May 24, 2018

Stanford University to be fully online by 2025?

A Stanford sophomore experiences the virtual world at its Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Today I have received a tip from a close colleague that Stanford University is planning to build a partnership with Alphabet Inc., the owner of Google, to enable Stanford to become a fully online global university by 2025. 

Because the university is on an Easter break, it was difficult to find anyone at Stanford to verify this rumour, but the planning seems to be quite advanced. Apparently a highly confidential strategic planning committee has been working for some time on a plan to convert all programs at Stanford into a fully online format, using advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR and AR), and data analytics (DA), technologies in which both Stanford and Google are world leaders.

This will enable Stanford to offer fully accredited degrees to many thousands of students worldwide at a fraction of the current tuition fees, which are currently just under $50,000 a year. Once fully online, the low tuition fees, estimated be around $1,000 a year, will be made possible by a highly innovative business plan being worked out jointly by Stanford and Google. Stanford plans to sell that part of the campus that will no longer be needed for teaching purposes. The Farm, as it is affectionately known, is over 8,000 acres, located close to Silicon Valley. With real estate currently selling at approximately $65 million an acre in Stanford, just selling off half the land will provide sufficient capital for the investment needed to convert all programs into an online mode, leaving the other half of the land for research and administrative purposes. The partnership with Google will allow Google to use data analytics from student online activity for commercial purposes, which will more or less cover the operational costs of online delivery.

I did manage to get hold of a couple of the committee, who asked not to be named as they are not authorised to give information on this project. However, both were very excited. ‘We won’t have to sack any of the current professorial staff, as we still need their subject expertise’, said one. The other said he was really looking forward to developing the first fully augmented reality engineering degree. ‘This could have huge implications,’ he said. ‘Imagine designing a whole bridge without actually having to physically test it! It’s only ever been tried once before without VR and it didn’t work.’ The Director of Stanford University’s Division of Continuing Studies said, ‘You know, it’s not such a big deal. We’ve been delivering online courses in our division for nearly 20 years, so we do know what we’re doing.’

Others outside the university I talked to though were not quite so sanguine. A spokesperson from WCET was concerned about how the accreditation or professional bodies would react. ‘It’s one thing for the university to give degrees; it’s quite another to get recognized by the Accreditation Boards for Engineering and Technology, who in the past have not accepted any online qualifications. But, hey, it’s Stanford, so who knows?’

My personal view is that it still has to get through Stanford’s Senate and Board of Governors. This will be the real test. However, if it is successful, this model will be totally disruptive of the rest of post-secondary education worldwide. If Stanford can scale its model, it could be not just a global university, but THE one university for the whole world. How cool would that be? 

In the meantime, enjoy April the first.

The current madness in online learning: case no. 2

Keith Devlin, Stanford University, who offers a MOOC on mathematical thinking. Is there a bias of white male presenters in MOOCs?

Baker, R. et al. (2018) Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment, Stanford CA: Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, CEPA Working Paper  No. 18-03

Yesterday I ranted at the high costs in the UK of online programs aimed at part-time, working people. Today, I want to look at a recent study from researchers at Stanford University reporting racial bias in online discussion forums.

First let’s report the facts: what did the researchers say? (Please read the report for yourself if you are uncomfortable with my comments about their conclusions).

Main finding

They report:

this study provides what we believe is the first evidence of the possible presence of racial and gender biases among students and instructors in online courses. 

First, it provides novel and fundamentally important insights into a rapidly proliferating type of learning environment. In 2013, 25 percent of all postsecondary students took some or all of their courses online. This fact has equity implications given that students enrolling in less selective colleges make up a larger fraction of the online student body online. Even in K-12 education, more than 300,000 students exclusively attend online schools, with as many as 5 million students having taken at least one online course….

Because our study relies on fictive student identities, it cleanly isolates behavioral effects due to instructors and unequivocally rules out mechanisms related to student reactions to a particular instructor.

…a comment from a White male is a statistically significant 5.8 percentage points more likely to receive a response from an instructor than non-White male students. The magnitude of this effect is striking. Given the instructor reply rate of 6.2 percent for non-White male posters, the White male effect represents an 94 percent increase in the likelihood of instructor response.

This is a pretty damning criticism of online learning. How did they come to this conclusion?

Methodology

We tested for the presence of racial and gender biases in these settings by creating fictional student identities with racial- and gender-connotative names, having these fictional students place randomly assigned comments in the discussion forums, and observing the engagement of other students and instructors with these comments.

We situated our study within 124 Massive Open Online Courses…..Critically, we also believe there is credible external validity to conducting this study within MOOCs because their basic design features (e.g., asynchronous engagement, recorded lectures, discussion forums) and their postsecondary content are widely used in other online courses.

