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Stanford for All

Online technologies are shaking up the Farm's classroomsand the University's worldview. Higher education may never be the same.

Heads of State

By Theresa Johnston

Christos Porios is a 16-year-old high school student who lives in Alexandropoulos, Greece. He has never seen the Stanford campus: never gazed up Palm Drive on a September morning, walked around the Quad or pedaled across White Plaza. He has no real ties to the University. Yet he credits a Stanford course with changing his life.

Porios was among an astonishing 100,000 people who signed up last fall for an experimental online course on applied machine learning, the science of getting computers to act without being explicitly programmed. Computer science professor Andrew Ng designed the course for Stanford students, but at the last minute he decided to make his digitally recorded lectures, exams and programming assignments available online to anyone, free of charge.

Porios learned of the course via Twitter. He received no Stanford credit for completing it, just a congratulatory letter. Nevertheless he was floored by his experience. "Andrew Ng is truly one of the best teachers I ever had, even though I've never met him," he later wrote. "I want to thank him from the depths of my heart for offering these amazing learning opportunities."

Stanford has come a long way since founders Leland and Jane vowed to make the children of California their own. But should worldwide online education now be a part of Stanford's mission—and bright students like Porios part of the family? Should Stanford encourage more of its faculty to produce these so-called massive open online courses, or MOOCs? Should anyone profit from their distribution? And if the University does invest more heavily in online education, how might that affect students—and professors—on the home campus?

During the past year such questions have been the subject of intense debate. Many professors say they like the idea of mass online education for humanitarian reasons. Some believe high-quality online courses could enhance the University's prestige in the same way that faculty-authored textbooks do, and help Stanford attract and identify brilliant students from around the world. And some would be happy to replace their large lecture courses with a more engaging educational model—one that many plugged-in Stanford students prefer.

Other professors loathe the idea of lecturing to a camera, or of trying to assess thousands of students online. They fear that time spent developing online courses might distract from their on-campus responsibilities. And they worry about the fallout. Will less well-known colleges and universities find that people won't pay to enroll there when they can get a more prestigious "brand" online for free?

Speaking before the Faculty Senate last January, President John Hennessy acknowledged that the issue of online education raises more questions than answers. Still, he urged his colleagues to keep open minds—and, above all, to keep experimenting. "It may be the case that we can build online technologies sufficiently compelling that they give the University another way to scale up that's virtual rather than physical," he said, referring to the shelved StanfordNYC initiative, a science and engineering campus Stanford had hoped to build on Manhattan's Roosevelt Island.

Hennessy refined his thinking during a winter/spring quarter sabbatical. "First and foremost, I hope Stanford will broadly deploy online technology to improve the education we deliver for our existing students," he said in an email interview. (See sidebar.) "Beyond the campus bounds, we already provide some forms of online education, primarily at the graduate level. Expanding such opportunities, while maintaining a high quality experience where students can learn and demonstrate mastery of topics, is in keeping with the University's mission, and something we can aspire to in the next few years.

"How things will evolve ten years out is hard to say," he added. "Education changes slowly in our society while technology changes quickly. Nonetheless, change is coming. And for some parts of higher education, I expect it to be profound."

Stanford's experience with distance learning goes back to the late 1960s, when the Stanford Center for Professional Development began piping engineering classes to Silicon Valley employers via closed-circuit television. Thirty years later, the Stanford School of Engineering became the first in the world to deliver a master's degree solely through online technologies. More than 100,000 K-12 students have taken individual online courses through Stanford's Education Program for Gifted Youth, and in 2006 the EPGY online high school opened, initially offering a three-year diploma and more recently expanding to serve grades 7 through 9. All these programs are selective and charge tuition, but Stanford also was a pioneer in uploading free recorded lectures and courses to YouTube and iTunes U.

The latest round of online experimentation, initially for on-campus consumption, began about three years ago when Stanford computer scientists started toying with the idea of "flipping" their classes—that is, putting their lectures and course materials online in order to free up class time for more engaging activities, such as optional group problem-solving exercises and guest lectures by Silicon Valley luminaries.

