Stanford faculty is embracing online teaching opportunities

The team leading Stanford's online education initiative announces seed grants to faculty members across campus for course development. "It's been a grassroots phenomenon, which really reflects Stanford's tradition of innovation and creativity," said John Mitchell, professor of computer science and President John Hennessy's special assistant for educational technology.

Responding to a university-wide call for proposals last month, more than 40 individual faculty and small teams outlined plans for innovation in online learning, and around half – from the schools of Humanities and Sciences, Education, Medicine and Engineering – will receive full or partial funding.

The proposals for the coming academic year cover a wide range of topics including gender in science, solar cells, head and neck anatomy, public health and organizational analysis. The faculty will use the grants not only to experiment with new models of teaching but also to conduct research to determine what works best for them.

"These exciting proposals from across the university show that many members of the faculty are interested in trying new teaching methods and using technology to improve their classes," said John Mitchell, the Mary and Gordon Crary Family Professor in the School of Engineering and President John Hennessy's special assistant for educational technology. "It's been a grassroots phenomenon, which really reflects Stanford's tradition of innovation and creativity."

Those leading the online education initiative on campus stress that the multiple proposals emanating from the faculty, and the varied technological solutions being put forward to accommodate them, show how broad and multifaceted online education can be.

"The level of interest from the faculty has been building steadily," Mitchell said. "There is nothing top-down about this. In line with Stanford's longtime experience in experimentation, there is something of a start-up mood all across campus. And many faculty members really want to get their message out to potential students around the world."

University leaders also emphasize that though enormous technological and social transformations may revolutionize the higher education model that has been in place for centuries, the quality of a Stanford education and Stanford's ultimate mission will remain unchanged. The point is to improve learning on campus and expand access to a Stanford education beyond the Farm, they say.

Clearly there is widespread interest among the faculty in developing either entirely new courses or supplementing existing courses with online content. Most of the seed-grant applicants aim for a blended experience; they want to experiment with flipped classrooms – where lectures are delivered online by adding videos and cool tools but personal contact is retained – and augmented – by working on problems together. They are not necessarily interested, at least not yet, in the massive open online courses (MOOCs) that have garnered so much publicity.

"Stanford can leverage the social aspect of these courses," Mitchell said. "Students really know how to use social networking platforms to spread new ideas and think collectively, so bringing this dimension into learning, and combining it with face-to-face interaction, can generate a lot of excitement."

Mitchell also leads the Presidential Advisory Committee on Technology in Higher Education, a body convened in February to provide guidance to the university. In particular, it is examining policy issues, content production and content delivery. Its report will be issued later this summer.

The seed grants awarded in June will help pay for teaching assistants and video specialists and for developing peer evaluation models and grading rubrics. Some applicants are familiar with technology, others are not, but in all cases, Stanford faculty are learning to leverage the technology to enrich learning, regardless of their field. Several of the faculty proposals build on existing websites or on ongoing relationships with other institutions.

There are a growing number of platforms for hosting online classes; some of the best known were developed by faculty at Stanford. To date, Stanford has offered 11 courses on Coursera, a company founded by two faculty members currently on leave, and 14 on Stanford on iTunes U (including the phenomenally successful course on apps development), with more on the way. Stanford on YouTube and the Stanford Center for Professional Development also were pioneers in online education. There are several homegrown platforms under development here or already running, each with particular features, tools and assessment techniques.

"MOOCs are not necessarily the best or only model for Stanford," Mitchell told a gathering of humanities and social sciences faculty members in June. "There are many possible models, so we all need to become tech-literate and figure out what's best for us."

He and his colleagues told faculty that developing new courses is not about choosing the "right" platform. Instead, the real challenge is how to best reach students by combining video, online social networking, simulated experiments and interactive on-campus classes.

The seed funds are drawn from presidential funds and the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education. Proposals that were not funded now are nonetheless eligible for assistance from the online learning team.

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