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FacSen places high value on online ed

The Faculty Senate discussed online education Thursday, hearing from a five-member panel about the University’s current and future initiatives. Eric Roberts, professor of computer science, called the issue “the most controversial that has come up in my time here,” and critiqued the fact that no opponents of online education had addressed the Senate.

Provost and Acting President John Etchemendy Ph.D. ‘82 opened the meeting by commenting on the imminent departure of Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer. Kramer will leave Stanford in August to serve as president of the Hewlett Foundation.

“It’s a wonderful thing for Larry,” Etchemendy said. “For us, it’s not so wonderful. Larry was a practically perfect dean…We will miss Larry a lot.”

Etchemendy, currently serving as acting president while University President John Hennessy remains on sabbatical, also commented on the increased workload and responsibilities that he has assumed.

“A lot of you may be questioning whether we need both a President and [a] Provost,” Etchemendy quipped. “The answer is ‘yes.’”

Paul Marca ‘88, executive director of the Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD), opened the panel’s presentation on online education by detailing the SCPD’s current offerings for graduate and professional courses.

Describing Stanford as a pioneering institution in the field of distance learning, Marca noted that upwards of 2,500 students are currently enrolled in 200 tuition-based online graduate courses, in addition to fee-paying professional and graduate certificate offerings.

Lisa Lapin, assistant vice president for University communications, then commented on the increased demand for Stanford-sourced content through mediums such as iTunes U and YouTube, noting, “Stanford course material is wildly popular around the globe.”

Stanford offers content from 43 courses on YouTube and 111 courses on iTunes U. According to Lapin, over the past year, the University has averaged 1.69 million views per month through its YouTube channel, and 1.4 million downloads per month with iTunes U.

Lapin said Stanford was one of five universities to launch a complete iTunes app in January, which will offer 13 full courses to interested students. She noted that the University will look to collaborate further with iTunes on providing supplemental materials and incorporating social interaction for students.

John Mitchell, a professor of computer science who has served as a special assistant to the President for educational technology since January, noted that several Stanford faculty members have already ventured into online education with great success. He cited, among other examples, the work of computer science professor Sebastian Thrun, whose “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course attracted more than 160,000 online participants.

Thrun recently launched the free, web-based university Udacity.

“Evolving technology gives us an opportunity to expand and reinvigorate education at all levels,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell argued that developing Stanford’s reputation in online education would benefit the University as a whole.

“It would be beneficial for Stanford to be a leader in online education,” Mitchell said. “Many faculty are rethinking their courses, how they develop them and how they teach. That can only be good for us.”

While noting that enrollment in Stanford-developed online education and feedback from participants exceeded expectations, Etchemendy said that it may prove challenging to disseminate knowledge on such a large scale without sacrificing the quality of faculty instruction.

He added that it remains to be seen how online education will interact with Stanford’s existing course offerings, expressing skepticism about the fiscal stability of purely online universities, stating that he hopes a sustainable model will be developed that “doesn’t irreparably damage higher education.”

“The main value [of a university] is certification–not the certification of our graduates, but the selection and certification of faculty for students,” Etchemendy said. “Online universities hope to access that same certification for free…Because they’re not paying the full cost of faculty, and if students migrate, the financial model may just not work.”

Faculty discussion of the subject focused on Stanford’s role in pioneering online education, and the impact that advances in the field may have on on-campus students.

“It’s very exciting and scary, and it’s important for Stanford to get this right because a lot of places are looking to us,” said Debra Satz, professor of philosophy.

Satz also argued that the current division of content provision between University efforts and external start-ups–such as the Stanford-developed and recently launched Coursera–would need future clarification and resolution.

Bruce Clemens, professor of materials science and engineering, expressed concerns that the duplication of content offered to on-campus students, as well as to online audiences, could potentially alienate those in physical attendance at the University.

Etchemendy, however, maintained that the two models can continue to co-exist or even collaborate to a greater extent, citing the additional efforts of professors to interact with on-campus students.

“The value of a Stanford education comes from much, much more than what’s offered in classes,” Etchemendy said.

Roberts noted what he viewed as an excessive focus on promoting online education.

“As much as I support the experiments, if we’re to get something out of them we need to be honest,” Roberts said. “Things that we are [still] doing really well are not getting the same level of recognition, resources and support as these initiatives.”

Returning to the recommendations of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), the Faculty Senate will discuss undergraduate breadth requirements at its next meeting on May 3.

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