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'Now you try it': Stanford faculty share experiences of online teaching

January 28, 2013


A packed forum at the Stanford Graduate School of Education draws students and educators eager to implement new technologies and methods.

The 4-minute mile and a cruise ship navigating through icebergs were among the startling images of online teaching evoked Jan. 23, as Stanford instructors who have experimented with new technologies shared their experiences with a packed room of students, professors and other educators.

The forum was sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL) and the Graduate School of Education (GSE). The panelists were Nick Parlante, a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science; Tina Seelig, a professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering; Ed Carryer, a consulting professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; and Maya Adam, a lecturer in the Program in Human Biology and a HumBio graduate herself. Mitchell Stevens, associate professor in the GSE, served as moderator.

The example of the 4-minute mile was offered by Parlante, who teaches CS101, a basic computer science course. The class is both for Stanford students and a massive open online course (MOOC), offered on the Coursera platform. For Parlante, the athletic threshold symbolizes the inevitability of progress; just as humans are bound to get faster, educators are bound to create better and better online classes.

"Sometimes Pollyanna is right," Parlante said. "I'm massively optimistic. What inventions make the Earth better off? Things that address a need and are cheap, like Arabic numerals. ... With MOOCs, once people see good practices, it will be massive," and there will be rush to adopt them: "We're in land-grab mode," he said.

Similarly enthusiastic about her experience teaching to thousands was Seelig, whose Crash Course in Creativity was offered on the Venture Lab platform.

It was she who summoned up the uncomfortable image of the iceberg. "When I teach in the classroom," she said, "I can surf, I can be nimble following new waves" as they appear. Every instructor knows the experience of having to switch course in reaction to students' lines of questioning or the difficulty of the material. "But online," she went on, "it's like driving a cruise ship, because you couldn't switch course. When I saw an iceberg coming, I hit it! And there were so many icebergs!" In Seelig's case, the temporary obstacle concerned building student teams, an essential feature of Venture Lab that is tricky, though hugely rewarding.

Teaching Stanford students

But not all the four panelists Wednesday taught MOOCs, and as John Mitchell, vice provost for online learning, likes to point out, online technologies can critically enhance educational opportunities not only for the world but for Stanford students.

Carryer taught a flipped, or blended, version of his course ME218b, Smart Product Design: Introduction, in fall quarter. Its sequel, Smart Product Design: Applications, is running now, and next quarter students will be able to take the third installment, watching videos ahead of time and spending their time in class working on projects. Carryer used Coursera.

"I had realized that the most energizing experiences in class happened not when I was lecturing, but when we were doing exercises," Carryer said. He had been recording his lectures for years, given how dense the information can be, and he knew students liked going over the lectures after class. In fact, he said, one of his students said, "You sound so different in person!" making him realize they had been speeding up the videos, buying themselves an extra half-hour of time. But it was not until he heard a talk by Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera and a Stanford computer science professor currently on leave, that he saw how a flipped classroom could really work, and he signed on.

Adam, meanwhile, taught her first blended class in fall 2012, and she's doing it again this quarter. Her introduction to the notion of online teaching came through Charles Prober, senior associate dean of medical education, whose May 2012 article "Lecture Halls Without Lectures – A Proposal for Medical Education," co-written with Professor Chip Heath of the Graduate School of Business, was highly influential at a time when faculty at Stanford and at other institutions were considering ways of innovating in the classroom.

Cooking classes

Adam, who also is a physician, recently was awarded a seed grant from VPOL. She first flipped her seminar, HumBio121: Critical Issues in Child Health, and now has turned to the related subject of child nutrition. HumBio81Q: Introduction to Child Nutrition, which includes online cooking classes to help viewers understand what nutrition actually consists of, might eventually become a MOOC, she said, though that is not necessarily the objective. Adam has said she envisions the video modules acting as potential links with community organizations working on issues of children's health, especially obesity.

Adam initially was dubious about the notion of blended learning. "I thought it made no sense," she said. "For me, the magic of the lecture is about that connection, transferring information back and forth with students, and I thought I'd lose that," she told the audience at the Jan. 23 forum. "But what surprised me was that I ended up with more face-to-face, because in class we could have more fun, we could speak as colleagues. We almost had a more intimate relationship than with the traditional format."

All four of the faculty members on the panel said they were moving forward, either tinkering with the format they used the first time or adding new classes to their repertoire. Seelig plans to divide her class up into smaller modules, part of a larger project at her organization, the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, to create all sorts of generic learning tools that can be applied to many disciplines.

One of Parlante's principles in online teaching can be boiled down to, "Now you try it." He himself does the exercises, he said, with students able to follow his thinking, watching as he writes strings of code on the tablet. In a previous talk he summed up his model as being very simple: "I talk. I do one. You do one." It works, students keep up, and they feel accompanied – even more so than if they were in a crowded classroom.


Published: January 28, 2013