Skip to content Skip to navigation

Stanford Professors Discuss “The Joy of Global Learning”

December 12, 2017


In a recent afternoon panel discussion at Paul Brest Hall, three Stanford professors explored trends in global education and shared insights from their own efforts to extend Stanford’s educational impact beyond its physical location.

Computer scientist Jennifer Widom and physician Charles Prober each offered brief descriptions of activities they have been leading across the world to advance access to knowledge in their respective fields. They then spoke more generally about global learning with Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning, John Mitchell, himself a pioneer in distributed education, and took questions from the audience.

Widom, Dean of the School of Engineering and professor of computer science and electrical engineering first spoke about her involvement with “MOOCs and MOICs.” She created one of the world’s first massively open online courses, or MOOCs, in the fall of 2011, a course on databases that was taken by tens of thousands of people. The experience, said Widom, “was one of the most invigorating of my career.”

For an undertaking that reached electronically across the globe, creating her MOOC also proved surprisingly personal for Widom. “I still run into people all over the place who have taken my course,” she said.

More recently, Widom used a sabbatical break to try what she dubbed a MOIC, or massive open in-person course. “I wanted to take my MOOC experience and bring it to people in person,” she recalled. The result was a year-long series of short teaching engagements, funded through various sponsors and academic societies, with students in some of the world’s most under-resourced nations. In all, Widom visited 25 institutions in 16 countries, including Bhutan, Bangladesh, Poland, Indonesia, and Peru, offering students in each location a rare chance to engage directly with a Stanford professor.

Widom herself got to better understand how efforts like Stanford’s MOOCs help international students learn, and gained feedback on her course materials that she has since used to refine her on campus teaching. Adapting her MOIC materials for students at varying levels of expertise across the world helped her design, for example, the course in big data for non-computer science majors (CS 102) that she currently teaches to students majoring in 35 different subjects. “My ability to teach to that variety of students came from doing it on the road,” she observed.

As Senior Associate Vice Provost for Health Education for Stanford University, pediatrics professor Charles Prober has a long-held interest in creating educational opportunities for broad audiences around the world.

In his comments, Prober shared several recent examples of international collaboration where Stanford expertise is reaching both patients and health practitioners in Africa and Asia.

The Stanford Center for Health Education, he noted, is creating partnerships in both India and South Africa that team faculty specialists with local academic partners to devise content that is scaled with the assistance of local government partners and that reaches health promoters, patients, and other learners through ties with local NGOs.

At Stanford, Prober said, “I believe we have an obligation to take our educational content and enhance the educational experience of all those along the spectrum from health promoters to practicing physicians.”

Prober also described efforts by Dr. Maya Adam at Stanford Medicine to repurpose online course materials on child nutrition created for her medical students for health workers serving pregnant women in South Africa, a program that has reached over 450,000 learners to date. An upcoming partnership, meanwhile, will add Stanford-created content to the curriculum of the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda, a new university being developed by the international NGO Partners in Health.

At the heart of this work, Prober said, lies the belief that “education empowers and health education saves lives.”

Following their presentations, Prober and Widom explored the relative advantages of aiming to teach many from afar, versus reaching fewer people directly, and discussed the opportunities that expanding educational efforts beyond Stanford’s walls might afford both the university’s faculty and its students.

“Our students are interested in making a difference,” Prober noted. “And one way they can do that is by creating content and helping connect with students at other schools in different parts of the world.”

In many ways, he added, Stanford’s accomplished and knowledgeable students can communicate with students abroad as well as, if not better than, older educators. “I think we need to capitalize more on that incredible population of smart people,” he said.

Mitchell asked how Stanford students could contribute to global learning. In addition to studying abroad, Widom suggested, “I think teaching abroad is something we could add to the student portfolio.” She pointed to an experiment in bringing Stanford computer science classes to Turkey where a faculty member and a team of student section leaders both teach the class to local students and teach them how to teach it.

Questions from the audience promoted discussion of how students might be supported to have a greater global impact, including financial support, and what institutional changes or funding models might be required at Stanford to support global learning on a larger scale.

“Exploration is part of our job as academics,” suggested Mitchell in response. “If we find new models that have value, I think we’ll find ways to bring funding to them.”