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Topic: FIFTH POSTING: Stanford for All: Online Technologies
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
FIFTH POSTING: Stanford for All: Online Technologies
Posted: Sep 28, 2012 2:51 PM
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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 same.

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.

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

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
) 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

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

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

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

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.
free courses were game changing. Linda A.
Cicero/Stanford News Service (2)
Theresa Johnston, '83, is a frequent contributor to Stanford.
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]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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