Professors
Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service (2)
SCHOOL'S OPEN: Ng's and Koller's free courses were game changing.

Computer science professor Daphne Koller was eager to flip. Like many of her colleagues, Koller, PhD '94, already was accustomed to having her lectures recorded for use by Stanford's professional development program. She also had noticed that the majority of Stanford students preferred watching those lectures online to attending them. "The feeling was, 'Why should I wake up at 8 in the morning to come to class when I can watch it at 2 a.m. in my dorm room?'" she recalls. "By the third or fourth week of class, attendance [at the live lectures] was down to about 30 percent."

Working with off-the-shelf hardware and a grant from the President's Office, Koller and her graduate student programmers set out to reinvent her winter 2010 course on probabilistic graphical modeling, breaking down her standard 75-minute lectures into bite-sized recorded segments of 10 to 15 minutes each. (A similar approach is used on the popular Khan Academy website for K-12 learners.) Each chunk focused on mastery of one concept, with embedded short quizzes to wake students up and help them reflect on the material. The innovative platform later offered a forum where students could chat and help each other with questions and answers, as well as automatically graded exams and programming assignments that let students know, in a timely manner, how they were doing.

Soon other Stanford computer scientists were experimenting with the flipped model, including Ng and department chair Jennifer Widom. Sebastian Thrun, a part-time faculty member and director of Google's X research lab, put his course online only. Their three revamped courses—on machine learning, databases and artificial intelligence, respectively—were set to debut in the fall of 2011.

Then Thrun and his co-instructor, Google research director Peter Norvig, made an unexpected announcement: They would offer the 10-week AI course not only to Stanford students, but also, for free, to the world. The idea appealed to Ng and Widom, and they followed suit. "Living in California, I have a surprising number of friends who are unemployed or underemployed and could use this kind of help," Ng explains. "For the longest time I've felt that if we can take these amazing things we have at Stanford, and make them available to a broader audience, maybe for free, that's one of the best things we could be doing."

What happened next took nearly everybody by surprise. Within days of going online with little fanfare, the three free courses attracted 350,000 registrants from 190 countries—mostly computer and software industry professionals looking to sharpen their skills. "To put that in context," Ng says, "in order to reach a comparably sized audience on campus I would have to teach my normal Stanford course for 250 years."

The stories behind those numbers were compelling. One person who completed Ng's machine learning course was an engineer at Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant. Another was a 54-year-old Romanian engineer named Octavian Manescu. He wrote that his job had been on the line, but after following Ng's course "with great pleasure and enthusiasm," he asked his CTO if he could use machine learning to monitor the complex telecommunications systems in his company. "At first my idea was received with disbelief," he wrote, but he finally gained approval to conduct some tests, with results "so convincing that my proposal became a part of a major project. Currently I'm working on its implementation."

Students who signed up for Widom's Introduction to Databases course included a 13-year-old budding physicist, a recovering addict, an unemployed librarian, a thirtysomething stay-at-home-mom and a 72-year-old retiree who once built a computer from scratch. "They were so excited and grateful, like they just couldn't believe they had lucked into this," Widom recalls. "I was at the San Francisco Symphony and [an online student] came up and said, 'Hi, you're like a good friend to me.'" She pauses. "Stanford students sometimes have a sense of entitlement, which is fine, I guess. But these students act very differently. They really feel they're getting something that's a gift."

While Stanford computer scientists were enjoying their online experiments last fall, Hennessy was pulling together a University committee to get a better handle on the situation. Among other things, they had to decide quickly what sort of credit, if any, to give the non-Stanford students who completed the rigorous courses. (They decided on a statement of accomplishment bearing the instructor's name but not Stanford's.) "We had several emergency meetings with a lot of colleagues at random hours," Ng recalls. "Everyone was working very hard because we realized it was a rapidly evolving space."

