education's digital future

'Now you try it': Stanford faculty share experiences of online teaching

The 4-minute mile and a cruise ship navigating through icebergs were among the startling images of online teaching evoked Jan. 23, as Stanford instructors who have experimented with new technologies shared their experiences with a packed room of students, professors and other educators.

The forum was sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL) and the Graduate School of Education (GSE). The panelists were Nick Parlante, a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science; Tina Seelig, a professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering; Ed Carryer, a consulting professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; and Maya Adam, a lecturer in the Program in Human Biology and a HumBio graduate herself. Mitchell Stevens, associate professor in the GSE, served as moderator.

The example of the 4-minute mile was offered by Parlante, who teaches CS101, a basic computer science course. The class is both for Stanford students and a massive open online course (MOOC), offered on the Coursera platform. For Parlante, the athletic threshold symbolizes the inevitability of progress; just as humans are bound to get faster, educators are bound to create better and better online classes.

"Sometimes Pollyanna is right," Parlante said. "I'm massively optimistic. What inventions make the Earth better off? Things that address a need and are cheap, like Arabic numerals. ... With MOOCs, once people see good practices, it will be massive," and there will be rush to adopt them: "We're in land-grab mode," he said.

Similarly enthusiastic about her experience teaching to thousands was Seelig, whose Crash Course in Creativity was offered on the Venture Lab platform.

It was she who summoned up the uncomfortable image of the iceberg. "When I teach in the classroom," she said, "I can surf, I can be nimble following new waves" as they appear. Every instructor knows the experience of having to switch course in reaction to students' lines of questioning or the difficulty of the material. "But online," she went on, "it's like driving a cruise ship, because you couldn't switch course. When I saw an iceberg coming, I hit it! And there were so many icebergs!" In Seelig's case, the temporary obstacle concerned building student teams, an essential feature of Venture Lab that is tricky, though hugely rewarding.

Teaching Stanford students

But not all the four panelists Wednesday taught MOOCs, and as John Mitchell, vice provost for online learning, likes to point out, online technologies can critically enhance educational opportunities not only for the world but for Stanford students.

Carryer taught a flipped, or blended, version of his course ME218b, Smart Product Design: Introduction, in fall quarter. Its sequel, Smart Product Design: Applications, is running now, and next quarter students will be able to take the third installment, watching videos ahead of time and spending their time in class working on projects. Carryer used Coursera....

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