From Stanford Magazine [Publication of the Stanford University
Alumni Association], September-October 2012, pp. 49-55. See
Stanford for All
Online technologies are shaking up the Farm's classrooms-and
the University's worldview. Higher education may never be the
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
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.
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
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
) 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
PHOTO SIDEBAR: SCHOOL'S OPEN: Ng's and Koller's free
courses were game changing. Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News
Theresa Johnston, '83, is a frequent contributor to
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
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