My Stanford online course

When I took one of the newly offered online Stanford courses last fall, I had no idea that they would become central to a highly charged debate about elite institutions of higher education and online learning–not to mention a key locus of the debate over the forced resignation of my alma mater’s president.  I simply wanted to sharpen my command of MySQL.  Now, the Stanford courses—or, strictly speaking, courses offered by Stanford faculty but not Stanford courses but part of “A Stanford School of Engineering Initiative” (got that?)—have been cited by the columns read by the anti-Sullivan faction at UVA: one by David Brooks, one by John Chubb and Terry Moe (“Stanford, for instance, offers a free online course on artificial intelligence that enrolls more than 150,000 students world-wide”), and one by Ann Kirschner (“Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun’s free course in artificial intelligence drew 160,000 students in more than 190 countries”).  UVA alumnus and donor Jeffrey Walker cited “the hugely successful online course at Stanford” in an email to Visitor Mark Kington (who has now resigned his position), who sent it along to Rector Helen Dragas.

Therefore, I want to reflect on the online course I took, Introduction to Databases.  First, about those amazing enrollment numbers: though I have done some searching, I have not found a count of how many students completed the artificial intelligence class.  For my databases course, I remember hearing initial enrollment numbers in the 80,000-90,000 range; the professor, Jennifer Widom, later wrote, “This past fall my enrollment was a whopping 60,000. Admittedly, only 25,000 of them chose to submit assignments, and a mere 6500 achieved a strong final score.”  When seeing statistics from these courses–and it’s clear the anti-Sullivan faction saw them repeatedly–we should keep in mind that the number of students completing a given course might be smaller than the number of enrollees by an order of magnitude.  And in most educational environments, anything like a 10% retention rate for one semester is far from “hugely successful.”  I don’t mean that in a snarky way (if you want snark, see this tweet) but rather to note how weird our current thinking about “success” is when courses with substantial costs, no revenues, and little ability to keep the students they attract become the go-to model for emulation by elite universities.

That said, the Stanford course was successful for me, and I’m grateful for it.  I was motivated to succeed in the course: it offered almost exactly the skill set I wanted to develop; I needed those skills to accomplish larger goals for my job; I did not need Stanford-backed credit; and I enjoy situations where I am given information and am left to work through it on my own, at least in the introductory stages.  The course’s online lectures and quizzes, the latter cleverly designed to be repeatable with variations, along with a well-produced discussion board for peer-to-peer interactions, allowed me to work on roughly my own schedule.  That freedom was constrained by generous but real deadlines and aided by (usually) well-calibrated discussion board tips from fellow students.

Those comments from fellow students were crucial to the functioning of the course.  A handful of talented students became, in essence, volunteer TAs, combing the discussion board to find flailing fellow-students and helping them out.  Like almost everyone else in the class, I was a consumer rather than a provider of this help.  The helpers’ spirit of volunteerism fit well with the tone Widom set for the course, which she described as a grass-roots experiment in online education.  I wonder how well these voluntary peer interactions would function in the venture-capitalistic frameworks now being developed for online courses.

I see other challenges as well.  There are the obvious ones: I don’t see a way for this model to work for humanities education, except in a very basic way, and even in technological fields, advanced undergraduate work requires a kind of interaction with peers and mentors that my course did not attempt to offer.  I came out of my course with no peers with whom to work (or study, or joke about the course), no faculty with whom to hash out ideas for new projects, no mentor to write a letter of recommendation.

Credentialing will pose a deeper challenge as well.  My course would have been extremely easy to cheat in, as Widom occasionally pointed out.  But cheating was not a big problem because the stakes were low: Stanford gave no credit for the course, and I doubt many organizations counted it for much, either.  If these courses become means of awarding credits in a way that trades on the reputation of the sponsoring school, however, cheating may become a huge problem; for the introductory skills courses that work best online, back-channel networks can easily distribute answers that will earn credit, and such cheating could quickly devalue the credential, thus removing the incentive to pay for courses.

