School of Humanities & Sciences explores online courses

Nov. 6, 2012, 2:40 a.m.

“It’s no secret that the reputation of Stanford engineering and sciences puts the humanities and arts in the shade,” said Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities & Sciences.

Despite Stanford’s ranking as the top humanities and arts university in the world, according to the 2012-13 Times Higher Education World University Arts and Humanities report, the visibility of the humanities at Stanford is a distant second to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL) and faculty from the School of Humanities & Sciences are looking to offer online courses in the humanities this academic year to remedy this problem.

Although Stanford is offering 16 massive online open courses (MOOCs) this fall quarter, almost all are STEM-related. Election 2012, a class cross-listed under the departments of History, Political Science and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, is the only Stanford class categorized under humanities on Coursera.

Debra Satz, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, began thinking of creating online courses in the humanities after reading the list of online courses on offer for fall quarter this year and noticing the lack of humanities courses. Faculty from departments in the humanities initially met with Mitchell on Oct. 30 to begin discussions on the online presence of the humanities.

“We would like to see Stanford humanities and arts have a higher public profile than they do right now,” Saller said. He called Stanford’s excellence in the arts and humanities a “well-kept secret.”

“We’re hoping that some massive online courses might draw attention to the quality of faculty that we have here,” he said.

The discussion of online courses in the humanities follows President Hennessy’s directive to explore online education’s role in the University. The establishment of the new office of the VPOL and debates in the faculty senate create a “mood across campus” that surrounds this discussion, according to Vice Provost for Online Learning John Mitchell.

Humanities faculty members pointed to a number of possible reasons their departments may lag behind STEM departments in online education.

Saller speculated that a lack of awareness of technological opportunity among the humanities faculty discouraged online courses.

“I think that the humanities faculty in general are much less aware than in computer science, where a lot of this is originating,” he said.

Mitchell pointed to the need for greater technological training among humanities faculty to develop expertise with online learning tools.

However, unfamiliarity is not the only barrier. The often discussion-based format of humanities classes translates to online courses with more difficulty than lecture-based learning.

Classics professor Ian Morris, who attended the Oct. 30 meeting, said many successful online courses have had to face the problem of moderating an enormous number of comments on a discussion board.

“You have this problem of how on earth do you deal with 10,000 comments, all coming in at the same time?” Morris said.

Morris said that while there was no definitive way to deal with the problem, efforts had been made to create algorithms to showcase certain comments or to shrink the discussion into smaller groups in order to replicate the effect of a seminar classroom.

However, he said the problem in principle was not different from trying to grade discussion in a classroom setting, as both are inherently subjective.

Both Saller and Morris said that the difficulty in grading discussion participation might cause discussion-based classes to forgo traditional grading.

Another concern particular to the humanities is the variety in the potential audience. English professor Eavan Boland speculated there might be a bigger audience for classes in the humanities than for STEM courses, since science courses often require technical knowledge that establishes common proficiency.

“The sciences require a familiarity with the language and the language of the sciences requires usually quite high levels of expertise,” she said. “When you get to the humanities, it’s much less clear who is going to be the audience.”

Boland said that it was possible that the audience could range from high school dropouts who loved reading but never got to explore that passion, or teachers who wanted to improve their own classes. Standardizing online courses for this audience may prove difficult.

Although no precise timeline has been created, Mitchell has encouraged faculty to consider classes they would like to offer online.

“I asked the faculty to think about what they feel most passionate about,” he said. “I think people will do best if they try to focus on their strongest interests and produce things that they find compelling.”

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