Online Learning: Ready or Not, Here it Comes

From the Tomorrow's Professor listserv. Stanford Report, February 9, 2000.


The atmosphere at last week's Faculty Senate meeting seemed fairly subdued, given such ominous remarks as "The day of standing up and being a brilliant lecturer is gone."

That comment, from Jerry Porras, professor at the Graduate School of Business, came during a discussion on the impact of new technologies on teaching.

"I really think that our industry as it has been in the past is dead in the future," Porras continued. Professors still may be brilliant lecturers, he quickly added, but they will have to supplement their lectures with instant access to online databases, for example, in order to respond to students' questions.

Porras' comments came after President Gerhard Casper said he fears that the faculty in general is not worrying enough about the rapid changes technology will bring to the classroom.

"I'm not sure that we as a university . . . that you all have enough angst about this," Casper said. "So far, this has been the concern of relatively small groups of faculty administrators in a couple of schools, but it has not been widespread throughout the university. . . . So in a way, I would like all of you to be more worried than you are. Because on the whole everybody is pretty complacent."

The discussion kicked off with a presentation by Geoff Cox, who fills the newly created position of vice provost for institutional planning, learning technologies and extended education. Cox acknowledged the work of the Commission on Technology in Teaching and Learning, which was established in 1994 and spawned a variety of projects, and the Stanford Learning Lab, which has been researching the use of new technologies in the classroom. But now more than ever, Cox said, universities are being evaluated in part on their technological prowess.

"As each generation of students comes with having spent more of their education or time already using technology, their expectations for being able to use technology in the classrooms at Stanford increases and their facilities with various kinds of technology also increases," he said. "So there is a market side push to what we're about here, I think - that increasingly universities are being judged on the adequacy of the technology they provide to their students and faculty."

His comments were echoed by Provost John Hennessy, who said, "There is a generation of students emerging for which the web would be their primary means of communication." He noted that while the online courses provided by the Stanford Center for Professional Development are still somewhat "primitive," there already are faculty who don't want their courses available online for fear students won't show up at their lectures.

"We already see students opting not to go to class in order to watch the class on their computer in their dorm room," Hennessy said. "I think it's an indication that there's a generation of students out there for which the tradeoff between being able to take the course when they want, where they want, is greater than the physical presence of being in a classroom. And as the technology gets better, I think we'll see more and more of that."

Therefore, he said, it is to Stanford's "distinct advantage" to begin experimenting right away with new technologies and teaching methods "so that when the time comes we can be nimble and we can adjust as the world changes."

Cox said universities are moving in many different directions but that much of the focus of online courses is on "lifelong learning" -- whether it be for people who need to learn new technologies or for those who simply desire intellectual stimulation. Schools such as New York University and the University of Maryland are setting up for-profit subsidiaries to try to exploit these new markets, he said. Williams, Amherst, Brown and Cornell are taking part in the General Education Network. Stanford, meanwhile, is cooperating with Columbia and the University of Chicago in "There's a bit of a sense out there that everybody's going to choose up teams," Cox said.

He described Stanford's participation in UNext as "fairly low risk" with potentially large rewards. Stanford does not yet offer any courses through UNext, and no university credit will be attached to the courses. UNext, initially in the business school, will engage faculty members (and compensate them) to help design online courses. "And even 'course,' I think, should be used in a very broad way," he said. "The faculty member becomes the sort of intellectual driver or spirit of the development of that course."

UNext will provide the technical production capacity required to make the course happen "and then, once it's offered out to the world, it is branded, as they like to say, as a UNext product developed at Stanford University or something like that," Cox said.

One faculty member asked if UNext is primarily a money-making venture for the university.

"I think the emphasis here is on experimentation," Casper said. He said he did not want to Stanford to be left behind, and that the virtue of UNext is that "there are very easy exit provisions for us. So we are not tied in any form or shape to anything there for any great length of time." Producing such online courses -- at least those that are not just "talking heads" -- is likely to be expensive, Casper added.

He said there are likely to be delicate issues involved with online courses -- "about degrees, values and what have you" -- but that "before we can face those issues we must know whether we are capable of doing something like this with reasonable amounts of investment, because we don't have any extra cash lying around."

Brad Efron, statistics, said he hopes the new technologies will not complicate tasks that are now relatively straightforward and simple. His course preparations are currently a "one-person activity. I don't have to gear up for a movie production or something like that. I hope we won't make the teaching of a course a production that involves many people." Cox said that was a fair statement.

"Technology has to be used where it's appropriate and where it's helpful. It could very easily get in the way," he said. SR

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