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Craig Kapitan, News Service (650) 724-5708;

Campus asked to debate principles of distance education

The Committee on Research presented the Faculty Senate last week with what it hopes will be the outline for a debate over the next few months on Stanford's policies toward distance learning. The debate may lead to adoption of an official policy on the issue sometime next year.

Distance learning has been a part of the Stanford curriculum since the 1960s, when it was pioneered with televised courses in the School of Engineering. But in the past decade, with the dot-com tidal wave new ideas and projects have been launched at an almost frenzied rate.

Now the pace along with the race to keep up with other institutions has started to slow down, giving the university an opportunity for reflection.

"The recent economic downturn has taken some of the wind out of the sails of this distance learning venture, and gives some time for the campus to seriously contemplate the pluses and the minuses of how the university should be involved," SLAC Professor David Leith, chair of the 2000-01 Committee on Research, told the senate.

Although Stanford should continue to explore distance learning, he continued, "it also clearly raises questions about intellectual property, it raises questions about faculty conflict of commitment and it raises questions of individual faculty and institutional conflict of interest."

The committee hopes to center the debate around five principles of distance learning:

  • Obligations to the Stanford community;
  • Institutional integrity;
  • Internal dissemination of materials;
  • Faculty allegiance to Stanford; and
  • Use of the Stanford name.

As for obligations to the Stanford community, the committee hopes to come up with a concrete definition of what a student is. Once easily defined as those attending classes on campus, the definition grew somewhat murky once the Internet boom made it easy for students to take Stanford-created classes from living rooms around the globe.

"As we increase the boundary of the Stanford community, we need to understand the relationship of that larger community to those resident, fee-paying undergraduate and graduate students," Leith explained.

Institutional integrity refers to the university's conflict of interest policy. The policy is fairly strong and still relevant regarding individual faculty members, Leith said. However, distance learning creates new conflict of interest possibilities with entire departments. Lured by the potential cash streams of Internet startups, deans and department chairs may allocate too much space or resources to an endeavor, he explained.

"At the time before the NASDAQ collapse, I think the university had gotten into the position that this was a way to make money and that most of the drivers for any sort of distance learning were based on the amount of revenue or the mythology that this was the way to produce education much more cheaply," said Eric Roberts, associate dean of the School of Engineering. "The key principle has to be that what we're seeking to do is maximize educational benefits and not economic ones."

The committee also hopes to get feedback on how the university should approach the dissemination of materials created by faculty. Generally, materials developed by faculty and staff are available for fair use throughout the university, but agreements with outside agencies could challenge that.

"Clearly, it would be inappropriate for arrangements made either by the university or by individuals to somehow curtail the free access to educational materials developed by Stanford faculty," Leith said. "[But] as one looks at initial drafts of some distance learning contracts, that's something to worry about."

Lastly, the university must contend with issues of primary allegiance and use of its name. Stanford faculty members must be careful about additional commitments they make to outside organizations and companies, the committee says. The university also must be careful about what companies it allows to use its name. Currently, the university's name and reputation are used as marketing tools for several online ventures, including UNext, Teachscape and SemiZone. If the university is to continue to develop partnerships, it should also develop guidelines to ensure "the standards that are involved under the name of Stanford are not eroded," Leith said.

Although senators said they appreciated the committee's work, some wondered aloud if, with the initial Internet boom now over, the debate might be a few years too late.

"It seems to me we've moved down the road a fair distance already," said Robert Simoni, biological sciences, pointing to a list of distance learning projects already under way. "Maybe it's past time to be setting up principles."

Common sense and careful planning have driven university-funded distance learning projects so far, Provost John Etchemendy responded. There also has been one underlying principle.

"The strategy that we adopted here, though it may not look like it, was really quite intentional," he said. "We wanted to be involved in several different ventures, but we did not want to be involved in a huge way that would risk large amounts of university money, as other universities that I'm sure you've heard about have done to, at this point, their chagrin. I think that so far the strategy has worked quite well.

"We have been a part, and really are a part, of all the currently viable distance education companies, and we have not expended great university resources. So we're trying to keep educated as an institution about what this is [and] how it can benefit us. Maybe it can't benefit us, but we'd like to know."


By Craig Kapitan

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