As professors experiment with online courses, students who aren’t physically on campus can now work toward their undergraduate degrees in front of a computer. In fact, some of these courses are free of charge and open to the public.
Last quarter, professors offered three of Stanford’s most popular computer science (CS) courses−Machine Learning, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Introduction to Databases−to the public at no cost. Andrew Ng, Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller Ph.D. ’94, all computer science professors, taught the three courses, respectively. More than 100,000 students participated in the machinery and intelligence courses.
“I was excited to have the opportunity to reach a far larger number of students,” Ng said. “At Stanford, I teach a machinery class of about 400 students. One way to put that is that in order to reach out to 100,000 students, I would have to teach at Stanford for 250 years.”
The idea of online CS courses first started in January 2010, when Koller decided to transfer her lectures online to use class time for interactive activities. Students reacted positively to the change in electronic course evaluations.
“The lecture component has been shifted over to this online medium with these interactive, automated systems, and in class we do activities that make better use of the fact that I am there with these students in the same room at the same time,” Koller said.
The transition to online courses has the potential to benefit students who are interested in studying abroad or participating in projects that take them off campus.
Paul Kim, assistant dean of information technology at the School of Education, stressed that online courses allow students to participate in extracurricular activities off campus while taking courses with Stanford faculty.
“You could be working for a refugee camp in northern Uganda while communicating with the faculty at all times,” Kim said.
In addition, Kim said that the online courses enable the University to make more of an impact in terms of the sheer quantity of people it can educate. According to Kim, open course content from other elite universities is already educating millions of people today.
Kim predicted that any online university affiliated with the University in the future will continue to educate only a small percentage of all Stanford students, and the University’s physical campus will maintain its importance.
“When you bring in people who can brainstorm with our finest faculty members, their collective knowledge augmentation and generation process can lead to much more timely and meaningful global impact,” Kim said. “That’s why a physical campus is still important.”
In terms of implementing an online university, there are virtually no technical challenges. According to Kim, the main problem is that people are unwilling to change existing perceptions of what a classroom should look like.
“There is a resistance to adopt and enhance the new mode of learning in traditional education settings,” Kim said. “Many traditional educators do not consider learning online valuable and do not invest time to learn new methodologies. If it does not look, feel or sound like a classroom, it may not be considered a classroom for them.”
Learning Management System, Course Management System, video capturing and streaming tools such as ClassX and Open Classroom are some of technological tools available for professors teaching online courses. However, these tools do not exclude the possibility that students will cheat. Enforcement of the honor code still remains a challenge.
“Quiz questions were randomized so that every time you took the quiz you got a different set of questions,” Ng said of his course this past fall. “Randomization makes it more difficult to cheat.”
In the future, it might be possible for students to fulfill pre-med requirements while conducting research in the Amazon or attend lecture while on a flight to a football game. With the ability to take classes through the Internet, it will be easier for students to engage in educational and recreational experiences outside the campus limits.
The momentum behind increased online learning is evident in a number of recent developments, including the recent revamp of Stanford on iTunes U and the recent findings of the Study on Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES).
“We must be entrepreneurial in our approach to teaching and technology, just as we are in regard to research and technology,” the SUES report stated, recommending the creation of clear protocol on teaching material and a Learning Technologies Lab to assist faculty and students, in addition to dialogue on the best practices of online course delivery and course management and the integration of third-party services.
“Technology will certainly enhance the learning experience and also expand new possibilities for a variety of different types of new learning,” Kim said. “Technologies of all types and shapes will be used to optimize and maximize learning for students of all regions and ages anytime, anywhere around the world.”