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Lessons learned: Jennifer Widom’s ‘instructional odyssey’ rolls on

Seven years ago, the School of Engineering dean and developer of one of the first-ever MOOCs took her show on the road. Just back from her latest trek to Mongolia, the lessons are still rolling in – for her students and for her.
Since 2016, Dean Widom has made 28 visits to 24 different countries to teach data science. Her 29th and 30th visits will take her to South Africa and Rwanda in September. This photo captures her with a group of students in Bhutan, one of her first destinations in 2016. | Photo courtesy of Jennifer Widom

In 2016, when Jennifer Widom had not yet been named dean of the School of Engineering, she was preparing for a sabbatical. Her plan would be an odyssey of sorts. Over the next nine months, possibly stretching to 12 if time allowed, Widom planned to travel to a slate of under resourced locations around the world – from Bhutan to Namibia – to deliver free, intensive short courses on the wonders of data science (her specialty), along with workshops on design thinking and collaborative problem-solving, and roundtables discussing the growing place for women in technology.

Widom’s plan was to build on one of her notable professional accomplishments achieved only a few years earlier. She was creator of one of the first of three wildly popular Stanford experiments in open education, the Massive Open Online Course, better known as a MOOC.

“If you remember MOOCs in the fall of 2011, it was a really exciting time. I found the experience incredibly rewarding, and combined with my love of travel I wanted to recreate that experience in person,” she recalls of her motivations and her aspirations.

The instructional odyssey got off to a strong start. In the first six months, she visited 15 countries. More locations were booked. Lessons were planned. But then fate interceded.

“Around the 6-month mark, I was asked to be dean, so I had to cut it all short,” Widom remembers. “But I’ve continued to teach in three or four countries a year ever since, including a few virtual sessions during the pandemic.”

In the summer of 2022, with the pandemic behind her and settled into the dean’s role, Widom began to pick up where she had left off, completing two sessions in countries originally planned for 2020, Ecuador and Colombia, and one that had been scheduled for 2021, Mexico. In 2023, she began to add new locations – most recently a five-day session in Mongolia in June.

Open opportunity

While the academic requirements of students participating in the data science short course are not overly restrictive – the students need only basic coding experience – the agenda is another matter.

“These are full-day sessions. In five days I can cover nearly all the material I would in a one-quarter course at Stanford,” Widom says of her aggressive pace. “Mongolia started at nine in the morning and ended after five. The students loved it. They wanted to keep the breaks as short as possible.”

While mention of Mongolia might inspire images of vast grassy steppes and yurts, Widom says the actual setting in the capital of Ulaanbaatar was entirely the opposite. It was, in fact, “quite cosmopolitan” and one of the better prepared and organized locations in her travels to date.

Participants in Mongolia were probably among her more capable groups of students, too, Widom assesses – uniformly skilled and eager to learn. Mongolia enjoys a certain “academic spirit,” she says.

Participants were drawn from all over Ulaanbaatar, not just a single university, supplemented by a handful of high school students and a few working professionals. The robust turnout and lack of attrition over the week took Widom somewhat by surprise. Normally, with a free course like hers, no-shows and dropouts can be common.

“So, I convinced the organizers to overbook but everyone showed … and they all stayed! We had more than 160 in a room that held 150,” Widom says with a smile. Another detail that made Widom smile was that two-thirds of the attendees were women – a first in her travels.

Enthusiasm abounds

Asked what lessons stand out over all these many years and many journeys, Widom quickly responds. “There is growing parity of technological knowledge across countries,” she says. “There’s a rising up of infrastructure and of skills and know-how.”

That Widom’s odyssey will continue for the foreseeable future is good news for eager coders in Rwanda and South Africa, at the very least. Widom will bring her instructional odyssey to those two locations in September 2023.

“Wherever I go,” Widom says, “I never stop being amazed to find that there are great and enthusiastic students all over the world.”

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