its changing shape. "We're not sure if it's a big wave or just a tiny wave," he said. "We want to be situated so we can ride on top if it's big or slide off the back like we were never there if it's not."

Some schools have invested large sums in distance learning at their own peril, he pointed out. Columbia University backed Fathom, an online distance learning service, to the tune of $20 million. "Essentially, it flopped," Steinhardt reported. And with a sigh of relief, too: Fathom "was banging hard on our door 18 months ago and we passed. Now we're patting ourselves on the back," he said.

But this sense of caution has not kept Stanford from partnering with companies. The most prominent case is, with which Stanford has collaborated for two years. Steinhardt reported that five or six Graduate School of Business professors develop courses for the service, which then markets them under the auspices of UNext's Cardean University.

The deal financially benefits the university as well as individual faculty. "Stanford was paid development fees and some royalties to use Stanford's name for marketing," Steinhardt said.

Stanford retains the rights to use materials on internally, said David Brady, acting vice provost for learning technologies and extended education. "We can use it in class," he said. What is more, "we didn't bet a lot of money on it," he added.

The university also partners with the University Alliance for Lifelong Learning, a program that links Stanford with Oxford, Princeton and Yale to provide adult distance learning. Stanford has invested $3 million in the service, which has yet to be launched.

The only programs that award degrees from distance learning are in the School of Engineering, whose departments offer master's degrees. Paul Marca, director of professional education and business development at the Stanford Center for Professional Development, said departments are also considering offering bio-engineering degrees by distance-learning. (The university already offers a certificate in bioinformatics.) Companies generally pay about twice regular tuition to put their employees through distance degree programs.

But what about the conflict of interest that arises for professors and deans, who may be tempted to divert faculty time and energy to potentially money-making distance learning ventures?

John Perry, professor of philosophy, who studied this issue for the committee, said faculty distraction is "a conceivability."

To counteract possible problems, Perry outlined a variety of principles that ought to guide Stanford's distance learning efforts. Distance education ought not to interfere with Stanford's "institutional integrity," Perry said. "The Stanford name is a big deal ­ we want to be very careful of it," he added. And the university's teaching always should be available for internal use, he said.

The ultimate open model proposed by MIT ­ making university materials freely available not just to other faculty but also to the world ­ was not well received by Stanford officials. The MIT offerings, they said, would not give students a full learning experience.

"It's just a PR thing," Marca said.

Brady concurred. "All they'll do is release syllabuses," he said.

Instead, all agreed, the university will continue to forge its own course in distance learning. The consensus seemed to be that the decentralized model that is currently in use, where each program is developed on its own, should allow Stanford's faculty and departments the flexibility to create a wide range of distance learning offerings in the future.