Indeed. In January Thrun made headlines by declaring that he would quit teaching classes at Stanford to focus on developing an independent online college called Udacity. Three months later, Ng and Koller announced that they had secured $16 million in venture capital to launch a web portal based on their own interactive online education platform. Their Mountain View-based company, Coursera, subsequently has partnered with Stanford, Princeton, Duke, école Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Georgia Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins, Rice, UCSF and the universities of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Washington, Toronto and Edinburgh to distribute more than 100 open online courses, ranging from basic behavioral neurology to contemporary American poetry.

Stanford professors who have offered Coursera courses over the past year say it takes a lot of time and effort to get them up and running. (See sidebar.) Once they've recorded their lectures and supplied the course materials, the level of engagement they have with their off-campus online students becomes a matter of preference. Some professors, like computer scientist Dan Boneh, enjoy answering questions on the forum. Others are more hands-off.

"We recommend that the teaching staff monitor the course at least in the first offering, to find and fix any major bugs," Ng says. "After the content has stabilized, we find that because students answer each other's questions, it's OK for the professor to step back, and the course can more or less run itself."

Computer science professor John Mitchell, Hennessy's newly appointed special assistant for educational technology, shares his colleagues' excitement over the new technology. As he told an audience of IT professionals at Stanford last spring, "In the 25 or so years I've been here, this is the most faculty energy I've seen devoted to teaching across the University."

Nevertheless Mitchell, '78, stresses the voluntary nature of these experiments. And he's quick to point out that Stanford has no financial agreements with Coursera. The University still owns the content of all its courses and is open to trying other platforms. "We may find that the particular model we have now is really effective, or we might find different things," he says. Of one thing he is certain: "Turning into McDonald's is not going to be our strategy."

Provost John Etchemendy, PhD '82, agrees. "Our experiments are aimed primarily at understanding what the technology can be used for and what its limitations are," he says. As for worries that online courses might distract Stanford faculty from their regular on-campus duties, the provost is clear. "Our first and foremost goal in exploring the potential of these technologies is to improve the education we offer to our own students. We are being careful that it does not negatively impact on-campus students in the same way we try to ensure that a faculty member's research activities have a positive rather than negative effect on his or her teaching. In addition, our faculty know that an important factor in promotions and salary setting is their students' evaluation of their teaching—and that's evaluation by Stanford students, not students signed up for a MOOC!"

To date, nearly all the Stanford Coursera offerings have been in computer science, a subject that lends itself to online instruction and machine grading. Gradually, though, scholars from other disciplines are getting with the program. When Stanford's Center for Teaching and Learning recently offered to help professors develop flipped/online courses, 40 responded, a quarter of them faculty in the humanities and sciences. Among them: comparative literature and German studies professor Russell Berman, who wants to explore flipping some courses in the new freshman liberal arts curriculum, and history professor Londa Schiebinger, who hopes to teach a flipped/online course next year on Gender in Science, Medicine and Engineering. As she said in her proposal, "I need some help with the technical details—this goes well beyond my training as a historian. [But] I am eager to learn."

Rob Reich, MA '98, PhD '98, an associate professor of political science, says he, too, would like to teach an online course someday, most likely Introduction to Political Philosophy. But he wonders about grading the multitudes. "One of our core forms of assessment is writing," he notes, "and it is hard to imagine that it would be possible to grade 160,000 essays in an online course unless there were technological advances." Like most faculty, he admits, "I have a hazy understanding about what's possible online. My own sense is that few [humanities and social science professors] have registered for a Coursera class to get a sense of what the platform permits."

Some departments see little need for change. Elizabeth Bernhardt-Kamil, professor of German studies and director of the Stanford University Language Center, proudly notes that the center pioneered the use of online technology for things like oral proficiency assessment. But she draws the line at prerecorded lectures. "When the Language Center was established, the philosophy that I brought is that we would never try to replace teaching with technology," she explains. "The classroom is where you can get immediate feedback. It's where you can get to know a representative of the culture. It's where the language comes alive."

