'There's Something Very Exciting Going On Here'

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Stanford's new head of online learning explains his vision for how the Internet can remake college classrooms.

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After years of eyeing it with suspicion, many of America's elite colleges are suddenly bear-hugging online learning, and Stanford University is at the forefront of the movement. Home to some of the first successful MOOCs -- massively open online courses capable of teaching thousands of students at once -- the school has just appointed its first vice provost of online learning, computer science professor John Mitchell. He and I spoke about what exactly Stanford is trying to do, how schools can pull down the cost of higher education, and whether colleges can win the war of attention on the computer against Angry Birds.

What are Stanford's goals for online learning?

There are a few things we'd like to do. First of all, I think everyone agrees there's something very exciting going on here. So how do we as a university participate in that? What can we learn about teaching and learning through experimenting with different forms of technology? So I think we're going to treat this as an intellectual question and an academic investigation in some sense.

Our main commitment and interest is really in improving education and figuring out how to do a better job at our core mission of educating undergraduate and graduate students. And we're most committed to improving things for our enrolled students. However, we may, through the use of technology, be able to expand our student body in the future. Probably initially through graduate programs -- masters programs are kind of amenable to having some of the courses offered off campus online, and some experience on campus. So we'll probably experiment with that. And that will be different for different schools. Maybe the school of engineering will try one approach, and the school of medicine will try something different. It remains to be seen what really works best. But I think we're entering a period, and we've been in a period, of experimentation where we have the scientific method. You know, hypothesis: if we put video online, people will be happier. Then we'll try that and see how it goes and we'll try different ways of doing that. And it will vary by school.

We may also produce material that could be licensed or distributed to other colleges. It's an evolution of the idea of a textbook. Right now, many Stanford faculty write textbooks and they're used by students and faculty at other places. Maybe video and online material would be a good medium for transferring information by providing course material to other colleges. That could also reduce their cost. I think we will stay involved in some way in the MOOC effort, because this is a great way to take [and distribute] the knowledge we have on campus, and we all feel good about helping people become educated wherever they are. I think every hour we take away from Angry Birds and help somebody learn something, we're kind of doing a good thing.

Is the university going to experiment with ways to bring down its own costs, or is this all just about finding new tools for learning?

If you look at our strength, it is the faculty who are really at the forefront of many, many different fields. And we'd like to make it easier for faculty to produce new course material to engage students, and to do a better job at the things we're doing. I think cost is an issue at all universities, and of course if we can bring the cost down for our students that would be great. Stanford has really excellent financial aid packages. I believe that for some families making under $100,000 a year, there is no tuition bill. And for a family making less than $60,000, there is no tuition and no room and board. We have a very different cost profile than some other universities. But in a sense, we have a responsibility and an opportunity to help education at large. And if we can develop approaches and content that will provide more and better education for more people at a cost that they can afford, then I think the world will be a better place.

What projects do you guys have underway now?

One effort I started in June was to announce a seed grant program to support individual faculty and small teams that wanted to try different ways of teaching their course. So the internal funding helps support students or assistants or web developers or other people to help faculty recraft all or part of their course in order to see if new approaches really help.

How much money is in that fund?

There isn't an actual fixed fund. We got about 40 applicants. Maybe 20 of those things we funded. Each one was up to $25,000. I think I'd like to continue that on a quarterly basis. And really, we're new at all this. So the scale of this effort will depend on the faculty input and the outcome of how effective we find this to be.

Is there any kind of a five year plan for all this?

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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