What's Next in Online Learning? Stanford Names Vice Provost to Lead the Way

Linda A. Cicero, Stanford News Service

John Mitchell
September 10, 2012

Stanford University has appointed its first vice provost for online learning, signaling a further step in its efforts to extend its educational reach beyond the classroom.

John C. Mitchell, 56, a professor of computer science at the university, was named to the new position late last month.

Stanford is known for having developed technological platforms for massive open online courses, or MOOC's. A year ago it offered three of them; some 450,000 people expressed interest, and tens of thousands completed the courses. "It was clear something really big was happening," says Mr. Mitchell, who is now responsible for figuring out where the institution should go from there.

His new position is only the third new vice-provostship Stanford has created in 20 years. That signals how seriously administrators take the emerging teaching-and-learning innovations, which they believe will transform their own students' educational experiences and lay the foundation for courses that can go global. "Our primary mission is to teach Stanford students," said the university's provost, John Etchemendy, in a written statement. "But it is also the university's mission to disseminate knowledge widely."

Mr. Mitchell will steer the large "Stanford Online" project, incorporating courses with computerized and online components. How extensive the offerings are—for example, whether the courses are videotaped in their entirety and put online—is up to individual instructors.

Three years ago, using his experience of working on safeguarding social-networking sites, he teamed up with colleagues to build a Web platform for courses and course component. Guided by advice from his computer-science students, Mr. Mitchell enhanced class participation by such means as streamlining the distribution of handouts.

Among his collaborators were Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, now on leave after creating a leading course-hosting company, Coursera.

Other MOOC-friendly platforms designed by Stanford faculty members are springing up. "So basically everyone else went out and started a company," Mr. Mitchell jokes, "and I'm the guy left here."

Connecting With Students

More seriously, he says, "I'm interested in how all of this online learning and teaching, which is almost a revolution now, affects how we connect with our students, provide effective experiences off campus, and where this will all take us."

New, since the teaching-and-learning campaigns of, say, the 1980s and 90s, is students' comfort with communicating and forming online groups that "facilitate civilized and productive discussion, and courses that have a group-collaboration component," he says.

The ease of deploying such technological tools as small, inexpensive recording devices permits "a do-it-yourself operation to produce good-enough video," Mr. Mitchell says. He predicts that within five years, interactive video, social networking, and even laboratory-simulation course components "will be as prevalent on campus as, say, PowerPoint slides are now."

His advice: Think about what makes teaching more engaging and more fun for professors and students, wherever they are—in residence halls, the library, a coffee shop. "If I could reduce the number of hours per year I spend at a large lecture and have more time that I spend at a cafe with small groups of students, that would be more fun for me, and on balance it'd probably be more fun for the students, and everybody would be happier."

In Stanford's decentralized approach, individual instructors and departments will lead the way. Among Mr. Mitchell's jobs will be to help faculty members and students make sense of the new tools, and use them to create and take new kinds of courses. Another task is to spread the word about those offerings. A Web site will provide such resources as forums where users of the new tools can trade ideas.

"Everybody here is really psyched," he says. That's in part because "a new way of organizing our teaching gives us a good opportunity to rethink what we're doing."

Also encouraging involvement is the promise of "off-campus distribution at scale" in professors' quest for recognition of their research and teaching. Mr. Mitchell is confident that colleagues near and far will share at least one conviction: "Every hour we can take away from Angry Birds and turn into a learning experience is probably a good thing."