Even engineers have qualms. Electrical engineering professor Andrea Goldsmith says she's all for experimentation and helping the world, "but there's no free lunch." She worries about faculty peer pressure "to set up a whole infrastructure to change the way we teach without necessarily knowing that it's better." And she really dislikes the idea of lecturing to a camera. "Generally for me, when I teach, I need the visual feedback," she says. "I like to ask questions and give answers to questions. I learn through these interactions, and that enriches my teaching."

Computer science professor Eric Roberts feels the same way. "It's hard to hear President Hennessy argue that the lecture is dead," he says, "when in our own department we have extraordinarily successful lecture classes that students want to be in. I'm not at all averse to Stanford being in this business and finding good ways to maintain the quality that Stanford has; I think we are in a privileged position to do it. But one of the things that concerns me is the notion that moving to online content would necessarily improve the on-campus experience."

Perhaps the greatest concerns surrounding online education involve money. Unlike the K-12 Khan Academy or edX, Harvard and MIT's online education partnership, Coursera was set up as a for-profit company—Ng and Koller felt they needed initial capital in order to do it right. The launch didn't sit well with some of their colleagues. As Roberts told the Faculty Senate last April, "Probably the single most important piece in this controversy was the number of faculty in our department who felt blindsided by being encouraged to do this wonderful altruistic thing, making the material available to the world, only to find that there were two [for profit] companies being started on that basis."

Although Coursera doesn't charge for classes, its investors are betting that it will generate revenue in other ways, possibly by matching employers and prospective employees. "The current ethos in Silicon Valley certainly seems to be that if you're changing millions of people's lives, there'll be plenty of ways to bring in revenue to keep an enterprise sustainable," Ng says confidently. Investor Scott Sandell, MBA '92, of New Enterprise Associates concurs. "Providing quality education at a scale never before possible, that's the ultimate value, without a doubt," he says. "But there are also many ways to build a thriving long-term business. As Coursera continues to gain traction with students and partner universities, I'm confident that the company will have numerous monetization opportunities."

What Stanford will gain remains unclear. While the provost stresses that all courses developed at the University are Stanford property, "for the experimental courses we are currently offering, there is no revenue coming to the University," he says. "Faculty are simply doing it because they enjoy the experience and like the idea of providing instruction to so many people who could not otherwise take their classes." He adds that Stanford eventually intends to reimburse faculty for online teaching, following a model much like the royalty-sharing model used with patents: Any income that comes in will be shared among the faculty creator and his or her department and school. "We have not settled on what the appropriate percentages should be," Etchemendy says, "but if there is additional revenue from online offerings, we will make sure that the faculty member is compensated for the extra effort."

Despite the many uncertainties surrounding online education, one sure thing is that other universities will be watching closely to see how these experiments pan out. They wonder: Could MOOCs from big hitters like Stanford, Harvard and MIT doom smaller brick-and-mortar institutions? Or could they perhaps help the higher education ecosystem by decreasing costs? In a Stanford Parents' Weekend address, Etchemendy donned his philosopher's cap and mused on the subject. In the 15th century, he noted, Gutenberg's printing press led to an explosion in the number of universities by radically increasing the efficiency with which knowledge could be transmitted. He believes online education could have similar results worldwide.

On the Farm, Etchemendy predicts that the undergraduate educational experience won't be hugely different in five years' time. He expects more use of online technologies in some classes, and a bigger change in certain professional master's degree programs. Beyond that, he says, "My own goal is to see if we can use these technologies to provide Stanford-quality materials to enhance instruction at other colleges and universities. This could be a huge benefit to higher education in the U.S. and around the world."

Back in Alexandropoulos, 16-year-old Christos Porios is too busy doing homework for his latest Coursera courses to ponder such weighty issues. "This semester I am taking the natural language processing and algorithms classes," he writes via email. "I can't wait to see what's next." In two years he'll be sending his undergraduate admissions application to Stanford. His dream is to attend the real thing.


