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Reach out and teach: Distance education at Stanford

Come June, Vinay Srihari will receive a master's degree in computer science from Stanford ­ without ever having set foot in a Stanford classroom.

During the three years he worked on his degree, Srihari, a senior member of Oracle Corp.'s technical staff, occasionally visited campus to meet with professors, participate in team projects or do lab work. But he attended his classes in a television room at Oracle's Redwood Shores headquarters. Real-time lectures were beamed in through two-way video that allowed him to participate in class discussions. And if he could not pull himself away from his desk during class time, Srihari took a videotape home. A courier even came to his office to collect his homework.

"You could go down to the TV room in the company or watch the tapes over the weekend. You also have the option of going to campus, but there's rarely time during the day to do that," said Srihari, noting that he took 16 courses that way ­ all of them paid for by his employer.

Does Srihari's experience signal a future in which universities as we know them will cease to exist? Probably not. The Stanford Instructional Television Network (SITN), which has made distance learning courses possible, has been around since 1969 and has yet to render the university obsolete. Nevertheless, the world's rapidly changing technological landscape does challenge traditional notions of a university education. This largely uncharted territory is littered with such questions as who owns a recorded or digitized lecture and how do you maintain the human interaction so essential to learning.

"In the '50s, there was a lot of hype about how television was going to change the face of university education," said John Etchemendy, senior associate dean of humanities and sciences and chair of Stanford's Commission on Technology in Teaching and Learning (CTTL), a panel established by President Gerhard Casper in October 1994. Etchemendy recalled a prediction offered by Thomas Edison in 1922 that motion pictures would so revolutionize our educational system that it would "supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks."

"That never happened," Etchemendy said.

But Etchemendy and others are not burying their heads in the technophobic sand. The CTTL is actively exploring ways in which technology can be used to enhance teaching and learning. Reaching students at a distance, via a wide range of media systems, is one component of that examination.

The "new" student

Srihari represents a growing number of students at Stanford and beyond who are taking courses and earning full degrees from their offices and homes. Full-time professionals, facing a rapidly changing employment market, are looking for alternative ways to acquire new skills. Degree seekers and other learners are often older, or are homebound parents or persons with physical disabilities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, by 2001 nearly 42 percent of the nation's 15.7 million students in higher education will be over 24 years old.

Moreover, a new wave of college students is expected to hit the nation's universities in the next 10 to 12 years. In California alone, 455,000 new students will descend on the state's institutions in the next decade. "That's at least 10 UCLAs," Etchemendy said.

Increasingly, educational institutions see distance learning as an answer to these demographic challenges. In 1994, 30 percent of the nation's universities offered distance learning programs ranging from single courses to complete graduate programs. By 1996, more than half were involved in the enterprise.

Stanford's offerings

Stanford has been at the cutting edge of the distance learning movement, offering courses to technical professionals for 28 years, via SITN. The Center for Professional Development (CPD), under which the network is now managed, currently offers more than 250 graduate-level courses for credit and dozens of others for professional development. It serves 187 companies at 250 sites in the United States and abroad.

Andy DiPaolo, director of the center, credits Frederick Terman, former dean of the School of Engineering, with paving the way for the distance learning enterprise. "He realized that in order to attract and retain key engineering talent here in what was just beginning to be Silicon Valley, he needed to have a strong connection back to a major research university. Otherwise engineers wouldn't stay here," said DiPaolo.

Terman created the Engineers Cooperative Program, a part-time engineering program that allowed scientists and engineers to come to Stanford. As driving to campus in the middle of the work day became more difficult, DiPaolo said, the university and industry leaders such as Hewlett-Packard began talking about ways to "extend Stanford to the engineering and science community without their coming here." Hence, SITN was born.

"We were the second in the country to do that; the first was the University of Florida. But we quickly became the largest and still are the largest single university in engineering doing delivery on live television for credit and non-credit classes," DiPaolo said.

The Asynchronous Distance Education Project, or ADEPT, co-directed by DiPaolo and Dale Harris, executive director of Stanford's Center for Telecommunications, allows learners to tune in to classes and class materials on demand, from work, home or even while traveling. The courses are offered in the form of digitized video, audio, text and graphics, which students can access from a PC, Macintosh or UNIX workstation. According to DiPaolo, 18 credit classes have been offered through ADEPT.

