Stanford Venture Lab’s MOOCs reach global audience

Feb. 20, 2013, 12:48 a.m.

High school students in Trinidad and Tobago, friends in an Internet café in Nairobi, Kenya, and an elderly couple of 93-year-olds in Germany all share one experience: they took free online classes through Stanford’s Venture Lab.

Launched last March, the Stanford-developed platform for massive open online courses (MOOCs) has attracted over 170,000 students from over 150 countries in just under a year. Based on that success, the platform branched out into an independent entity called NovoEd with the intention of developing national and international partnerships with other universities.

Unlike other for-profit MOOCs platforms such as Coursera and Udacity, Venture Lab is a free enterprise with a focus on peer learning.

“Instead of putting the spotlight on the professors and pretending that they know all the answers, we put the spotlight on the students and help them unleash their own power,” said Amin Saberi, director of Venture Lab and CEO of NovoEd.

Venture Lab develops that student power by organizing students taking a specific course into teams by using factors like geographic proximity and common language. Students earn individual reputation scores based on their contributions to the team’s work, ultimately creating a new social network through an online classroom.

“In this transition from brick and mortar to online learning, you shouldn’t strip away the social, the experiential or the collaborative aspect of learning,” Saberi said.

Assignments are based on video lectures by Stanford faculty posted on the course site. Students receive a statement of accomplishment upon completing the course.

Farnaz Ronaghi M.S. ’10 Ph.D. ’13 said that Venture Lab’s peer focus matches well with the program’s skill-based interactive learning, just as the mastery-based learning of Coursera and Udacity fits their course models.

Ronaghi helped create Venture Lab as part of her Ph.D. focus on online education and team formation algorithms. She had previously worked with Saberi on a game theory lab and currently works with him as engineering manager of NovoEd.

Students’ ability to create their own online personas is key for developing lasting collaboration among students even after the courses close, according to Ronaghi. There are at least 100 students still active per day on each course site where they can continue to communicate with their peers from fall 2012.

The concept for Venture Lab—and subsequently NovoEd—originated in conversations between Saberi and Chuck Eesley, assistant professor of management science and engineering.

Eesley, whose “Technology and Entrepreneurship” class was the first course offered on the platform, had historically videotaped his class lectures and wanted to make them more accessible to a global audience. That task has since become a full-time job for Saberi.

“I was actually planning on having a peaceful and quiet sabbatical,” Saberi said.

Eesley’s course introduced students to the world of startups, encouraging them to form their own through incentives. The top 200 teams in the course were assigned a professional mentor for their startup projects and the top 20 teams had the opportunity to pitch their ideas to venture capitalists.

Many teams went on to launch their startups commercially. That number includes TommyJams—a music-themed startup based in India that allows performance venues to better select their acts through a fan review system. The founders of TommyJams met on Venture Lab, with two team members resigning from their jobs at Microsoft to work full time on their startup project.

As the platform continues to expand—with 10 courses scheduled for next quarter, including some from the Graduate School of Business and the School of Medicine—problems with authenticating student participants have persisted.

Saberi expressed optimism that new partnerships with other universities might help regulate the platform’s user base, as well as allowing NovoEd to thrive through an even broader audience.

“It’s been a venture for all of us,” Saberi concluded.

Ileana Najarro is the Managing Editor of News at The Stanford Daily. She previously worked as a News Desk Editor and Staff Writer.

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