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New platform for online courses stresses team-based, experiential learning

September 28, 2012


A new online course on a new online platform at Stanford succeeds not only in joining people from dozens of countries but enabling them to directly collaborate on group projects: A group of women in Iran put together a tourism project; three men in India devised a way of connecting Indian musicians, audiences and venues; a pair of men in Trinidad and Tobago figured out how to ease road transportation; a team with members in Germany, the United Kingdom and Russia developed a mobile app for buying and selling locally designed products; and four Americans and a Pakistani created a search engine to find online classes.

Clearly, some projects will prosper and others will not, though in either case the experience will have taught team members invaluable lessons.

The class, taught by Chuck Eesley, assistant professor of management science and engineering, is called Technology Entrepreneurship.

Over the summer, the class hosted an unusual visitor: Stanford President John Hennessy. Amin Saberi, associate professor of management science and engineering who developed the platform, called Venture Lab, spent 20 minutes chatting with Hennessy and asking him questions submitted by students. They talked about technology, entrepreneurship, what a university president does all day (lots) and the future of online learning.

"We're doing experiments to see what works for students, what works long term for the university," Hennessy said in avideotaped interview on the Venture Lab website. "I think it'll shift over time, what kinds of things people are willing to do, what kinds of recognition students might receive, how eventually there might be a cost model. We're in that period where we try lots of things, we experiment with different ways of doing things."

Experimenting is exactly what got Eesley and Saberi into the business of teaching the massive open online course (MOOC) in technology entrepreneurship, and it appears to have been a resounding success. It is being repeated this fall.

Eesley, who teaches and conducts research on entrepreneurship, began flipping his classroom, that is, putting his lectures on video and dedicating class time to more interactive, hands-on activities, and students seemed to like it.

"I wanted to have a greater impact with my teaching, and I saw what was happening in the Computer Science Department" with the development of MOOC technologies, Eesley said. "But I wasn't sure how to do it, and then Amin came to me."

Saberi pointed out to Eesley that his class relied on teams that no existing MOOC platform could accommodate.

"Amin said, 'We can help them form teams and work on their projects, just like in your Stanford class. Let me try to build a platform for you.' How could I turn that down?" Eesley asked.

Through social media, Eesley heard from some 80,000 people who said they'd be interested in taking an online course. "We said, 'Thanks for your interest, we'll get back to you,' and then we designed the platform," Saberi recalled. His doctoral student Farnaz Ronaghi put it together and led a team of students working on the project. "Launch and learn," Saberi called it.

Experiential learning

The platform, called Venture Lab, is distinctive precisely because it is designed for collaboration in the classroom. Other MOOC platforms are predicated on individuals doing work on their own. Students communicate with peers on forum pages, but the unit of analysis is singular. Venture Lab aims to make online learning usable and advantageous for classes that rely on groups working together.

"The most important part of this platform is that students can learn from their peers," Saberi said. "The social and experiential aspects of learning must not be diminished by going online; on the contrary, the challenge is how to amplify them online."

This fall, Stanford will offer five online Venture Lab classes.

The mechanics of team formation, Eesley noted in an understatement, is "not a trivial coding exercise." It's a massive undertaking in its own right. The 37,000 students (from 150 countries) initially enrolled in his course offered some information about themselves: their country, language, background, skills, etc. Using that information, Saberi created an algorithm to form teams of 8 to 10 members.

Then all students had to do a warm-up exercise in which they identified the five worst and five best startup ideas they could think of. Eesley confessed stealing the exercise from his colleague Tina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, who teaches courses on creativity and entrepreneurship at Stanford's Students used the information gleaned from that exercise to reshuffle themselves.

"Amin would always want to do the optimal engineering solution, and I'd say, 'What about just doing it a stupid way?'" Eesley recalled. "We would disagree on what's really cool. It took us a long time to figure out how to form teams." But finally, after some three weeks of this give-and-take, class was ready to start.

Each week there were video lectures and exercises, and teams quickly decided on their projects. They developed marketing and business plans, made presentations, created prototypes. Some had official mentors (of whom there were around 200) who signed up with the course to lend a hand.