My conclusions come very close to those recently attributed Theresa Sullivan: I see the best near-term potential in encouraging incremental, grass-roots efforts to test the potential and limits of online learning.  Contrary to some of the rhetoric surrounding references to the Stanford courses, the best parts of the course I took embodied that spirit of grass-roots creativity.

Key document 3: Chubb and Moe in the WSJ

This concerns the third of the three documents supporting the view of online education that contributed to the forced resignation of Theresa Sullivan as president of UVA: “Higher Education’s Online Revolution,” by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, in The Wall Street Journal on May 30th.  Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas emailed this piece to fellow Visitor Mark Kington and then commended it to alumnus and donor Jeffrey Walker, in response to Walker’s email about online education.  Walker asked, “How might [online education at UVA] lower our costs, improve productivity and link us to a group of students we couldn’t afford to serve (maybe more kids from the state to please the legislature)…maybe more second career grads?”

Chubb and Moe do present online education as a major disruption to higher education, and, like Brooks, the put forth a fundamentally optimistic view.  They also address the uncertainties and drawbacks of the current initiatives, however: they note that the Harvard-MIT edX initiative has no revenue stream, is paid for by $60 million in university funds, and has no business plan going forward.

Their acknowledgement of the limitations of online courses leads Chubb and Moe to envision a blended model of higher education:

In this way, college X might have its students take calculus, computer science and many other lecture courses online from MIT-Harvard (or other suppliers), and have them take other classes with their own local professors for subjects that are better taught in small seminars. College X can thus offer stellar lectures from the best professors in the world—and do locally what it does best, person to person.

What I find most interesting about this piece, in light of Dragas’s endorsement of it, is that it could easily support either side of UVA’s contest between Dragas’s wish for a major, top-town initiative or Sullivan’s advocacy of an incrementalist, grass-roots approach to online offerings.  Chubb and Moe write that “[e]arly stumbles and missteps (which edX may or may not be) will show the way toward what works, and what is the right balance between online and traditional learning.”  Not many institutions can currently afford to put tens of millions of dollars into learning from stumbles and missteps–and those are the risks built into the optimistic view of two Hoover Institution fellows.

Key document 2: the David Brooks column

As I said in my last post, there were three key readings supporting the view of online education that contributed to the forced resignation of Theresa Sullivan as president of UVA.  The second of these was David Brooks’s “The Campus Tsunami” of May 3rd.

Brooks says that the key recent shift in online education is the entrance of elite schools into the online arena:

[O]ver the past few months, something has changed. The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures.

Brooks presents an optimistic view.  Note that, like Kirschner before him, he cites Clayton Christensen to make his point:

In a blended online world, a local professor could select not only the reading material, but do so from an array of different lecturers, who would provide different perspectives from around the world. The local professor would do more tutoring and conversing and less lecturing. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School notes it will be easier to break academic silos, combining calculus and chemistry lectures or literature and history presentations in a single course.

Brooks implies that elite universities will gain from online education but only by changing their practices dramatically; his is the sunnier articulation of Kirschner’s gloomy take on the status quo.  Brooks closes with this:

My guess is it will be easier to be a terrible university on the wide-open Web, but it will also be possible for the most committed schools and students to be better than ever.

I am not ready to hazard many guesses about the future of elite institutions, but I would take the other side of a bet on Brooks’s first proposition.  The deployment of high-quality introductory courses online will make it very much harder to be “a terrible university on the wide-open Web” and for that matter to be a community college or other institution other than the most selective.  The more the education you deliver is about building skills rather than establishing credentials, the more of a challenge the new model will be.  I will explain this opinion in light of my experience with the Stanford online course: stay tuned.

