Technology

Stanford Chief Wants Higher Ed to Be ‘Affordable, Accessible, Adaptable’

March 16, 2015

American higher education isn’t badly broken, according to John L. Hennessy, president of Stanford University. It’s still "the envy of the world." But it has to reckon with serious problems, including rising costs and falling degree-completion rates, he told the American Council on Education’s annual meeting here on Sunday.

In a keynote talk on "Information Technology and the Future of Teaching and Learning," the Stanford president, who built his academic career in electrical engineering and computer science, sketched out ways in which technology could help. "My goal is to provide higher education that is affordable, accessible, adaptable, and enhances student learning," he said.

Massive open online courses "are not the answer, at least not the only answer," he said. Hybrid and flipped-classroom models work well in some settings, and we need to develop "adaptive courses that provide speed and depth" to help students learn faster and better. That could save time and money, and reduce student stress, he said.

Mr. Hennessy sounded dubious that online credentials would ever entirely replace undergraduate degrees. Those degrees amount to more than a bunch of courses strung together, he said. But he predicted that online-only professional degrees would continue to grow.

To be effective, online learning must overcome several challenges, he said. It has to help students learn better, and it needs to offer a customized experience. "In a live classroom, a good instructor can see what works and what doesn’t," Mr. Hennessy said. Online instruction might be able to do that using real-time data and analytics on how students are engaging (or not) with the material. "We can get instant feedback," he said.

Short attention spans are another problem. "Six and a half minutes is all you’ve got" before a student loses interest, Mr. Hennessy said. "We have to think about ways we can make the course material more compelling." Online education must be able to ferret out fraud and cheating, to accommodate group- and project-based learning, and, most challenging of all, to evaluate high-level work when the evaluators aren’t human. Machines can be taught to effectively grade questions that require short answers. "The thing that will be very difficult will be grading complex essays," he said.

Mr. Hennessy recalled the machine-driven educational hype of the 1960s. "There was a vision early on that we would develop high-quality technology that would solve all our problems. But it didn’t happen," he said. "It turns out that human learning is really complex."

The council’s annual gathering, attended by nearly 2,000 college presidents and other senior executives, continues through Tuesday.

Jennifer Howard writes about research in the humanities, publishing, and other topics. Follow her on Twitter @JenHoward, or email her at jennifer.howard@chronicle.com.