Stanford's Continuing Education Program has gotten in on the action, as well, offering courses on the Stanford Channel. And the Education Program for Gifted Youth, an ongoing Stanford project, offers computer-based courses for gifted students from kindergarten through college. The Stanford Alumni Association, the Medical School and the Graduate School of Business are involved in distance education projects as well.

New ways to teach old subjects

Some of the most innovative applications of distance learning have been spawned out of necessity and creativity, by faculty members seeking new ways to teach old subjects or to help traditional students maximize their educational experience.

For English Professor Larry Friedlander, distance learning means forging collaborations with varied institutions to create a richer product than one university could create on its own. "Shakespeare on the Web," taught spring quarter last year by Friedlander and Peter Donaldson, chair of MIT's literature department, brought students from both institutions together via the Internet.

The goal of the project was to create a website devoted to exploring Shakespeare's work through film performance and innovative Web design. Donaldson, an expert on Shakespeare's work on film, and Friedlander, whose expertise is in the Bard's work through performance, had collaborated in the past, developing Shakespeare software. Larry Leifer, a Stanford professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Center for Design Research, brought experience with software products that aided long-distance collaboration. Using a mix of software designed at MIT and another program created at Stanford, "we could use that software to let Stanford students and MIT students work together in teams to create a production. Each school would bring its own expertise into the mix, but then they would work together as a design project," Friedlander explained.

Civil engineering Professor Gilbert Masters simply wanted to encourage more of his students to spend a quarter abroad when he decided to send videotapes of one of his courses overseas a few years ago. Many of his students, he noticed, were forgoing foreign study because it would interrupt the sequence of their core course requirements.

In addition to videotaping his lectures, Masters used money from a Bing teaching fellowship he had received in 1992 to set up engineering labs in Kyoto and Berlin. The Overseas Studies Program arranges for a teaching assistant to be on each site to provide support for students. Another engineering fundamentals course, taught by Professor John Bravman, is now available in Paris.

"This is minimal technology, just videotapes of my lectures," Masters said, but he added that "we had noble goals, thinking that overseas study was something our students ought to do."

Many of Stanford's distance education offerings soon may be included in the catalog of the California Virtual University (CVU), the state's nascent online institution. The California Virtual University will serve as a large online clearinghouse for programs offered by accredited institutions in the state. Plans for the CVU emerged last year after Gov. Pete Wilson declined an invitation to join several other Western states in the creation of the Western Governor's University (WGU) ­ a regional online institution. The WGU will confer degrees, hire its own faculty, design courses, issue diplomas, credential courses and give grades.

"We have steered Wilson away from trying to do that in California," said Etchemendy, who along with DiPaolo is a member of the CVU's planning board. Etchemendy added that once the CVU is up and running, students who access information about Stanford courses from its catalog still must apply to Stanford through traditional channels.

According to DiPaolo, schools that participate in the CVU must be accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. "The notion is that the California Virtual University will be a gateway for those schools to put their materials [together] in a unified way to market them. The second is to find as a collaboration where it makes sense to work together around program development and projects." He added that another goal of the effort is for institutions to think about the best approaches to distance learning. "It's a very good testbed to try those things out."

Whose property?

Last year, the CTTL embarked on a project to export Stanford courses to universities in Sweden. The courses were designed as a model for determining the effectiveness of learning at a distance. One of those courses, Mass Communication and Society: Media Technologies, People and Society, taught by communications professors Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, was videotaped, edited and mailed to KTH University and the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden this year.

Swedish tutors are assisting with the courses there, and Stanford-based teaching assistants are available for continuous electronic communication with Swedish students. Faculty have traveled to Sweden to monitor the course and have held video conferences with Swedish students throughout the term. The Swedish students earn credit from their institutions plus a certificate of course completion from Stanford. Another course, Technology and Economic Change, taught by economics Professor Nathan Rosenberg, is part of the CTTL experiment as well.

