Online's range getting wider and deeper as Stanford's course offerings take advantage of new technology

As new MOOCs are made available to the world at large, professors innovate on campus to make Stanford-only courses more exciting and effective.

L.A. Cicero Larry Diamond portrait

Among the MOOCs offered in spring is 'Democratic Development,' taught by Larry Diamond, a professor of political science and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Around 20 Stanford courses will be taught entirely or partially online this spring. According to the university's Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning, some courses have been taught before, others are brand new; some are entirely for public consumption, while others are reserved for on-campus students.

While at first online courses tended to emphasize computer science and engineering, the offerings now include courses from political science, the humanities and public health, among many other fields.

"It's great to see more of last year's faculty interest come to fruition this year in new course experiences," said John Mitchell, vice provost for online learning. "Not only are we seeing new approaches on increasingly sophisticated online platforms, but additional faculty from a broader range of academic fields are finding new ways to connect with their students here on campus."

As in previous quarters, courses are offered on a variety of platforms, including the open-source Class2Go, developed by a team of Stanford engineers; Coursera, founded by Stanford computer science professors currently on leave; Venture Lab, founded by faculty and graduate students from the Department of Management Science and Engineering; and older, more established platforms such as Stanford's CourseWork, iTunes U and YouTube. Unlike many other universities, Stanford allows professors to choose whichever platform best suits their pedagogical purposes.

MOOCs for everyone

Among the massive open online courses, or MOOCs, offered in spring is Democratic Development, taught by Larry Diamond, a professor of political science and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Diamond describes his course as a "broad, introductory survey of the political, social, cultural, economic, institutional and international factors that foster and obstruct the development and consolidation of democracy."

Another course being taught to the public at large is Graph Partitioning and Expanders; instructor Luca Trevisan is a professor of computer science. The course is based on CS366, which is aimed at advanced students. The online version will be on Venture Lab, a platform whose outstanding feature is that much of the classwork is done by student teams.

Diamond's class is set to start April 1, and Trevisan's class April 15. Later in the month Mobile Health Without Borders will make its debut. This is a unique offering, taught by three Stanford physicians with vast international experience. It will be structured like a conference, with lectures by a wide array of experts, online discussions and team projects.

And Maya Adam, who teaches in the Program in Human Biology, will unveil the MOOC version of her Introduction to Child Nutrition (HumBio81Q), complete with videos on how to cook healthful meals for kids.

Other MOOCs include Social and Economic Networks, by economics Professor Matt Jackson, taught on Coursera; Statistics in Medicine, by Kristin Sainani, an epidemiologist who previously taught a course on science-writing on Coursera and has now switched to Class2Go; and a rerun of Machine Learning, taught by Andrew Ng, one of Coursera's co-founders.

Classes for Stanford students

Stanford students also are benefitting from new technology and pedagogical approaches. There are many classes featuring online technology and videos open only to enrolled students.

One of these is Networks: Ecological, Revolutionary, Digital, taught by Dan Edelstein, an associate professor in the Department of French and Italian with historical leanings, and Deborah Gordon, a professor of biology whose work on ants has garnered international attention. Edelstein's networks involve expansive letter-writing in 18th-century Europe among writers, thinkers, scientists and ambassadors; Gordon's involve, of course, ants. For several years Edelstein has been working on an international team developing an ambitious Republic of Letters website that will form an integral part of the class, with students building on network structures already in place to consider the relationships between intellectual and natural worlds.

Anne Friedlander's Applied Topics in Physiology (HumBio135s) includes videos made with the Stanford Storytelling Project designed to help students learn to explain science through narrative. Throughout the quarter, students will create podcasts about such topics as sports and exercise, cardiovascular health and aging.

Stanford has been a pioneer in online learning, or distance learning, for decades, and it continues devoting attention to pre-MOOC vehicles. Among them are the Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD) and Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE), both at the School of Engineering. SCPD currently is offering for-tuition courses leading to certificates and graduate degrees. SEE offers open education resources for popular Stanford engineering classes; there is no charge.

Many of the online or blended courses offered this quarter were made possible by seed grants awarded by the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning; some received additional support from specific schools of the university.

For a complete list of upcoming courses, as well as archived material from past classes and information on seed grants, visit Stanford Online.

R. F. MacKay is a writer for the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning.

Amy Collier, Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning: (650) 725-4164,

Brad Hayward, University Communications: (650) 724-0199,

R. F. MacKay, Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning: