Stanford leads web movement

Feb. 23, 2010, 1:03 a.m.

Stanford’s undergraduate price tag may have just gone up, but for the casual physics learner, the University is still a top destination for free online educational content.

Standing in stark contrast to rising tuition costs, a growing number of American universities are providing free online courses to the general public and, by the numbers, Stanford appears to be at the forefront.

With a total of 2,872 tracks on iTunes and 868 videos on YouTube, Stanford averages 219,000 downloads per week on iTunes U and 114,000 views per week on YouTube, according to University communications staff.

The University currently offers 73 courses on iTunes U. YouTube EDU provides a subset of 53 courses from the iTunes U site. According to Dan Colman, the director of Continuing Studies, 17 of the iTunes courses are from the Continuing Studies Program.

It all began with the Apple Digital Campus Initiative in 2005, said Scott Stocker, Stanford’s director of Web communications. The initiative led to the genesis of Stanford’s public iTunes U site, the first of its kind.

“The idea began as a way for faculty to use iTunes, kind of in tandem with Coursework . . . to distribute audio recordings of courses,” Stocker said. “Through that project, we actually brought up the idea that iTunes would make a great platform for distributing recorded materials to the public. That’s really where iTunes U began.”

In the years that followed, Stocker and his affiliates at the Office of University Communications formed a lasting partnership with the Continuing Studies Program, which has been an important provider of online content for the University’s iTunes U and YouTube EDU platforms.

Today, one explanation for the popularity of these online courses is their broad appeal.

“My program, Continuing Studies, presents courses that are interesting to the larger public,” Colman said. “These courses were kind of a logical fit for what they were trying to do.”

Colman said that Stanford’s ability to record lectures and disseminate them online fulfills the University’s mission of making education accessible to the larger public.

“Anytime that we can give people access to important information, regardless of where they live in the world or whether they have money or not, I think it’s a valuable thing to do,” Colman emphasized.

“For example, we taped a six-quarter sequence tracing the whole arc of modern physics, and it’s a very popular course,” he added. “It’s presented by a very important physicist at the University.”

That physicist is Leonard Susskind, the Felix Bloch professor in physics.

“It seemed to me that there was a need for somebody to teach things like physics to a broader audience outside the Stanford student audience, and I decided to try teaching a continuing studies course,” Susskind said about his motivation.

“I get a fantastic amount of e-mail, much more e-mail than I can possibly answer,” he explained. “Some it comes from within the United Sates. I would say the majority of it comes from all over the world . . . a lot of it comes from India, from Pakistan, from Iran, from South America, from all over Asia.”

Given the huge success of his physics series, Susskind anticipates that he will continue providing lectures for the Continuing Studies Program and the University’s online platforms.

“I’ll continue it for a while,” he said. “I enjoy it — it’s a lot of fun.”

Stocker asserted that there are many pedagogical reasons for making course content available online. He noted that this option enables students to “review and augment what they’re learning in class.”

“But our primary focus is making a sampling of the courses available to the general public . . . We want to showcase the best of teaching and research on campus,” he added.

In addition to reaching interested scholars, these online classes attract the attention of prospective students and help alums reconnect with the University.

“The original iTunes U project was also a partnership with the Alumni Association and we’ve always seen that the alumni [are] one of the largest audiences for this material,” Stocked said.

Individual departments currently are responsible for selecting lectures to record, but Stocker maintained that his office is always on the lookout for new material to post on the Web.

“We’re always looking for new content, so if people have good suggestions for content they’d like to see on the site, [they should] feel free to contact our office,” Stocker said.

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