Courses Experiment with New Technology

Ken Auletta’s recent New Yorker feature, titled “Get Rich U,” has quickly become a reference point for those looking to put a finger on Stanford’s pulse today. Auletta touched on a lot of the trends at Stanford, but he glossed over the most recent changes to the way that students are being taught.

Sure, the proximity of Silicon Valley to the Farm has createde an environment where teenagers have the gumption and the resources to found internet start-ups. But Stanford is still a University, not a summer camp for entrepreneurs-in-waiting.

At the end of the day, a University’s strength comes from its academic value. So while the number of companies that ‘Stanford Inc.’ puts out every year is a great metric to highlight in national publications, it is worthwhile to re-inspect the ‘fundamentals’ of the Farm- the quality of the education.

A cursory glance of the prevailing methods of instruction at the undergraduate level might be discouraging. Few large lecture classes are recorded, there seems to be no standard policy for uploading course material such as lecture slides and screencasts, and many a student has wrestled with Coursework’s painfully slow nested forum pages. Educational technology at Stanford, it might appear from inspection, is out of sync with a world where apps and slick user interfaces have become a ubiquitous presence in students’ lives.

But there are rumblings of several changes that underpin the fundamental way teaching is being approached on the Farm. The entrepreneurial bug, it seems, is alive and kicking among faculty, many of whom are experimenting with new technologies to solve long standing educational problems.

“I don’t want you to learn a week’s worth of linear algebra the night before your problem set is due” said Professor Mark Lucianovic to his Math 51 class on the first day of Spring Quarter, “even though it’s always been like that.”

“A lecture means little if you haven’t read in advance of the session,” added Lucianovic. “But it might be a bit of a leap to assume all your students have completed it.”

In an attempt to bridge that leap, Professor Lucianovic has turned to the Inverted Classroom model that eschews the traditional one- to-many lecture format in favor of a more interactive style. In other words, students get to decide what is covered in lecture on any given day. Having assigned readings before hand, Professor Lucianovic makes his students submit a series a short responses to questions based on the readings twice a week, tailoring the next lecture based on those questions students found difficult.

“The Inverted Classroom model has been around for years” says Professor Lucianovic, “but technology’s definitely allowed us to apply that model in better ways” says the mathematician who uses Coursework to collect his students’ responses and often assigns videos from Khan Academy as reading material. “It’s very helpful to have all these great resources on the Web” said Lucianovic, who has taught several introductory Calculus and Linear Algebra classes. “They are placeholders. I hope that we will eventually develop University specific content rather than use the generic videos that work so well with the Khan Academy, but are not tailored to Math 51 here.”

Beyond changing the fundamental ways in which teaching is conducted, Stanford faculty members are also looking to improve the long term experience of education using new digital tools. “The University has always supported entrepreneurship in teaching” says Professor Marcelo Clerici-Arias, who teaches Introductory Macroeconomics, and is piloting a new online platform that makes all assignment submissions digital.
Students in Professor Marcelo’s class are required to take photos of their weekly assignments and upload them to Digication, a software tool that allows Teaching Assistants to give students feedback on their assignments much faster than the usual week-long cycle of collection, grading and distribution.

“More importantly, but applicable to less students, is the digital portfolio they are building” says the Economist-turned-educator, whose primary research interests now lie in improving education at the undergraduate level, “when a student comes to me several quarters later and asks for a recommendation letter, for example, I have an entire database to draw on for valuable, more detailed evaluations.”

The experiments with new digital technologies don’t end there. Next year, the books for NSO’s famous Three Books Program will be issued in multimedia form. Student Initiated Courses have been given the go-ahead to use alternatives to Coursework such as the fast growing Lore (formerly Coursekit), a learning management system with a sticky user interface and social networking functionality.

One can’t help but wonder why these innovations have been so slow to catch on at the university wide level.

“It’s difficult to ensure student privacy” answers Professor Marcelo, who cites the recent university wide email client switch from Zimbra to Gmail as a case in point, adding that “It took two years worth of talks between Google and Stanford to work out the terms of use”.

Privacy is often a thorny issue for instructors since tools developed by third parties, such as the popular Piazza forum platform offer no guarantee to protect students’ usage and data. The result is often a significant lag time between the pace at which educational technology is developed in the market, and that of adoption by the University.

What seems most reassuring then, is the university’s ability to accept the need for innovation in education. “We’re working on it” Professor Marcelo says with a smile, tapping the iPad on his desk.

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