Using fictive student identities, we placed eight discussion-forum comments in each of the 124 MOOCs. Within each course, eight student accounts were used to place one comment each. The eight student accounts each had a name that was connotative of a specific race and gender (i.e., White, Black, Indian, Chinese, each by gender); each race-gender combination was used once per class…..By observing the responses to our comments by instructors and by students in the course, we can identify any difference in the number of responses received by our student accounts that were assigned different race and gender identities.

Fifty eight percent of the courses in our sample were taught by either one White male instructor or a teaching team of exclusively White men….White students were 5.9 percentage points more likely than non-White students to respond to one of our comments when that comment was assigned a White name….We find that White women were over 10 percentage points more likely to respond to a post with a White female name than non-White women.

My comments

This study has received a lot of attention, being reported in many different outlets. The main reporting suggests that discussions in online learning are strongly biased, with more attention being paid to white male students by instructors, and white female students more likely to correspond with or respond to other white females.

I don’t dispute these findings, as far as they apply to the 124 MOOCs that the researchers studied.

Where the madness comes in is then generalising this to all online courses. This is like finding that members of drug gangs in Mexico are likely to kill each other so the probability of death by gunfire is the same for all Mexicans.

MOOCs are one specific type of online learning, offered mainly by elitist institutions with predominantly white male faculty delivering the MOOCs.

Furthermore, the instructor:student ratio in MOOCs is far higher than in credit-based online learning, which still remains the main form of online learning, despite the nonsense spouted by Stanford, MIT and Harvard about MOOCs. In an edX or Coursera MOOC, with very many students, it is impossible for an instructor to respond to every student. Some form of selection has to take place.

In most credit-based online courses, discussion forums are much more tightly managed by instructors. Many using best practices try to ensure that all students in their online discussion forum are as fully engaged as possible in the discussions. This is just not possible for an instructor to ensure in very large MOOC discussions forums. Also to imply that their findings will also apply to k-12 online courses is even more ridiculous. Their statement that the basic design features of MOOCs are widely used in other online courses is just not correct.

So yes, because of the very nature of most MOOCs, I am not surprised to find racial and gender bias in the discussions forums. I am sure that if one looked closely enough, one would probably find some instructors in credit-based online courses show either conscious or unconscious bias, but I would need to see evidence drawn from this context, not from a completely different context such as MOOCs.

Once again, we see faculty from Stanford assuming that MOOCs are the standard for online learning, when all along they have been a mutant, and so it is not surprising to find mutant behaviour in them.

Another step towards open-ness from Stanford professors – but not the university

Kolowich, S. (2011) Opencourseware 2.0 Inside Higher Education, December 13

In my retrospective for e-learning in 2011, I complained that merely making content open to the public did not open access to students wanting qualifications from prestigious institutions. In fairness, I should have mentioned the MOOC on artificial intelligence by Stanford professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun. As Kolowich reports:

students are not only able to view the course materials and tune into recorded lectures for CS221: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence; they are also invited to take in-class quizzes, submit homework assignments, and gather for virtual office hours with the course’s two rock star instructors

This is definitely an excellent step towards greater open-ness, particularly as some other universities will recognize for credit successful completion of the proctored examination at the end of the course. Stanford’s computer science department plans to open up eight more courses next year in a similar way.

There are several interesting points to note about this experiment. First although other universities (such as the University of Freiburg in Germany) will recognise successful completion for credit, Stanford won’t unless the students are already admitted to Stanford. This, despite the fact that many of the external students do as well or better than registered Stanford students: ‘Stanford has been careful to make sure its name is left off the tokens of recognition that Norvig and Thrun plan to send to participants who successfully complete the A.I. course.’

This reminds me of when I was at UBC. We offered a post-graduate certificate in distributed learning to both UBC masters students and also to students from outside the university. When the certificate program was converted into a masters program, the UBC students who had successfully completed the certificate were allowed to carry their credits over to the masters program, but the non-UBC students who had done as well or better were not allowed by the Faculty of Graduate Studies to be admitted to the masters program unless they met the same entrance qualifications for grad school as the UBC students. In other words, it’s more important for elite universities to restrict entrance than to measure the quality of the output.

Another point to note is that Norvig and Thrun were able to manage the assessment only through computer-marked assignments. This works, they claim, for AI, but not for many other academic areas. Assessment is the main challenge to open courses. Institutions are unlikely to accept students assessed by examiners who are not part of or at least approved by the university, and without an army of qualified assessors, it becomes impractical to open up many courses for credit.

Nevertheless, for students already with good academic qualifications, a certificate signed by Norvig and Thrun may be as valuable as a degree, and it is clear that some other good quality institutions are also likely to accept such certificates for credit in a graduate program.

So well done, Norvig and Thrun, but less well done, Stanford University.

Write your own educational apps for mobile learning

Young, J. (2010) Wanna Make an App for That? Stanford U. Streams iPhone Development Course Chronicle of Higher Education, January 13

This ‘open’ course from Stanford University (downloadable from iTunes) teaches you how to develop your own apps for the iPhone – and encourages you to market it or give it away. What an opportunity for all you creative educators who want educational applications (especially useful if you want a sideline that could pay, as well as doing worthy things).

Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance?

This blog is prompted by an e-mail from Rich Zuc, who wanted to know why there were no undergraduate degrees in engineering offered at a distance. With his permission, his letter is reproduced below, with my answers.

Rich wrote:

I am a resident of Hamilton Ontario and I am interested in online and distance learning (DL)  as I am seeking to pursue an undergraduate program in engineering/science.

I left university in my early 20s, in the mid 1990s, due to family commitments and never had the opportunity to complete an undergraduate engineering degree. Back then I started looking for an engineering/science degree offered via distance learning by a Canadian university; I did carry out extensive internet searches but to no avail. I have kept on searching ever since. Now, with 2010 just around the corner the online/DL situation in Canada, with respect to providing science and engineering degrees, has not changed at all!! There are very very few traditional brick and mortar Canadian universities that offer online/DL 4 year honours undergraduate degrees in the Arts and Social Sciences and practically no traditional brick and mortar institution offers an online/DL honours degree in engineering/science!!!

Do you expect that opportunities in engineering and science, via online/DL programs offered by traditional brick and mortar Canadian schools, are likely to remain as they are…that is non-existent!! Or based on your experience do you foresee some change in the not too distant future? Do you feel that this has to do mainly with: resistance by universities’ committees, boards, governing bodies or faculty members?

I replied:

You raise an important issue here. As far as I know (and I’m not an engineer) you are correct – there are no undergraduate engineering degrees that are offered entirely online or at a distance in Canada, and very few at undergraduate level in the USA. Some organisations, such as Stanford University, offer graduate engineering programs online. You can do several certificate programs in ‘hard’ engineering from the British Columbia Institute of Technology by distance. I’m not sure whether you can transfer these courses into a regular undergraduate degree, thus shortening the time on campus, but generally you can in British Columbia. (Whether Ontario institutions will accept them is much more problematic). Have a look at the BCIT Civil Engineering site which has good questions and answers on the distance programs they offer. There are computer science programs available online from a limited number of Canadian institutions, but I know of no whole undergraduate programs in the ‘hard’ engineering areas, civil, mechanical or electrical.

This is not because it would be impossible to design a high quality engineering distance education program, using a combination of online teaching, simulations and limited laboratory time at an accredited local institution. There are successful design models for this in other professions, such as medicine.

There are several reasons for why there are no undergraduate engineering programs offered by distance delivery. The main obstacle is the professional accreditation agencies, who require students to have a very high level of laboratory classroom time in a program before accepting a degree for professional accreditation. There is a belief that engineering is very much a hands-on profession and needs personal supervision within a laboratory context.

A second obstacle is the very high cost of designing laboratory simulations in engineering that might replace physical labs for online students. Some progress is being made in this area, but the whole area lacks sustainable business models – it’s a chicken and egg situation: lack of recognition for online learning limits large scale applications.

Interestingly, there is growing evidence that engineering can be taught successfully online in apprenticeship programs – or at least mainly online. Vancouver Community College runs a very successful program for apprentices in car body work repairs (E-pprentice), reducing a 13 week semester course to three weeks on campus at the end of the course, with the rest being done online. BCCampus is now managing a program funded by BC’s Industrial Training Agency for flexible delivery of trades training across the province that combines online learning with local supervision of hands-on skills development.

However, I cannot see the universities moving in this direction unless there is a real crisis in getting engineering students. There are no incentives for them to offer alternative delivery. The focus of most engineering professors is on research and they would prefer to have fewer rather than more students, as teaching interferes with research. There are in North America still plenty of well qualified applicants for undergraduate campus-based engineering programs.

Having said this, engineering does compare badly to another professional area, medicine. The medics have been much more innovative in using distance education. For instance in BC, a partnership between the main hospitals, UBC, UNBC, and University of Victoria has resulted in a distributed education model for the M.D. program in the province, so people don’t have to move to Vancouver where the only medical school is located. What drove this was the need to retain doctors in the regions, rather than have them all move to Vancouver. Note again though that this is a graduate, distributed learning program, and is not fully online.

Now over to you, readers. Can you answer the following questions:

1. Name one North American university that offers an entire undergraduate civil, mechanical or electrical engineering by distance that is accepted for accreditation by a professional engineering organization.

2. Do you agree that it would be possible to design and deliver a high quality undergraduate engineering degree for entirely distance delivery (allowing for perhaps local hands-on supervision by employers or summer school at a regular university)?

2. If so, why are there no or so few undergraduate programs at a distance in engineering?

It would be really good to hear from some engineering faculty on this topic.

In the meantime, take a look at: Best Online Graduate Engineering Programs 2016 from U.S. News (only institutions in the USA, though).