Stanford partners with Coursera to offer more online courses

March 6, 2012, 3:15 p.m.

Stanford will offer five more free online courses this month through a new partnership with Coursera, an online education start-up founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, the University announced today. The partnership is the latest in a series of steps the University is taking to explore online education both on and off campus.


President John Hennessy recently indicated that Stanford is deliberately pursuing ways to develop technology in and out of the classroom, comparing online education to a tsunami.


“We want to get ahead of this wave,” he told the Faculty Senate at a January meeting. “I want to be surfing the wave, not drowning in it.”


Stanford’s biggest venture in online education thus far has been the creation of free online courses, also known as “MOOCs,” or Massive Open Online Courses. Stanford’s pilot program, which began last August, attracted more than 350,000 students around the world to its three classes.


Recently, professors in the Computer Science department have pushed the notion of free online classes even further by founding their own online education start-ups. Professor Sebastian Thrun recently founded Udacity, an independent company. Professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng founded Coursera, which will now be partnering with Stanford as the University’s platform for new courses.


The new course offerings are Design and Analysis of Algorithms, Natural Language Processing, Cryptography, Game Theory and Probabilistic Graphical Models, all of which are scheduled to launch in mid March. Enrollment for the five classes has already reached 335,000.


Internal changes


In addition to the free online courses, the University has been working on more modest projects within the campus to enhance class experience for Stanford students. The Office of the Vice Provost for Education recently set up a Technology and Pedagogy Initiative to help faculty find methods to best achieve their teaching goals.


Professor John Mitchell, currently serving as special assistant for educational technology to President Hennessy, identified four areas in which Stanford is trying to bring technology into education on campus: interactive video lectures, social networking forums for class discussion, interactive quizzes and tests that take place outside of the classroom and collaboration software to help students work on group projects. Some professors, including Koller, have already started to employ the “inverted classroom model,” in which students watch lectures at home before coming to class for more interactive discussions.


“We like to make the time everyone spends here, both for students and faculty, as effective and productive as possible,” Mitchell said. “Technology can help restructure a course so that the time people are in a room together is more interactive.”


Currently, The Center for Teaching and Learning, recently joined by new Associate Director for Technology and Teaching, Amy Collier, is at the heart of these initiatives. Collier and her team meet with faculty one on one to determine what teaching strategies will make best use of classroom time.


“We sit down with the faculty to identify what it is they want the students to leave their course with,” Collier said. “They need to ask: how do we know that they have learned these things, and can we assess that online? If we can, then how?”


Mitchell said that the process of reevaluating teaching strategies will help make faculty more effective. Mitchell himself has been preparing to teach one of his classes online.


“What I found from doing this is that putting material I taught one way in a different format is a good way to rethink it,” he said. “Viewing things in 15 minutes segments seems to be better for students, but it also seems to be a useful for the instructor — you have to think about making each 15 minutes self-contained and meaningful, since you don’t have 30 minutes to ramble.”


Questions going forward


As Stanford continues to explore online education and its potential benefits for the University, there are still many questions that remain unanswered, especially regarding free online courses. The online courses currently offer grading but no accreditation, and there are no formal restrictions or guidelines for professors who wish to offer their courses online through sites such as Udacity or Coursera.


One potential concern Mitchell identified is other universities incorporating Stanford’s free classes into their curriculum – and charging students for it.


“It’s an unknown,” Mitchell said. “We have to think about it.”


However, Mitchell said he feels Stanford should not be overly cautious.


“One of our strengths is that our faculty are enterprising and energetic,” Mitchell said. “It would be a mistake for the University to stand in the way of trying new things. I think at the same time, we as a university and as a faculty will need to develop some ideas as to what is helpful for our university.”


Collier said that exploring public courses as a University endeavor also benefits students on campus.


“I would say that this initiative has a heart and a soul,” she said. “The heart of the initiative is making the classroom space more engaging for Stanford students. The soul is sharing this information with the world. This is a contribution that we can make to the world, to people who don’t have the access to the resources at Stanford. What’s really great about this heart and soul method is that they can really work together — having an open online course with people across the world contributing to it could give you interactions that help you professionally as a student. They fit really nicely together.”


Ultimately, Mitchell said that Stanford’s vision is both for its students and for the larger world: “If we could all do something good for the world while still serving our students — well, we all want to do that.”

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