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Online learning: Will technology transform higher education?

Some of the nation’s online education pioneers debated technology’s impact on higher education at a symposium held in conjunction with the National Academy of Engineering regional meeting at Stanford.

Stanford Computer Science Department Chair Jennifer Widom remembers the day less than two years ago when one of her colleagues announced plans to teach his popular artificial intelligence class online for free. Widom and another computer science professor joined the experiment and taught their own free online classes – launching the first Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and igniting a still-raging revolution in higher education.

The subject of MOOCs and the furor they set off was front and center at Stanford’s School of Engineering on March 5 when some of the nation’s online education pioneers gathered for a symposium held as part of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) regional meeting. 

Watch the video of the panel discussion.

“It’s like 1993 in the history of the World Wide Web,” said David Patterson, a University of California, Berkeley computer science professor and NAE member who co-taught one of the early MOOCs. “We’re a year and a half into this revolution, and no one knows where it will end.”

New thinking about classroom experience

Patterson was one of six panelists gathered for the discussion on whether technology will transform higher education. Most agreed that MOOCs, which have expanded from Stanford’s three classes to hundreds offered by dozens of universities, can offer unprecedented opportunities for people who would not otherwise have access to high-quality higher education. 

Panelists also said they are encouraged by the widespread interest among faculty in examining new ways to improve their teaching.  

“People are thinking about the classroom experience in a more careful and meticulous way than in the past,” said John Mitchell, Stanford’s Vice Provost for Online Learning and the Mary and Gordon Crary Family Professor of Engineering.

But opinions varied widely about the future of MOOCs, how learning will evolve as result of new technologies or even if technology is the driving force behind the current shifts in higher education.  

“Match to dry ground”

Technologies like broadband Internet  and social media have helped make MOOCs possible and “reduce the friction that is holding together the building blocks” of higher education, said panel moderator Bernd Girod, Senior Associate Dean for Online Learning and Professional Development and the Robert L. and Audrey S. Hancock Professor in the Stanford School of Engineering.

“MOOCs could be to higher education what Napster was to the music industry,” said Girod, referring to the music-sharing system that created a seismic shift in how music is purchased and consumed. ”Online technologies have repeatedly enabled an unbundling, which disrupted the respective industries and their traditional business models.

Mitchell Stevens, an Associate Professor of Education at Stanford, said the move to online education is driven not by technology but by factors like contracting state budgets, which put pressure on many colleges to reduce costs at the same time they are facing growing scrutiny around performance.

“The digital revolution is a match igniting a large terrain of dry ground,’’ he said. One implication of digital educational delivery mechanisms, he said, is that they provide college educators the ability to measure and improve performance. 

Testing new teaching methods

Stanford, which has provided more than two dozen free online classes on topics ranging from Einstein to entrepreneurship to algorithms, is in the process of doing just that. The university is analyzing data from its experiments with new teaching models to enhance teaching across the board – in the classroom, in the free classes and for the traditional distance education students enrolled in the Stanford Center for Professional Development, Mitchell said.  

Among other tools, his team is using heat maps to analyze course videos to identify which segments are being watched and for what period of time.

In one case, the heat map pinpointed a video segment that students had repeatedly watched, reversed and watched again.  

“It could be that it was funny, or that it was unintentionally funny. It may have been confusing, or it may have been the high point of the lecture,” he said.

Making MOOCs effective

At the same time, the massive online courses pose new challenges for educators because of the lack of one-on-one faculty-student interaction. Tina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program who in April will teach her second online session of “A Crash Course in Creativity,” said the biggest challenge she faced was the extreme precision the online class required.

“When you’re teaching an online class if you’re not exactly clear about what you want (from students), you don’t get exactly what you expect,” she said.  Still, Seelig said she’s excited about the prospect of continuing the experiment.

Another challenge is that only a small percentage of students who enroll in a MOOC actually complete it.

One way to change that is to offer students a benefit such as course credit for successfully completing a class, said David Stavens, president and co-founder of online education startup Udacity.  The company recently agreed to partner with San Jose State University to offer three classes for credit for $150 each – the first such agreement between a MOOC provider and a university for course credit.

“We think there’s a huge opportunity not just to put classes online, but to determine what education would look like on the web if we were to rethink it from scratch,” he said.

Future of MOOCs still in question

Widom, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Computer Science at Stanford and an NAE member, is currently teaching her second “Introduction to Databases” MOOC. Although she said she finds it gratifying to be able to reach tens of thousands of people who can’t enroll in her similar Stanford course, she and others question whether the MOOC model in its current form is sustainable.

Some wonder how the numerous businesses that have sprung up around MOOCs will stay afloat while delivering a free product. Others point out the potential problems with verifying student identity and preventing cheating, especially if course credit is offered. Some worry that the growth of online education could endanger small colleges; others see an opportunity for institutions offering top-tier programs to license course content to others and improve the quality of education on a large scale.

Regardless, most agree that online education in some format holds enormous promise. “There are lots of opportunities ahead,” said Girod. “This is an exciting time for higher education.”

Jamie Beckett is director of communications and alumni relations for the School of Engineering.