Each time a team submitted an assignment, everyone could evaluate each other's contribution. This enabled good students, identified by five stars next to their name, to find each other, and it also made students feel accountable to each other, Saberi said. "At the end of the class, students said the most rewarding part of the course was the people they met, learning to negotiate and build something together." Their projects covered a wide range of interests: telecommunications, mobile devices, medicine and health, energy, architecture, transportation, education and finance.

'Crash Course on Creativity'

Seelig said she knew the minute she learned about Saberi's platform that her Stanford class on creativity could be hosted nowhere else.

Her eight-week online class begins Oct. 17 and is called A Crash Course on Creativity. She will start by having all students watch the talk she gave at TEDxStanford last May and then write a 500-word essay on it. The essays will be shared, to enable students to learn more about each other and choose teammates.

Each week, teams will watch a short video, do a bit of reading from Seelig's own book, inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, and complete an assignment, the best of which will be posted on the home page. Teams will communicate via Skype or other existing Internet tools, and on Fridays she will host a Google Hangout to discuss the weekly project with students – with thousands listening in (and Tweeting their questions).

"The Venture Lab platform is very interesting for experiential classes with an unlimited number of students," she said. "The question is, what can we do with this platform that we can't do in a traditional classroom? For example, if we do an assignment on observation, then people in India or the United States or Latin America will be able to contribute very different insights based on their different environments."

New ideas, new products

The lively home page of Eesley's course in spring announced which teams and individuals (approximately 10,000 made it to the end) were most recently active, so students could keep track of each other.

Among the teams whose members had the most stars by their names was Team Alice, led by a Bay Area woman with vast experience in health care research and business development. She wanted to develop a product aimed at women, though she wasn't quite sure what. On Venture Lab she acquired three teammates: a local anesthesiologist/entrepreneur and two computer scientists. They figured out a division of labor, splitting marketing and coding, and together they created BumpMD, a service for women and families with fertility problems.

Another of the more successful teams – coincidentally, also baby-focused – was TeleHealth, led by a couple of former Morgan Stanley employees in New York. They had already developed a portable wireless device to measure babies' vital signs and transfer that information to cell phones, presumably in the pocket or purse of a worried parent. The prototype had done well at competitions, but they wanted to make it a viable product. Enter Venture Lab, where the original members (along with new colleagues) saw their possibilities multiply. Originally they told Saberi's research assistant, Hamsa Sridhar, they had very strict ideas about which features to include, but through the class they learned to be more open and allow the product (now called Monbaby) to evolve.

Five classes this fall

Paul Kim, assistant dean and chief technology officer of the School of Education, also will be using the Venture Lab platform this fall. In his 10-week, project-based course, Designing a New Learning Environment, teams of students will design ways in which technology can be leveraged to provide better interactive learning scenarios in K-12 classrooms. Venture Lab will host two additional classes in fall, on finance and advanced entrepreneurship. All begin Oct. 15.

Eesley is teaching his class again, though while he prepares his tenure file he will rely on a co-instructor. Looking ahead, Eesley said, he'd like to do two things: more closely integrate his regular Stanford class with his MOOC and incorporate gaming and simulation technology.

"We could present situations online that would take students years to find in the real world," he said. "We could take them through the steps of planning an IPO, for example, and compress the time scale many times over. Prior experience is really important for entrepreneurs when they start out; virtual experience would be the next best thing. So I'm really excited about the gaming potential."

But the community that grew out of the Venture Lab teams is not only virtual. Eesley said someone opened up an Internet cafe in Ghana just to enable people to take his course; in Seattle, meanwhile, Sridhar heard that a few dozen participants from different teams regularly gathered at a local startup incubator to talk over their plans.

"The most rewarding part of this has been the emails I've gotten from around the world," Eesley said. "For what really was a marginal effort, I've magnified my impact on the world. In a traditional classroom, it would have taken me decades to reach that many students. That's why I became a professor: to teach people."