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Faculty Senate grapples with the possibilities and challenges of online learning

November 1, 2012
John Mitchell


John Mitchell, vice provost for online learning, outlines progress in online teaching and learning and hears both praise and skepticism.

The Faculty Senate on Thursday spent nearly its entire session discussing the brave new world of online learning; members were largely receptive but also asked tough questions of Vice Provost for Online Learning John Mitchell.

More than a month after Stanford launched its two homegrown platforms for hosting online classes and announced it was offering 16 free online classes this fall, the experiment is still new, but it appears that a growing number of professors are willing, even eager, to see what it can offer to education at Stanford. Others, however, remain skeptical, and the meeting provided a cross-section of thoughtful responses.

"There's a great deal of enthusiasm and panic and excitement," said Provost John Etchemendy during the question-and-answer session that followed Mitchell's presentation. "There are people at both extremes. And they're both wrong. The right response is somewhere in between. We need to figure out what to do with this technology, not ignore it."

The impact on students

The chief concern of senate members clearly was the impact that online learning will have on their students' experience while at the university.

Andy Fire, professor of genetics, for example, said he was worried about the potential for administrators at state universities – which he called "our sister institutions" – to undermine their schools' educational mission for the sake of saving money. Also, he said, face-to-face lectures provide something absolutely unique: direct feedback from students.

True, responded Mitchell and others, but blended classes, a mixture of video components and interactive class sessions, would not deprive students and professors of that experience. On the contrary, they said, if factual content delivery is taken care of on video, classroom interaction can be all the richer.

But Eric Roberts, professor of computer science and a frequent critic of online learning, said there might not be as much enthusiasm as has been suggested, and he said he feared the innovations could "change the nature of the social contract" of the university.

Mitchell was accompanied by associate deans of two of the three schools that have initiated their own online learning efforts: Bernd Girod, senior associate dean for online learning and professional development in the School of Engineering, and Charles Prober, senior associate dean for medical education at Stanford School of Medicine. Peter DeMarzo, senior associate dean for academic administration at the Graduate School of Business, was not present but sent a slide outlining the various ways in which the GSB is integrating online learning.

With all the excitement over the potential of massive open online courses (MOOCs), Mitchell said, Stanford faculty must not lose sight of the fundamental question: What are the best ways to teach and help students learn, using combinations of new and old methods? And, he added, how to do that while keeping in mind that Stanford's ultimate priority must be to teach Stanford students, and only then respond to the needs and wishes of students at other schools and around the world?

Seed grants for faculty

During his slide presentation Mitchell spoke about the seed grants his organization is awarding on a quarterly basis to faculty members interested in venturing into online learning. Around 20 such grants were announced in the summer.

The deadline for applications for the second round of grants is Nov. 9; from four to eight applications will be funded. More information is available on the Stanford Online website.

Seed grant money can be used to develop entirely new online courses, but most professors starting out will prefer to have blended courses, in which modules are delivered online. So far, successful proposals have come from the schools of Humanities and Sciences, Engineering, Education and Medicine. The grants largely pay for technical assistance in putting together videos and working with whichever software platform the professor chooses. The School of Engineering will match seed grants awarded to faculty in that school.

For now, Stanford faculty are teaching on three platforms. Two are on campus: Class2Go, which is an open-source, nonprofit platform developed by a team of engineers in the Computer Science Department, and Venture Lab, which was developed by Amin Saberi, an associate professor of management science and engineering. The third platform, the for-profit Coursera, developed by Stanford computer scientists Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng (both currently on leave), is now off campus.

Mitchell stressed that the advantage of Stanford having its own platform – he was referring to the highly flexible Class2Go – is that Stanford faculty can better ensure that it suits their teaching needs. He said, "People around campus said to me, referring to Coursera, 'Why can't we do this ourselves? Why can't we have a nonprofit platform?'" So they built one.

Class2Go also enables the university to undertake potentially vast research about learning. By using analytics and tracking students as they navigate through courses, scholars can experiment with methods to figure out what works and what doesn't.

The possibility of using the university as a laboratory for education research "is a fantastic opportunity," Girod said, "particularly if it happens on scale. You can collect data corresponding to hundreds of years of teaching in just one MOOC. In the long run, there's tremendous potential, particularly if combined with our classroom teaching."

'Fantastic' experience

Exhibit A for anyone wishing to get a clearer sense of why anyone would venture on to this new terrain and what the rewards are is Bruce Clemens, a professor of materials science and engineering and of photon science at SLAC who is currently teaching Solar Cells, Fuel Cells and Batteries on Class2Go. He explained to his senate colleagues that his traditional class had always attracted a huge range of students, so that half the class was lost and the other half was bored. Flipping the classroom proved to be the solution. The less advanced students could watch the videos as many times as needed, and by the time students gathered in class for problem-solving sessions, they were all on the same page, or at least much closer.

"Those problem-solving experiences were absolutely fantastic," he said. "I'm getting to know the students much better than if I were lecturing. There's lots of back and forth. That's why I did this, and I decided to offer it free to the world." Clemens has 10,000 students and a very active online forum, including a group of Spanish-speakers who transcribe the class for non-English-speaking classmates.

Mitchell was named as the university's first vice provost for online learning in August. In February he was tapped to lead President John Hennessy's special task force on the matter. (Girod, DeMarzo and Prober also were members of that task force.)

At the Faculty Senate on Thursday, Mitchell began his presentation by referring to the task force's findings, which were completed in July. Among them was that though experimentation is a good and necessary phase, intellectual property complications are likely to arise. In that regard, the commission stressed that Stanford must protect its brand and its academic and institutional integrity, an issue that came up at the senate.

Mitchell repeated an anecdote that he said is all too common on the Coursera platform: Students write in after completing one of the courses offered by Stanford faculty, saying, "Thank you, Professor Boneh! Thank you, Coursera!"

"I'd like them to also say, 'and thank you, Stanford!'" Mitchell said, acknowledging that Dan Boneh is a professor in the Computer Science Department. "Things should be packaged and delivered in a way that Stanford gets credit. We should take steps to protect our interests and be recognized for our contributions."

The full minutes of the meeting, including the presentation and the question-and-answer session that followed, will be available next week on the senate's website.


Published: October 26, 2012