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Stanford’s Learning Summit 2016 Wraps Up With a Review of the State of Online Education and Suggestions for Where to Innovate Next

Top Challenges and Opportunities Today and Tomorrow” panelists.

“Top Challenges and Opportunities Today and Tomorrow” panelists (left to right): John Mitchell, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning at Stanford; Cathy Koshland, Vice Chancellor of Undergraduate Education at UC Berkeley; Eric Grimson, Chancellor for Academic Advancement at MIT; and Peter Bol, Vice Provost for Advances in Learning at Harvard. Photo by Steve Castillo.

Experts from Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and MIT explore “Top Challenges and Opportunities Today and Tomorrow”

The fourth annual Learning Summit’s closing plenary session saw a panel of leaders in online education take stock of what’s been achieved in the field over the last few years and suggest where progress still needs to be made.

Organized by Stanford’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, and convened jointly with peers from UC Berkeley, Harvard, and MIT, the conference had seen participants from institutions across the country sharing new ideas and recent research, and debating the policy and pedagogic implications of recent advances in digital learning. 
Wrapping up the two-day event, the final panel featured representatives of the summit’s four founding institutions, including Stanford’s Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning John Mitchell, who moderated the discussion.
Mitchell began by noting a strain of negativity about massive, free online classes, or MOOCs, that had been articulated at this year’s conference and asked if there were also positive things to say about them.    
Peter Bol, Harvard’s Vice Provost for Advances in Learning and Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, pointed to the fact that HarvardX — the university’s free MOOC platform — has attracted students from all over the world, the majority of whom are young graduates and motivated by an interest in lifelong learning rather than professional education. It’s had the effect, he said, “of not only expanding the liberal arts curriculum for the world, but also for Harvard itself.”
Four years ago, MIT Chancellor for Academic Advancement and Professor of Computer Science and Medical Engineering Eric Grimson helped create MIT’s MOOC platform, MITx. It was launched, Grimson said, to change the way faculty taught on campus, to open opportunities for study to a global audience, and to develop new tools for learning about learning. With the vast majority of MIT undergraduates now using online tools in their classes, and with students from distant regions like Ulan Bator finding, and even matriculating at, MIT thanks to these globally available classes, that vision has begun to come true, he argued. “It’s not going to completely change to world of higher education, but it’s still an incredibly valuable tool,” he suggested.
“I think the MOOC effort has made a difference, particularly for on-the-ground faculty,” added Cathy Koshland, Vice Chancellor of Undergraduate Education and Professor in Engineering and Environmental Sciences at UC Berkeley. Berkeley faculty who have engaged with online learning are shifting the campus conversation in a very positive way, she said. Early suspicion and resistance has lifted, with people now much more open to the possibility that online technologies can benefit learning and increasingly interested in developing innovative new approaches to teaching themselves. 
Stanford’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, meanwhile, has helped with 720 projects over the last four years in which an instructional team has developed a new offering for either on- or off-campus instruction, reported Mitchell. That’s impacted over 125 Stanford courses and produced more than 75 distinct MOOCs that have collectively reached more than 2 million users. 
Different faculty have had differing goals in doing this work, Mitchell noted. For a few, the exposure to a global audience has been key. But others are interested in offering a public service, in researching education itself, in developing alternative versions of their classes, or in making a unique resource like medieval manuscripts available to all. Most of these motivations, he argued, don’t embody the notion originally associated with MOOCs that they would represent “the very best course” in a subject and therefore undermine the need for any other school to teach it. Instead, Mitchell said, “I think they are exploring the medium and doing something really interesting.”
That isn’t to say that the maturing of online education is without its challenges. “We have to figure out how to pay for this,” observed Mitchell, noting that the work it takes to innovate can also overburden instructors if it’s not well integrated into their jobs. 
Other issues raised by the panel included creating technologies that build, rather than isolate, communities, serving people in whatever language they speak, and innovating in order to address a broader range areas of study, both in the curricular sense and in allowing teaching and research to intersect in new ways. 
And yet, declared Koshland, “the landscape of possibility is really exciting.” 
Looking ahead, the panel suggested that universities look to further integrate online and residential teaching, do more to apply what they’re learning about learning to the teaching they support, and think more broadly about both the future of higher education and how research institutions can be valuable to people beyond their campuses.
It’s important to remember that the best classes change each time they are taught, the panelists agreed, and that digital technologies shouldn’t be used to set course materials in stone. Instead they should be advancing flexibility and encouraging re-use of materials in different classes, campuses, and even systems.
Questions from the floor had the panel thinking further about the connections between online learning and research and how bringing learning experiences to more people might speed innovation in a variety of fields. They also explored the value of working with industry partners and noted with appreciation that funding for new educational technologies is slowly increasing, as is support for innovation in teaching and learning more generally among faculty, parents, alumni, and even unaffiliated groups.

The Year of Learning Video Gallery

2016 Learning Summit at Stanford University: Plenary B — Top Challenges and Opportunities Today and Tomorrow.

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