During a Faculty Senate meeting on Oct. 13, electrical engineering professor Bernd Girod indicated that if Stanford’s NYC campus proposal is approved, the University will “leverage distance learning and telepresence technologies extensively.”
While distance learning between two campuses may be a new challenge, according to Paul Marca, executive director of Stanford’s Center for Professional Development, Stanford has been engaging in distance learning for the last 40 years.
“We’ve had a long and rich history delivering education,” Marca said. “We have delivered television and internet-based education as well as face-to-face education.”
The Center for Professional Development provides the opportunity for individuals with full-time jobs to continue their education and enhance their skill sets. According to its website, the Center offers over 25 graduate degrees and certificates, as well as 51 master’s of science degree “depths.” Thirteen academic departments from the School of Engineering participate in the distance learning program. Those students interested in pursuing master’s degrees must be admitted by specific departments.
In order to qualify for distance learning, students must belong to one of the Center’s member companies, listed on the Center’s website. These member companies include Apple Inc., Hewlett-Packard Company, General Electric, General Motors and NASA. Marca said the member companies “understand the value of a Stanford education.” Member company employees qualify as part-time students and are eligible for tuition discounts.
“We think of Stanford and the School of Engineering as [delivering] the needs of industry,” Marca said.
He added that an important benefit of distance learning is the opportunity for students to directly apply their education to their professional lives.
“If companies have specific initiatives, [they] can re-tool employees specifically and do so through Stanford,” Marca said.
Marca indicated that since distance learning students are working full-time, the amount of time necessary to complete a program varies. Master’s degrees are typically completed in between three to five years, with five years being the maximum amount of time provided. Because of the part-time nature of the distance-learning program, the Center measures its size based on the number of enrollments as opposed to the number of actual students.
Marca emphasized that while distance learning students are enrolled part-time, there is no differentiation in status between distance learning students and full-time Stanford students. “When we offer extended education to industry, and the department admits students, that student is a graduate student at Stanford; there is no difference,” Marca said. “They happen to be working at Intel or Cisco or Hewlett-Packard, but they are in the courses . . . just not physically on campus.”
Marca attributes much of the distance learning program’s success to the dedication of the Stanford faculty. Distance learning students may communicate with and receive help from faculty through different forms of technology, including live meetings and videoconferences.
“Our faculty understands that there is a distance learning component of the class,” Marca said. “If they deliver to graduate students at a distance, [they] understand the role of responsiveness. That has benefited students at a distance in a significant way.”
Joyce Rice, director of marketing at the School of Engineering, indicated that the technology developed for distance learning, which includes taped lectures, has also benefited full-time students.
“Full-time students at Stanford appreciate the opportunity to go online and view lectures of the courses online,” Rice said. “[This] gives them the opportunity to go over materials and prepare for projects.”
Some professors at Stanford have also initiated distance learning classes, outside of the Center for Professional Development’s specific programs. Sebastian Thrun, a computer science professor, currently offers his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online for free. The class now has 130,000 enrollments.
“Our class had an amazing success,” Thrun wrote in an email to The Daily. “We are changing the lives of people whom we could never reach before, in places like Afghanistan [and] Tanzania. We reached people in over 190 countries.”
Thrun emphasized that while distance learning is “no alternative to campus life,” online courses can help to “democratize education.”
Although distance learning may raise concerns about the potential decrease in face-to-face interactions, both Thrun and Marca do not find the decrease problematic.
“Our students consistently report a very strong connection to us,” Thrun said. “Many of them feel as if they are in the same room with us, as if we listen to them, let them try and respond to their answers.”
Marca believes that for master’s degree programs, face-to-face connections may not always be necessary. He stated that the only disadvantage of the Center’s master’s degree programs is the limited networking opportunities for distance learners.
“We believe the online experience is a great way to get the master’s education out there,” Marca said. “It’s a pretty solid program and a great way to extend Stanford’s intellectual work to make a difference in the companies that engage with us and for those professionals who wish to take classes.”