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