Key document 1: Ann Kirschner in the Chronicle

In the wake of UVA President Theresa Sullivan’s forced resignation, the student newspaper The Cavalier Daily filed a FOIA request that revealed the centrality of online education in the Board of Visitors’ move to remove Sullivan from the presidency.  Jeffrey Rossman of the Charlottesville Daily Progress provided a useful summary of the emails.

Rossman outlines the three readings about online education that informed the conversations among the two key Visitors, Helen Dragas and Mark Kington, and alumnus (and major donor) Jeffrey Walker.  The first of these pieces is Ann Kirschner’s column “Innovations in Higher Education? Hah!” from the April 8th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Kirschner argues that institutions of higher education have been too slow to respond to the disruptive innovation in online learning and have therefore undermined their own efficiency:

Online courses are an important component of higher education’s productivity tool kit, one of the few that offers an intellectually rigorous, measurable, and fiscally responsible way to serve more students while making better use of physical space. We could have tremendous impact by shifting first-year, entry-level courses wholly or mostly online, developed cooperatively but taught locally. Sounds radical, but it’s a pretty old idea, put forth by Carol A. Twigg in 1999, and validated by trial programs over five years with 30 two- and four-year institutions. Her research documented that when institutions redesigned their large lecture courses, retention and learning outcomes improved, and costs went down. It is akin to hospitals discovering that cleanliness reduces bacteria and saves lives.

Kirschner’s invocation of Clayton M. Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma would strike businesspeople and investors with special force: Christensen’s influential argument concerns the susceptibility of seemingly dominant businesses to competitive challenges from smaller upstarts that, because they are smaller upstarts, can adjust to fast-changing environments without the pre-committed resources and organizational inertia that can afflict their seemingly invincible predecessors.

For me, this piece explains the actions of Dragas and Kington better than any other.  Seeing UVA as the established behemoth, beset not only by institutional inertia (and anybody who knows UVA understands the prominence of that inertia) but also by funding cuts and the expenses of an aggressive financial aid program, Dragas and Kington could have perceived three more years as too long to wait for a new president, and they could have justified their change of direction as a response to a radical shift in online education even in the two years of Sullivan’s term.

Crucially, in this view, public outcry from faculty, alumni, and even other members of the Board of Visitors was a predictable outcome that further reinforced the logic of the decision.  Sullivan’s popularity among these constituencies shows Sullivan to be on the wrong side of the contest resulting from disruptive innovation.

Dragas’s comments to date, while expressing regrets about process, express exactly this view of the public opposition to the substance of her her actions.  We are now seeing a contrary wave of pieces such as this by Johann Neem taking on the logic of disruptive innovation.  I anticipate the same debate playing out in my faculty meetings and, if applicable, yours over the coming year.

UVA, Stanford, and online education

I’ve been watching with great interest the unfolding tumult resulting from the ouster of Theresa Sullivan as the president of the University of Virginia, with her cautious approach to implementing online education apparently one of the main motivations driving the conspiracy against her.  When the rector of the Board of Visitors, Helen Dragas, issued a statement on the forced resignation, she included this point:

2. The changing role of technology in adding value to the reach and quality of the educational experience of our students. Bold experimentation and advances by the distinguished likes of Stanford, Harvard, and MIT have brought online learning into the mainstream, virtually overnight. Stanford’s president, John Hennessy, predicted that “there’s a tsunami coming”, based on the response to online course offerings at Stanford (one course enrolled an astounding 160,000 students). Michigan, Penn, Princeton, Yale, and Carnegie Mellon are all taking aggressive steps in this direction. The University of Virginia has no centralized approach to dealing with this potentially transformational development.

I have many thoughts about that paragraph: I am working on my own implementations of digitally-inflected teaching; I’m an alumnus of UVA, where I first heard about implementations of the digital humanities in office-hour conversations with Jerome McGann (who played a large role in making UVA a true leader in digital innovation); and last fall, I took one of the Stanford online courses, ballyhooed by Dragas, that seem to have caused much of the fuss at UVA and elsewhere.  This will be the first of a series of short posts about the current happenings.