'There's Something Very Exciting Going On Here'

By Jordan Weissmann

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

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(Reuters)

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?

At the moment, it's more of a one or two year plan. Really, we'd like to see a number of things tried so we can have a good discussion that's informed by rational experiment and collected data. Beyond these individual experiments, one class at a time, I think it would be great to have one or two departments really try to integrate an online experience into their core curriculum so we can understand how that works, so we can provide students more options. One example is that we have overseas programs. And students who go overseas need to keep up their studies. But with only a limited number of faculty overseas, those programs are not really effective for some kinds of students. So if we could broaden the overseas program in effect to reach everyone on campus through online delivery, that would be great.

Do you think we're at an inflection point, where online learning is going to become a serious focus for colleges?

Yes. The potential for using technology effectively has caught everybody's imagination. I think we can do better. I think we can make teaching more interactive. We can use technology to provide on-campus students more quality face to face interactive time. And I think we also can address some cost issues by producing reusable material that lets an hour of a professor's time benefit many more students than an hour would have reached five years ago or 100 years ago.

Why is this happening now?

We now have the ability for individual faculty or programs on campuses to produce appealing online content with relatively low effort and distribute that widely. So there's been an improvement. I know there have been other points in the past few decades where it looked like online education was the new thing, and now it's the new new thing. One enabler is the technology.

Can you give an example?

Many of these first round of MOOCs were produced with a webcam by an individual instructor using a tablet PC. That's on the order of a thousand dollars worth of equipment. Maybe. Certainly, it's extremely inexpensive compared with a laptop 5 years ago. So the cost of the technology is lower. There's good software for editing video -- we're in an era where producing video is similar to word processing. And everyone is used to interacting with people online in different ways than were prevalent 10 to 15 years ago. The kind of discussion you can have online is more sophisticated. People understand social conventions for how to contribute constructively to an online discussion. Those factors really contribute to the effectiveness of a MOOC or a smaller scale online course.

What do you think is the most exciting thing going on in online learning right now?

I think the MOOCs are the tip of the iceberg in a sense. That's the most visible, most wide- reaching phenomenon so far. But really, there is much more to this. I think we'll see an evolution of a range of different ways of using technology, and probably some expansion of the set of options that a student has. Instead of going off to college, maybe some students will live in their parents' homes or elsewhere and take a first year or two online. Or they'll spend two years in college and finish two years online as they work. There will be different, in effect, educational programs coming out of this phenomenon that offer credit, certification, job placement, and other things beyond the self learning that MOOCs provide. So I think we really are going to see a transformation in the way teaching and learning are developed and delivered.

At the same time, we may in 5 years understand what is different and what isn't different. And maybe some fundamentals will stay the same. Just as video conferencing hasn't put the airlines out of business, I think we're still going to see people going off to college in some form. When possible, it's just great to talk with someone one-on-one in person -- by video, by Skype, by some other medium. I don't think that prepared, canned video is itself the one major answer to the future of education.

Is there anything that worries you about the impact online learning could have?

There are some concerns. The university now is a very complex combination of activities. There's been a very effective, traditional partnership -- or synergy -- between teaching and research. So faculty are supported by an organization that allows them to teach and also provides time for research. And the research is important in a number of ways. The economic environment in Silicon Valley is largely tied to university and scientific research, so there's a big economic benefit outside the university. But also if you look at any field -- at the course taught now versus the course taught 5 years or 10 years from now -- if we don't have an educational environment that supports academic communities, we won't necessarily have a better understanding of fundamental physics, or better ways of teaching law, or better ways of teaching any topic.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/09/theres-something-very-exciting-going-on-here/262119/