Vice Provost John Mitchell discusses online education initiatives

VPOL John Mitchell
(LINDA CICERO/Stanford News Service)

John Mitchell, the new Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL), recently sat down with The Daily to discuss his position and plans for the office. Mitchell is the Mary and Gordon Crary Family Professor in the School of Engineering and was announced as the new VPOL in August.

Mitchell’s responsibilities include coordinating experiments in online education with members of Stanford faculty, liaising between schools to establish a set of best practices and allocating seed funding to faculty for projects relating to online teaching and education.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Your office was the only the third Vice Provost-ship created at Stanford in over 20 years. What do you believe was the impetus behind the formation of this office at this point in time?

John Mitchell (JM): One of the reasons this was to be an Office of the Vice Provost as opposed to [a position] within an individual school or department is because there are a lot of issues that cut across the University. All of [the schools] can, in varying ways, benefit from new teaching and learning schools. One of the ideas is to collect and process expertise centrally to benefit the entire University, and if something exciting happens in one department or school, we provide a mechanism for sharing that information across the University to help everyone benefit.

TSD: Why were you chosen for the role, and why did you accept the position?

JM: I started, about three-and-a-half years ago maybe, working on a web platform for supporting the experiments in teaching and learning. And out of that came some experiments with the flipped classroom… And other ideas that we developed were discussion forums for students and course staff to talk online. So I was already involved in some of the ideas and developing the technology; there are many other capable people on campus, and somehow I was chosen. For me it’s a great opportunity after being here 25 years to give back to the University in some form and help everyone across campus. [I want to] take advantage of the technology I know and love, but it’s beyond a technology effort and the focus is on teaching and learning.

TSD: What are Stanford’s peer universities doing in the same space? How does Stanford’s approach compare to, let’s say, MIT and Harvard’s EdX?

JM: [EdX] addresses some part of the topic area…but the larger part of the issue is how do we develop good teaching and learning materials. It’s easy to build a platform; in a sense, it’s a software problem… But it’s another thing getting new teaching and learning ideas adopted across campus and engaging the faculty help figure out how to do this right. One thing that really works for Stanford is to make it a faculty-driven process. We’re not trying to have a top-down, central planning process. Some of the other universities have been more top down in choosing courses and in how they work with faculty.

TSD: So, does Stanford lead the pack?

JM: I think so. We really were the starting point for the current wave of massive open online courses… We got off to a very good start, we’ve probably put out as many courses online as any other universities… A lot of other universities have put out lists of courses to be put online but as far as what we have actually done, we have been very successful in comparison with others.

TSD: What is the process of providing faculty with seed grants to move their courses online? What are the grants used for?

JM: The process involves faculty writing a little proposal; we’ve tried to fund as many of them as we can. Our criteria involve creativity: Does somebody have a new idea? Are they going to explore something in a different way? And are we going to learn something new about online teaching and learning from it? The funding really goes to support the process of building the course material.

TSD: What are the sums usually given to faculty?

JM: We’ve been allocating up to $25,000 per project; that seems to have been enough to help each one get going.

TSD: What specific policy plans does the office have? Do you have a timeline for the various goals you have for this year and in the years following?

JM: Not a specific, hard timeline; many of the things are driven by faculty initiatives… We would like to see a continuing stream of online courses at the same rate as we have had. I’d like to see some more visible activities on campus, people taking their on-campus course and using technology in interesting ways. I think we will see in a couple of years… master’s degree programs or things from specific fields in specific schools where the topic is more amenable to that.

TSD: What about the criticism that humanities courses are not best fit for this platform?

JM: The answers aren’t all in on that. You can ask multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions about history or philosophy or politics, but I think what’s missing is the idea of a creative written expression of something substantive. We don’t know really know at this point how to… understand that automatically. There can be a peer-evaluation process.

TSD: Some people feel that when a course is made by Stanford faculty for Stanford students, broadcasting it almost diminishes the feeling of receiving them live, on campus. What do you say to that critique?

JM: I hope people don’t feel short-changed. I think that we are, or at least should be, offering something to Stanford students that off-campus students don’t get. Watching a lecture halfway around the world on a two-by-two [inch] screen is different from actually being able to meet the lecturer in office hours.

TSD: Where do you see your office in five years?

JM: Hopefully we’ll have an office! [laughs] I don’t think this movement is going to go away; I think we’ll stabilize in some form and we may have new kinds of educational institutions; and I think many of the things we see as futuristic will become commonplace in lots of courses.

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