The pilot project has been such a success that Swedish officials, eager to build on their Stanford ties, have been courting faculty and administrators to export more Stanford courses to Scandinavia. But their enthusiasm has some Stanford officials worried. Questions about how such distance courses should be monitored and who owns a Stanford lecture, for instance, still must be sorted out.

"It goes to the heart of the intellectual property question," Etchemendy pointed out in a meeting of the CTTL in February, when the Swedish issue was brought up.

Faculty members typically own the copyright of materials they publish, though, according to Etchemendy, full-time professors are prohibited from teaching at other universities, unless they are officially on leave. This experience, as well as the appearance of for-profit virtual universities that offer professors top dollar for their lectures, will force institutions to deal with these thorny issues.

"The language we currently use is not clear enough given the way the technology is changing," he said, adding that "there are a lot of different, and confusing and conflicting precedents" on this issue. "I don't think people have been thinking about it much, other than the people on the commission."

Katharine Ku, director of the Office of Technology Licensing, doubts that the university's copyright policy, which states that Stanford owns the rights to all courses taught here, is a well-known provision. "I think many faculty and lecturers are probably not operating under this policy guideline," said Ku, a member of the CTTL. Ku, whose primary focus is patents and technology arising out of research, added that a subcommittee of the commission is examining the intellectual property implications of distance learning.

At what cost?

Stanford's Center for Professional Development has burgeoned into a lucrative enterprise. Stanford charges regular tuition plus 40 percent for courses taken through the center. Proceeds are funneled back into the center to develop new technologies. But the more recently developed distance learning ventures come with high price tags.

Friedlander said his Shakespeare course, funded largely by a grant from the CTTL, cost approximately $24,000. Another collaborative course taught by music, computer science and engineering faculty from Stanford, Princeton and San Jose State was described by Etchemendy as "a wonderful experiment, but very expensive. Not only did the course have three faculty, one from each university, but the teleconferencing added about $100 per hour to the cost of the course."

Friedlander pointed out that the initial costs will translate into cost savings in the long term. Most of the expense, he said, is used to pay staff to create appropriate software and teach people how to use it. "That's why we want to do things where we can archive our experiences so that we can create protocols, so that the next time we do it the costs go all the way down," he said.

The bottom line is not Stanford's first priority, Friedlander insisted, though he acknowledged that some state governments and entrepreneurs are attracted to the distance education business precisely for its potential cost savings or profits. "A lot of people have the fear that what we're heading for is some sort of cheaped-down K-mart or Costco version of education. And certainly certain groups are promoting it this way. Stanford does not want to do it this way, obviously, and so every collaboration we do has to have as its object maintaining and advancing the quality of education here. If there is cost saving as well, that's great, but that would not or should not be a sufficient motive," Friedlander said.

Maintaining educational quality also means preserving those elements that make for a quality education. Learning communities that provide students with role models and experts in their fields must not be lost in cyberspace. According to Friedlander, much of what currently passes for distance education is impersonal and inflexible. He said learners such as Vinay Srihari have the benefit of a workplace community that provides a context for what they are learning. Too many others work in isolation.

Unlike Srihari, who was one of several Oracle employees earning degrees from Stanford, Jason Hendler, an engineering specialist in Lockheed Martin's Western Development Lab in San Jose, is currently the only employee taking Stanford courses. Hendler, who is working on a master's degree in electrical engineering, has taken only two graduate courses via television and three in traditional classrooms. However, he expects to do more of his upper-level coursework at a distance. Hendler said he likes coming to campus during the day for classes and meetings, but as a full-time professional, it's not always possible.

"Fortunately, the TAs are always available, and there are tutors you can contact through electronic bulletin boards," said Hendler, who said he appreciates the immediate feedback he gets even during off hours.

According to Friedlander, this kind of support is a vital component distance education.

"It's a matter of analyzing which part of the educational pie would be served by being able to send [the course] out and have people use it whenever they wish, leaving more space and energy to promote the personal and collaborative part. Everyone who thinks seriously about this understands that learning is deeply connected with some interpersonal experience. We wouldn't send students to take a course by giving them a library card and a list of books. So there's no more reason we should do that with digital or video information."


By Elaine Ray