Thursday, May 3, 2012

Stanford University’s President Predicts the Death of the Lecture Hall as University Education Moves Online

John L. Hennessy: Risk Taker / Tekla S. Perry / May 2012

John L. Hennessy
Photo: Gabriela Hasbun
2012 IEEE Medal of Honor Recipient John L. Hennessy
In the 1980s, John L. Hennessy, then a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University, shook up the computer industry by taking the concepts of reduced instruction set computing (RISC) to the masses. [snip]

Hennessy, now president of Stanford, is once again designing, testing, and advocating a new architecture, this time in the field of university education. He first began rethinking research at universities and recently began reimagining university education itself.

[snip]. ... , [W]e checked in on Hennessy’s recent efforts to shake up higher education. Stanford has a long history in distance education, which in the 1990s moved from closed circuit TV to Internet delivery. More recently, the university explored offering online courses to a much larger audience with a programming class for iPhone applications, first available in 2009, that has been downloaded more than one million times. Since then, Stanford has been developing and testing tools for producing, distributing, and enabling social networking for online courses. This past fall, more than 100 000 students around the world took three engineering classes—Machine Learning, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, and Introduction to Databases.

Hennessy says that’s just the beginning. In fact, in his vision of the future, the lecture hall—those ubiquitous tiers of seats with fold-down writing arms, curving around a professor at a podium—will play a much smaller role.


Spectrum visited Hennessy at his office on Stanford’s historic quad and asked him about his educational vision. Here’s what he had to say:

I’m a believer in online technology in education. I think we have learned enough about this to understand that it will be transformative. [snip].


But it’s not really about what I think. The students are rewriting the rules for us. That large lecture hall with nice banked seating and 300 people sitting with their attention focused on somebody standing in the front of the classroom is a model that lasted for many years, but the students have made it clear that that’s not a model they find particularly attractive anymore.


We also learned that students like an online technology-mediated learning environment because it allows them to balance their lives. [snip]

And I think we learned that there is fun to be had with this online experiment. Last fall, a group of our faculty said, Well, why don’t we just put these courses online, let anybody who wants take them. And who would have guessed you’d have more than 100 000 people sign up? Nobody. [snip].

Of course, that creates a challenge, because it means that all assignments have to be graded automatically. There has been a lot of progress in grading technology. SAT writing exams [a standardized university admissions test], for example, are partially graded by computer right now. [snip].

We found that we were able to handle a lot of the Q&A through social networking. It’s amazing that when you have 10 000 students in a class and a student puts up a question, the group quickly converges on the right answer: Several students put up an answer, other students come in and vote for what they think is the best answer, and there’s a high probability that you’ll converge to a pretty good answer in less than an hour. [snip].

Our experiments so far have raised questions we don’t know the answers to. How much should we invest in production values? Take Sal Khan, of the Khan Academy online learning effort. His videos are pretty simple in terms of the production qualities; there’s not a big investment. On the other hand, you go to anything that’s done on TV, even something like “Myth Busters,” and the investment in production is gigantic. Where on that spectrum do we really want to be?


While we have experience using online technologies for teaching classes of up to a few hundred Stanford students, the experience of teaching a course with thousands or tens of thousands of students is very new. We are still very much in the early experiments. Teaching a smaller class of students who have been screened by our admissions procedures tends to ensure greater consistency in their abilities and allows more adaptation and feedback from instructors. Clearly, a class with 10 000 students allows almost no individual interaction and presents new learning challenges. There are also many experiences at Stanford that we do not see how we can re-create online, like small seminar courses and hands-on project courses.  For this reason, blended learning models may be very attractive.

It’s important to keep in mind the difference between learning and credentialing. Universities—and high schools, for that matter—do both: They assist students in learning, and they provide a credential as evidence that a student has mastered certain material. I’m convinced that online learning will be widely used: [snip]. But online credentialing is a new space and one that has much greater uncertainty. [snip].


In spite of these hazards, I think online education and the role of technology in education are going to be transformative. And I’d like to think that what we’ve started here will not only continue at Stanford but that other universities will see it as a way to organize education and to play a larger role in the world.

To do this, however, universities have to be willing to change. Universities build on tradition and history, but they also have to be dynamic. And I think that struggle to balance those two opposing forces—to not become too attached to the past in such a way that you can’t do something new, or to become too faddish in such a way that you lose your core values—is an ongoing challenge for all institutions.

But online education is going to happen; it’s not going to wipe everything else out, but it is going to happen. We have to embrace it.


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