Theresa Johnston, '83, is a frequent contributor to Stanford.

Comments (5)


  • Dr. Frank John Lysy

    These are of course exciting developments.  But I would not worry that the availability of such on-line courses from Stanford and other top schools will make other schools obsolete or irrelevant.  Rather, one could see such schools (including schools in Africa and other developing countries) using such courses as the basis for their own curricula.  A "flipped" course model could be followed, where the students watch the lectures on-line and do some of the problem sets and quizzes on-line, but would still come into class to review with the local instructor any points that were not clear or where they had had problems.  This interaction would still be key.  The local instructor would also grade essays and major tests.

    This is really just an extension of how textbooks are used.  The on-line courses can now provide lectures and other material as well, in a format that at least some students find welcoming.  The local instructor would still play a critical role, but one which complements what can now be offered on-line by some of the best professors in the world.

    Posted by Dr. Frank John Lysy on Sep 18, 2012 5:58 PM

  • Mrs. Audrey H. Watson

    I like the comparison to this as an extension of how textbooks are used, and the lectures complement different learning styles, with any interactive quizzes helping to cement the learning.  And for those who need to see it in writing,  textbooks (or ebooks) summarize it, and include the basics. (some could argue, why go to class, just learn from the text book)  Then there is the "in-person" energy component, of study groups, and questions, and feedback loop thru written and "lab" assignments or programming projects and presentations, as well as the guidance of refining what is working thru the lectures and what isn't.  Some topics need more "pulling apart" in different ways for different learning styles.

    Posted by Mrs. Audrey H. Watson on Sep 19, 2012 8:42 AM

  • Mr. Carlin J. Black

    The coursework at Stanford even in '62 was a minor part of my education there.  It was the interaction with other students and faculty to deal with the problems I had with the coursework, and the applications of the coursework to living that were what I called my "Stanford Education."
    Sharing the best of the coursework widely would not eliminate the need for students to meet with other students and professors to discuss it.  It would just substitute a dynamic educator for a bored TA in an overheated lecture tank.  .

    Posted by Mr. Carlin J. Black on Sep 20, 2012 8:47 AM

  • Mr. Cameron Clark Miller

    Sharing a world class education with the rest of the world is a noble and magnanimous
    endeavor.  However, if (or when) a person tries to pass off their new found knowledge as the key to getting a job (or making money) this  would diminsh the 'value' of a Stanford education and could be potentially dangerous to those working with this 'educated person'.  The slippery slope looks so inviting....caveat emptor!

    Posted by Mr. Cameron Clark Miller on Sep 20, 2012 8:08 PM

  • Dr. Michael Lee Olson

    As a Stanford grad of almost 5 decades ago and an enthusiastic participant in this MOOC experiment, I believe that this approach to globally distributed education is an important part of finding solutions to the many challenges that face mankind in this century. See, for example, the challenges listed by James Martin in "The Meaning of the 21st Century" or Bjorn Lomborg's "Solutions for the World's Greatest Problems." And Scott E Page promotes in his Coursera class "Model Thinking" using diversity in thought and action to search for and find faster better problem solutions. This trumps focus on optimization or like-mindedness - and being able to engage challenges with a diversity of models trumps all. (Page refers to Phillip Tetlock's "Expert Political Judgment: . . ." before extending the diversity argument based on his own research.")

    Diversity of perspectives and models, bottoms-up innovation, rapid prototyping, and local action foster the successful adaptation and ongoing progress of mankind as we try to manage our growing "big party on a small boat (planet)." Providing education at one-hundreth of the cost (per student) of typical on-campus classes to a hundred times more 'successful' students has to be one of the 'diversity' catalysts we need to cultivate in order to avoid potential social and economic collapse that have undone civilizations in the past. Recall Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." Let's choose to continue to encourage success and innovation through the pervasive educational power of MOOC.

    Posted by Dr. Michael Lee Olson on Sep 21, 2012 4:42 PM

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